In its heyday during the late 1800s, Bodie was a lawless town on the edge of the western frontier. The promise of gold once lured as many as 8,000 people to a barren valley surrounded by cold, sagebrush hills, according to California State Parks.
Today, Bodie is dead quiet, save for the wind.
Bodie is a state historic park that’s kept in a state of “arrested decay,” which means the town is left as it is. It is a time portal to the Wild West, or a place to muse about what the aftermath of an apocalypse might look like.
California State Parks didn’t restore Bodie’s buildings or streets. Instead, they've only preserved what remains, keeping the town just barely alive — windblown and weathered, rusted, overgrown with sage, buried beneath dust. It is a bona fide ghost town. The only people who live here are the state park rangers.
Bodie State Historic Park teeters on the eastern edge of California, on the brink of the Nevada state line. It is a couple hours’ drive southeast of Lake Tahoe. On my travels to and from Tahoe, I’ve driven past the turnoff to Bodie on Highway 395 countless times, always wondering what’s up that winding road but never stopping. But on a particularly gloomy and dark day a couple weeks ago, I decided to make a day trip of it.
I got in my car and headed south on Highway 395. Black clouds swept across green and gold valleys on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada. I drove through Bridgeport, a sleepy town on a vast plain that feels like a slice of Montana in California. A few miles south of the town, I made a left turn onto a two-lane road that cut through a notch in a rock wall. It was the road to Bodie.
How do towns die? This isn’t a question relegated to the past. Just watch "Nomadland" — which begins at the end of another dusty town on the edge of the desert. Opportunity dries up and people leave.
The case of Bodie is classic boom and bust. A man named W.S. Bodey discovered gold in these hills in 1859, but he didn’t survive the following winter and so he never saw the riches that followed his discovery. But the town took his name, later changing its spelling to Bodie.
The higher I drove, the fewer bars of service appeared on my cellphone, until communication dropped off entirely. I was surrounded by an endless landscape of brown hills. The paved road ended and a gravel road began, with no destination in sight, and I wondered how a man could have found gold in all of these hills so long ago. The clouds drew closer until the road was shrouded in a dense, white fog.
I couldn’t see much of anything except snowflakes that were falling on our windshield. It was the end of May. At 8,400 feet of elevation, Bodie can see snow almost any month of the year.
Then, amid low-hanging clouds, the ghost town appeared on the far edge of my line of sight. At the entrance gate, the state parks ranger was especially cheerful for such a gloomy day and told my partner and me about the only new feature in the entire park: There are bathrooms near the parking lot with heated seats. Otherwise, it's pit toilets and outhouses. He also recommended we layer up. It’s cold out there.
A few minutes later, I was walking down the main street of Bodie, staring at the empty pews inside a Methodist church that had been collecting decades' worth of dust. Though several churches were built in Bodie, this is the only that still stands. I said my prayers and walked on, venturing farther into the ghost town.
Walking through Bodie, I felt as if I were witnessing a tragedy, hopes come and gone, lives abandoned. I turned up a street and walked past a row of houses that were fading away as time passed. Each had stairs leading up to a front door. Each had windows and a roof, and kitchens and bedrooms. In many of the homes, furniture remains alongside empty bottles and cans, old newspapers, mattresses, and clothes left on hangers. I stared at some torn and frayed white curtains that hung across a window, half expecting to see something otherworldly just beyond.
Ghosts reportedly reside in Bodie. An 1882 clip in the Reno Gazette Journal describes, “a spectral woman with a large basket in her hand, a white hood on her head, and clothed in white and black.” She appears at midnight and moves rapidly in a circle before she vanishes. The next year, in 1883, another newspaper report documented a “tall figure in white, bearing a light” deep in Bodie’s mines. As the ghost moved along the mine shafts, the light swung alongside him.
In broad daylight, I kept walking down Bodie’s streets, peering into windows to see the things that people left behind.
At its peak, there were some 30 mines in Bodie, along with more than 60 saloons, rampant sex work and opium dens. But after the gold was dug up, the town began its long, slow and final decline. The “bad men of Bodie” were looking to get rich quick, and many of them skipped town, following the ever-evasive promise of riches across the West.
In 1910, Bodie’s population dropped to 698. In 1920, the population was recorded at 120. The post office in Bodie finally shut down in 1942.
Bodie is a true time capsule: I spotted faded floral wallpaper, a green-checkered tablecloth with pink rosebuds, homework assignments still written on the schoolhouse chalkboard.
The curse of Bodie has nothing to do with its ghosts. Instead, the curse hinges on these bygone relics. Those who might be tempted to pocket a souvenir from Bodie’s streets should know that bad luck will follow. As KQED reported, tourists were tempted to take items from Bodie home. To prevent ongoing theft, state parks rangers started spreading word that anything removed from this sacred place would bring a curse upon the thief.
The curse might hold some truth. Bodie State Historic Park has a collection of “curse letters,” usually sent with a rusty item and an anonymous note, apologizing profusely and begging to be set free of the curse. One letter reads: “I’m sorry I took this piece of metal from the town. I thought it was all a joke, but it wasn’t at all. Things are happening that are very hard to explain.”
I only took pictures. But as I was snapping photos of an old barn, I nearly jumped out of my skin when I heard a door creak open behind me.
A woman with gray hair and a blue parka stepped outside. She saw me gaping at her: “I’m a real person,” she said.More Lake Tahoe News
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