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Bodie: Is Anyone Home?

But Bodie's days of sin, and wealth, were brief. As gold declined, so did the population, falling from 10,000 in 1879 to less than 1,000 by 1900. The population continued to sink, approaching zero in 1942 when the federal government halted what little remained of mining because of the war. Bodie became a state park in 1962 and has been protected ever since.

The people who abandoned Bodie generally left with whatever possessions could be carried in a wagon or a two-wheeled cart pulled by a horse. A great deal stayed behind -- clothes hanging on bedroom walls, dishes on kitchen tables, beer bottles on bars, boxes of gunpowder on store shelves -- where it remains mostly undisturbed today.

Bodie State Historic Park hosts photo workshops that focus on such well-preserved buildings as Odd Fellows Lodge. (Gary Anthes)

The tiniest details are evocative. I'm oddly charmed by an ancient Puss 'n Boots cat food can lying open on a kitchen chair, surrounded by mouse droppings.

I'm reminded of the work of photographer Deborah Turbeville, who in 1980 photographed rooms at Versailles that had been left undisturbed and closed to the public since the 18th century. "These rooms have ceased to discriminate between matter, determining that all things past are of equal value in narration," she writes in her book, "Unseen Versailles." "All recall an earlier hour more vivid with life."

Indeed, nearly everything in Bodie is authentic. No Disney re-creations here, no souvenir shops selling fake gold-nugget key chains, no guides in cute Western outfits, no snack bars. Although there are modern restrooms in the parking lot at the edge of town, the central facilities off Main Street are outhouses with pit toilets. Streets are paved with dust, and primitive paths connecting the more remote buildings are littered with broken glass and rusted objects of uncertain identity.

The authentic Wild West roughness makes the town a photographer's dream. Most of the buildings are closed to the public, except to workshops put on by approved photographers. But a great deal can be seen and photographed through windows. And there is much to shoot outdoors -- the dilapidated old wood exteriors, buildings so fragile some are propped up with big wooden poles, automobiles rusting into the ground, mining paraphernalia, tools, vintage wagons and so on. Park contractors selectively patch roofs, shore up walls and foundations, and replace parts of buildings as they fail, always careful to preserve the original look. Sturdivant says renovations can go on indefinitely, but it's hard to believe Bodie won't be substantially diminished in another 50 years. There are 170 buildings in Bodie, with a lot of "decay" to "arrest," and a limited budget.

As Turbeville said of the ghost palace Versailles, "The past is restless. It is here for a moment. Turn, and look quickly."

So don't bypass Bodie for Lake Tahoe. Trim your visit to Yosemite if you must. Bring lunch and water and twice as much film as you think you'll need.

And don't forget to say hi to Lottie.

Gary Anthes last wrote for Travel about hiking in Utah.

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