In This Ghost Town, Time Stands Still

Even with the midday heat pounding on the ground, the wind is free to move through the valley; it slips between the sagging boards, and, nudging at loose sheeting, lifts a colourful mountain bluebird above the remnants of the old mining town.

Bodie is leaning and limping, but behind the curtains its everyday life is still brilliantly displayed. It is as if everyone in town just simultaneously stood up and left.

One would be hard-pressed to find a ghost town more striking than this one, because here you can picture exactly how the people lived their lives. What they did, how they socialized, what they liked. During the second half of the 1800´s gold glimmered in the Sierra Nevada, in the mountains of the high desert on the border between California and Nevada, and within a few years ten thousand people made their homes in this no-man´s land, in Bodie.

The road to the mining town appears to twist and wind all the way to eternity. It seems almost unreal that anyone would come up with the idea of constructing a town among these sun burnt slopes, where sagebrush is the only thing growing and black birds of prey glide endlessly across the vast emptiness. Eventually, the asphalt turns into gravel and the dust cloud behind our car rises against a mute and scorching sky.

This may very well be the essence of America. On one hand a cinematic, wide-angle kind of beauty, a seemingly virgin wilderness open for everybody. On the other hand, the notion that any individual can travel here and hide from everything, creating her own independent life regardless of society, is quite obviously present in this place.

To a substantial number of Americans life looks quite different, of course, but the dream of a kind of freedom that is really hard to define and track down remains alive, against all odds, also among those living with its consequences, on the darker side of freedom.

Gold had been discovered in California in 1849 and during the ensuing decade some 300,000 people ventured westward across the North American continent. Many were travelling along marked trails while others gambled and got stuck in unknown mountain areas, where those riding one way would freeze to death and the ones who chose another route around the cliffs would dehydrate in the desert heat, sand filling every pore of their being. Notoriety came to a group of families from Illinois, headed by the Donner brothers, George and Jacob, who unsuccessfully hoped to find a short-cut through the desert, but perished in snowstorms while, so the story goes, engaging in cannibalism.

Aiming for Bodie, straight into the mountains, people began riding and walking to get rich and change their lives around. Few of them succeeded. Most of them moved after a couple of years hoping to find their Shangri-la elsewhere. The last people to leave town piled their most precious belongings on a horse-drawn carriage or a pickup truck. The rest was left behind to be covered by the dust of desert and history.

This community was born out of a tragic fate. An exiled New Yorker named Waterman S. Body discovered gold in these isolated highlands in 1859, but before he managed to dig his treasure out of the ground he froze to death on a slope while hauling his equipment toward the new mining camp. However, frustrated men with pans and boots, who could no longer find any glitter in the western creeks of the Sierra Nevada, had heard the rumour of gold and made their way to the eastern outpost where Body had been prospecting. And in 1878, fortune struck as an impressive lode revealed itself in the area´s deepest shaft.

People came trudging and riding with their arms full of hoes and their hearts full of expectations. It was soon an established truth that no mining town could be worse off in terms of bad men and filthy weather. A young girl, whose family decided to move to the remote desert place without her consent, supposedly wrote in her diary: ”Goodbye God, I´m going to Bodie.”

These were the years right after the divisive Civil War that pretty much came to define how the young nation was portrayed in literature and movies. West of the Mississippi River a Wild West was created. Cattle herds replaced the buffalo, the prairie was declared open territory and then fenced in. The Native Americans were removed. Rail was rolled out in the valleys. The allurement of gold beyond the Rockies made the railroaders bolt. And the long arm of the law never really reached out to dusty gold-diggers´ communities.

A fourteen-year old kid, Grant Smith arrived at Bodie in 1879 and started working as a telegraph messenger. Forty years later he would write, in his book ”Bodie: The Last of The Old-Time Mining Camps”, that there had never been anything like it. The town was dominated by young adventurers, miners without roots or allegiances: ”These men, as a rule, were virile, enthusiastic, and free livers; bound by few rules of conventional society, though with an admirable code of their own: liberal minded, generous to a fault, square dealing, and devoid of pretense and hypocrisy.”

But in a town with 65 saloons and more whiskey than water there was also an abundance of card games, prostitution, opium dealings, and everyday fights and disputes solved with gun in hand. A local preacher described Bodie as ”a sea of sin, lashed by the tempests of lust and passion”. The majority of inhabitants were single men, but of the married women Smith would write that they were ”of superiour type” and that ”in the midst of all that tumult and recklessness, they lived quiet, uneventful and thoroughly good lives”.

They had not arrived at a particularly inviting place: the landscape was barren and wind-swept and the town itself sat at 8,300 feet with the mines another five or seven hundred feet further up the hillsides. Initially, people would live in tents or dugouts. The cabins were usually just shacks made out of rough boards. During wintertime the cold was merciless, in the summers drought tumbled all around.

The attraction of gold forced the community to create an infrastructure. A street system was put in place, machines were dragged to the mines, hotels opened, and there were stores and a school. A narrow-gauge railway was built to carry lumber from the sawmill at the salty Mono Lake thirty miles to the south. Every day covered wagons with gold ingots would leave Bodie, guarded by forbidding men with sawed-off shotguns.

The town´s period of glory was brief, as in most of the Western boomtowns. By 1883 people did not get paid for their mining shares, the shafts were evacuated and the workers moved on to the next glittering mirage somewhere in those godforsaken mountains.

Ten years after the great rush, less than one thousand people remained. By introducing cyanide in the extraction process Jim Cain, a banker and local businessman, managed to keep the town alive for another few decades, but in 1932 some seventy percent of the wooden buildings went up in smoke after a small boy, Bodie Bill, had been playing with matches. Cain loaded his safe on a carriage and left Bodie and his house with the glass veranda, which still stands at the corner of Green and Park Streets. In the 1950´s a monumental silence had established itself and no one would come out to shoo away the coyotes and the rattlesnakes. The wind and the dust and the snowy winters were now in charge.

Remaining are not only the echoes and memories, but also a unique collection of homes and public buildings from the most feverish days of the Old West. The rusty colours and the sun-bleached facades – there are still 170 houses left – remind the visitor of stranded ships. Behind the windows one can spot beds, skiing equipment, canned vegetables, pool tables, bars, the switchboard, and the advertisement for stockings with the season´s new colours from Paris. The coffin lids are still open and waiting at the undertaker´s and the cars that never got away continue to sink into the prickly grass.

Many of the momentary villages from the era have been pillaged or have just crumbled. Other mining towns have been revitalized as artists´ colonies or smartened up as tiny Disney Worlds.

Bodie still just sits there, looking back at us who wonder about the motive force of humans and how this country, the U.S.A., became the way it is today.