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A visit to Bodie, Calif., the West's best ghost town

From Out West #13

By Chuck Woodbury, editor
Out West

The best ghost town in the West is Bodie, California. It’s located at 8,400 feet in elevation, 13 miles east of U.S. 395 south of Bridgeport. The road to Bodie is paved for 10 miles, then turns to washboard dirt for the final three miles.
Bodie. One of the West's roughest, toughest towns is now its best preserved ghost town.

As many as 10,000 people once lived in Bodie, most dependent upon one of the 30 gold mines for their livings. Today, only a few park rangers and their families live there.

About a quarter mile from town, you drive over one final hill, and there it is — the roughest, toughest and meanest of the old mining camps back in its heyday of 1878 to 1882. “Goodbye, God, I’m going to Bodie!” a little girl supposedly said when she learned her family was moving there. One newspaperman, however, claimed that what she really said was, “Good, by God, I’m going to Bodie.” In any event, Bodie was a rough place, where it’s said during one especially violent period there was a murder a day. “There is some irresistible power,” the Bodie Standard newspaper once wrote, “that impels us to cut and shoot each other to pieces.”

Today, Bodie is quiet — very quiet. About 170 old buildings remain, maintained in a state of “arrested-decay” as Bodie State Historic Park. Arrested decay means the buildings are being maintained as they were left, most in the late 1800s to 1950. And not just building exteriors were left as is, but their insides, too: peer inside windows of surviving homes and businesses and you will see the furniture and other contents just as they were when their inhabitants left.

There is nothing commercial about Bodie — no film concessions, T-shirt stores, souvenir shops. The only thing I could find to buy was a Bodie brochure, dispensed for a dollar from a machine.

In Bodie, it’s you and one old town. Your mind can run wild, trying to imagine what it was like to live in such an outpost — of mostly wooden buildings along dirt streets surrounded by wind-swept hills of sagebrush and not much else.

In the winter, there was no way out. But it probably didn’t matter much, as there was nowhere to go for hundreds of miles. Besides, there were all the necessary services — banks, hotels, stores, gambling dens and 65 saloons. When you think about all those saloons, and all those isolated miners, you may understand why so many of those guys got holes blown through their heads. One preacher of the day described Bodie as “a sea of sin, lashed by the tempests of lust and passion.”

This is my favorite ghost town — ten times better than Tombstone, Jerome, Virginia City (Montana or Nevada) put together. The last three miles of dirt road keeps casual tourists away, leaving the park for those really interested in seeing and savoring a piece of the old West that hasn’t been redone to look like a set from an old John Wayne movie.

MEMORIAL IN CEMETERY
There’s a memorial to President James Garfield in the Bodie cemetery. Some tourists were gawking at it, wondering why a President would be buried in such a place. The cemetery, by the way, is typical of the old West cemeteries — where many of those buried either died as children or comparitively young.

The Garfield monument was erected in 1889, eight years after the 20th President was assassinated after only four months in office. But the president isn’t buried here — it’s just a memorial that looks like a headstone.

My guess is that the folks of Bodie must have been outraged at the assassination — like most other Americans at the time — much as we were when President Kennedy was shot. So they erected the monument.

WHY YOU CAN'T CAMP AT BODIE
You can’t camp today at Bodie, but you could until 1976 when the campground was shut down. Rangers kept finding wooden boards and square nails in the campfire rings — evidence that some campers were sneaking into Bodie, stealing wood from old buildings, and then burning it in campfires.

“The campground was a nice idea, but a few folks ruined it for everyone else,” park superintendent Peter Sturdivant told me.

Although camping is not permitted at Bodie, it is permitted (at no charge) on Bureau of Land Management lands as long as the camper is at least three miles from town.

IF YOU GO

Bodie is open year round, athough winter weather often limits access to four wheel drive vehicles or even snowmobiles. In any event, in both winter and summer, prepare for the worst. . . just in case, as Bodie is a long way from other civilization. Winter weather is often unpredictable. Sub-zero temperatures, strong winds and white-out conditions are not uncommon.

For more information about Bodie, call the state park at 760-647-6445.

©2002-2004 by Out West Newspaper


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