At a deli in Bridgeport, I met a man named Mike who was selling meat and beef jerky for $15 a pound. I told him I was on my way to Bodie, the windswept ghost town 15 miles away in the Sierra foothills. I couldn't tell if he was smiling as I said this — his overgrown beard concealed his expression.
"A park ranger stayed there one night, left, and never came back," Mike said. "Nobody knows why. There's something there."
I thanked him, grabbed my bag of ice and beef jerky and headed deeper into the Sierra foothills.
I felt drawn to Bodie for the same reasons people are drawn to parts of Detroit or New Orleans — it's American decay. These dilapidated places attract those with a strange desire to see where civilization failed — which then, paradoxically, makes the decay a part of the local economy. It works for Rome and Athens.
But Bodie is an archetypal American ruin.
In 1849, New York native W.S. Bodey left his wife and kids when he got word that there was gold — and lots of it — in California. He landed in San Francisco and, shortly after, stumbled upon one of the most valuable goldstrikes in California. Eventually, one mine would yield more than $15 million in gold and silver over a 25-year span. But he didn't get to enjoy his find; Bodey froze to death later that November after losing his way in a blizzard while getting supplies. His body was found the following spring.
But his discovery was the beginning of the Gold Rush era — right there in the untamed town of Bodie, sitting 8,375 feet above sea level (the spelling was later changed, perhaps because of an illiterate sign painter, so the story goes). By 1877, Bodie was rich; the Standard Gold Mining Company had scored a quality of gold not yet seen by any other Gold Rush town. It became a magnet for miners and families — as well as bandits and desperadoes.
Two years later, 10,000 people had settled in the rolling hills around Bodie. Dance halls, saloons, gambling halls, whorehouses, and opium dens kept the miners intoxicated and entertained. But with drugs and booze came daily murders, gunfights, and stagecoach holdups — real Wild West stuff. Lawlessness was intrinsic to the place, and it became known for the "Bad Men of Bodie," the town's most infamous outlaws, including Washoe Pete, who, as True West magazine wrote in 2007, was a "bluffer" known for his "purty fair shootin'." Once, Bodie was rich in money and crime.
I pulled up to what's left of Bodie. It was crowded for a ghost town. Curious visitors milled around in silence, as if they didn't want to disturb the dead, and shot pictures through the windows of the locked buildings.
As many as 15 park rangers, who watch over Bodie day and night, have taken up permanent residence in the town. They live in the defunct buildings, some that have stood for more than 100 years. There are no commercial businesses operating in Bodie today; there's no place to get gas or grab a quick snack while you tour the site, and there's definitely no place for visitors to stay the night. Unlike other ghost towns, such as Virginia City, Nev., Bodie isn't there to turn a profit. Rather, it's there to serve as a monument to failure. "It's arrested decay," said John Buie, a veteran park ranger. "We try not to do anything [to change] the town." This means maintaining a delicate balance: Repairs are made to the structures only enough to keep them in their current state of disrepair.
Bodie relies almost entirely on donations, meager park fees from the state, and postcard and bottled-water sales at the Bodie museum, the one mark of civilization, situated in the middle of town.
"It's pure history," said Buie, who runs the museum, which is filled with artifacts left behind by Bodie residents, including reading glasses, fans, musical instruments, and a book filled with signatures from miners tracking their per diem pay. "Most Californians know nothing about history until someone tells them, because it's not on their text [messages]. When they come here, they learn a little bit about where everyone came from."
He was right. I was mesmerized as I walked around looking at each of the 200 buildings, which are scattered throughout the town with such irregularity that I never quite felt oriented. Partially charred hotels, isolated saloons, and dilapidated homes and whorehouses lined the dusty roads. The structures are boarded up, but peeking through the windows I saw the remains of a life that once was: faded newspapers on a desk, broken bottles above a bar stool, rocking chairs that had cradled generations of gossipy grandmothers, rotted wallpaper in a child's room, eerie caskets sprawled unevenly throughout the town mortuary, and the occasional lace-up leather boot. Everyday things that Bodie residents and business owners had left behind and never come back to claim.
The attraction of these routine items was more than just historical curiosity. Visitors scrutinized, in every sense, the remnants of Bodie in hopes that they could somehow experience a time and place that was no longer there, even if only for a few hours. But beneath this curiosity was a deeper question about why it had failed.
The first fire, which started in the kitchen of the Occidental Hotel, ripped through the town in 1892, burning about 60 businesses, including the town's bustling red-light district. At that time, residents had already started leaving the town, in part because the smaller mines were becoming less productive. Forty years later, when no more than 100 people lived in Bodie, a second and far more destructive blaze devoured the town; a young boy was playing with matches and set fire to an outhouse near a saloon. At the time, the fire hydrants had been plugged up with silt, so residents had no other choice but to stand by and watch as the blaze ravaged all but 10 percent of Bodie, giving birth to what would become one of the most famous ghost towns in California.
Only 50 or 60 residents remained in Bodie as of 1946 (when Park Ranger Buie was about 10 years old). There was one restaurant and one gas pump and a handful of homes. It was still an incorporated town until 1962, when the California Parks Department declared the remains a historic landmark. The state decided to preserve the town as it was, in a state of "arrested decay": It wouldn't invest any money into improving the site, nor would it allow Bodie to decay further. According to Buie, the rangers will repair an occasional porch as it becomes unsafe for visitors or add a new roof to the homes that can't withstand the harsh winters; other than that, the place is just as it was when the last person left in the 1960s.
In 1988, a now-defunct Canadian mining company tried to open a large-scale pit gold operation on the bluff above the town. But this presented a problem: The business would perhaps revitalize the town, bringing the ghost town back from the dead, but that would also compromise Bodie's bewitching ambiance and the thousands of tourists who visit each week. Historic preservationists lobbied against this mining proposal, and the Bodie Protection Act of 1994 was passed, paving the way for the state to buy the mining rights of the Canadian company. Bodie would live as a ghost.
But Bodie isn't just a ghost town; it's believed to be a town filled with ghosts.
At the easternmost part of town are the remains of an old cemetery. From a distance, it's easy to overlook this graveyard; only a few headstones remain, obscured by shrubs that appear to be just as lifeless. Some of the dates on the headstones are no longer legible.
Although they've never personally seen the ghosts themselves, the residents in the neighboring town of Bridgeport will tell you with strange conviction that the spirits of former Bodie residents are still very much there, roaming the town. "People died there, so that's where they still live," one resident told me. Buie, who has been a ranger for more than seven years, says he's heard stories from other rangers, who've had the covers pulled off of them at night as they slept in the buildings; others saw footprints appear in the snow where nobody was walking. There's also a photograph circulated among the rangers of a transparent girl crying in a window of one of the homes.
In 1912, the last edition of the Bodie Miner went to print. Two years later, for the first time, the phrase "ghost town" was used to describe the once-flourishing place. Then, in 1919, a source was quoted in a San Francisco Chronicle article disputing the fact that Bodie was dead. Perhaps, like us, they were just wistful about the past — or curious about what it might mean to have ruins in our midst.