I was absolutely giddy while exploring Bodie State Park the summer after I graduated from college. I love the history of the wild west and fancying myself a less proper Nancy Drew, I enjoy creeping around old buildings. Thirteen miles of dirt road behind me, I reached Bodie on a cool summer day and began exploring the incredibly well preserved California ghost town.
Sitting east of the formidable Eastern Sierra mountain range, Bodie once was home to 2000 buildings. Only 170 remain and they provide the structure of the park. Kept in a state of arrested decay, fresh shiny nails hold sometimes sagging walls together, but the buildings are so well maintained that it really gives you a sense of what life was like in the town’s heyday. Though the parking lot was teeming with people, it was easy to escape the other tourists and have my own experience among the ruins.
The late 1880s led to the discovery of gold in them there hills and what had been a meager mining camp transformed into a rootin’ tootin’ wild west boomtown. What’s left is just a shell of the short-lived city that blossomed and burned in less than a century. Walking down the building-lined main streets and through the neighborhood, it’s easy to imagine the once bustling town square that was home to stagecoach robberies and gunfights. Though you can’t enter most of the buildings, it’s pretty easy to peer through the thick panes of glass and you can walk freely down the streets to learn more about each labeled home or business.
Looking through the windows into these well preserved former homesteads, you’ll be surprised to see that most of the rooms still have furniture inside them. Torn, yellowing sofas spill their springs and soft innards onto warped floors while well made tables stand sentinel, waiting to host another meal. The church houses a beautiful old organ, the firehouse shelters several wagons that were pulled by horses, every structure is a treasure trove of human detritus. The town is recent enough in our collective memory that the skeletons of rusty old cars create jumbled parking lots in the tall grass. Bodie began to decline in the early 1900’s after the mines ran dry, and was first labeled a ghost town in 1915, though a handful of inhabitants remained.
Spookiness is mandatory when visiting a ghost town. The pamphlets they hand you at the gate mention that if you steal anything from the park, even the discarded nails or tin cans, you will definitely be haunted, complete with some “true accounts” of sticky fingered tourists who were plagued by poltergeists until they returned the stolen goods. Coffins litter the floor of what must have been the funeral home or neighborhood coffin vendor. This one has a handy dandy window for easy corpse viewing.
The cemetery is completely fenced, which apparently keeps ghosts safely ensconced inside. One lonely headstone stands solemnly outside the enclosure. It belongs to Rosa May, a prostitute who helped nurse sick miners during an epidemic that struck the town. To repay her for risking some sort of plague, the townsfolk made sure she was buried outside of the fence as to not taint their burial ground. However, the miners, who most likely visited the clandestine red light district and were cared for by Rosa May, are allowed inside .
In the sense of human history, the town is not that old, just a few generations removed from us, a post office operated there until 1942. Getting a small glimpse into the lives of all of the people that flourished there was fascinating. I was looking at homes, places where people slept and ate and lived. And it was all abandoned. It made me wonder too, if ghost towns are going to be a thing of the past, as people spread into more and more corners of the planet, will there ever be entire towns that recede into both earth and memory? We travelers are the new residents of Bodie, our interest keeping it from fading into obscurity on the harsh plateau.