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Bodie: Is Anyone Home?
This California Ghost Town Is Full Of Light, Not Life

By Gary Anthes
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 2, 2005

It seems appropriate that a building in a ghost town should be haunted, and Noella Ballenger insists this one is. It's the former home of Lottie Johl, a Bodie, Calif., prostitute who entertained the town's gold miners in the late 1870s.

Ballenger, a professional photographer who conducts workshops in Bodie, suggests we offer Lottie a greeting as we enter her house. She says we'll suffer unspecified consequences otherwise, so even the skeptics among us say "Hi, Lottie" as we file in.

Ballenger says another workshop leader failed to do that and later discovered on his film a long sequence of blank pictures where images of Lottie's bedroom, kitchen and dining room ought to have been.

You don't have to be superstitious to be moved by the atmosphere in Bodie, billed as the best-preserved ghost town in America. You sense the vibrations in the earth coming from the old stamping mill, where enormous pistons driven by an eight-ton flywheel crushed gold ore around the clock but now are frozen in rust and time. You imagine the voices of little children reading from a board seen dimly through the Green Street schoolhouse window: "O Sam, see the pretty dog! The little dog has had a nap." And you can just about smell the whiskey in the dusty old bottles that still stand on bars and tables in the deserted saloons around town.

"From the very first time I walked in there it was as though I could hear footsteps, like I could hear echoes from the past," says Ballenger, who has been coming to Bodie for 18 years.

Bodie is most haunting at sunset, when a majority of visitors have left, the shadows march up into the high desert hills and the weathered wood buildings glow orange-red. Brad Sturdivant, who has worked at the ghost town 21 years, explains his love of it this way: "It's the remoteness, the quiet, the wind in the streets."

What was once the third-largest population center in California is now Bodie State Historic Park, maintained in "arrested decay" by supervising ranger Sturdivant, two other park rangers and a cadre of volunteers called the Friends of Bodie. The ghost town, sitting at the end of a 12-mile partially paved side road, is easy to overlook on your way to Lake Tahoe, 100 miles north, or to Yosemite National Park, 40 miles west over the Sierra Nevada Mountains. It can be crowded on summer weekends, but it's nearly deserted the two weekdays I am there in early October.

Gold was discovered in the area in 1859 by W. S. Bodey (later mysteriously changed to Bodie). He was caught in a blizzard that year and froze to death, but in 1862 a mining camp at the site was established and named after him. A series of gold discoveries resulted in a wave of fortune seekers, and by 1879, miners, occasionally with families, were arriving at the rate of 30 a day.

"Goodbye, God; we are going to Bodie in the morning," a little girl in San Jose, Calif., reportedly wrote in her diary that year. Marguerite Sprague says in the historical account "Bodie's Gold" that the Bodie Standard newspaper replied in an editorial, "All right, pardner, but we have no particular use here for a god that confines himself to the limits of San Jose."

That pretty well sums up the moral climate in Bodie at the time, where every other building seems to have housed a saloon, dance hall, gambling hall, place of prostitution or opium den. Gun duels in the streets, and deaths from them, were common. The Bodie State Historic Park brochure says the town was "second to none for wickedness, bad men and 'the worst climate out of doors'," and it quotes a Rev. F.M. Warrington as calling Bodie in 1881 "a sea of sin, lashed by the tempests of lust and passion."

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.

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.

Bodie sits at the end of a 12-mile road heading east off U.S. Route 395. You can't drive into town, but there is a parking lot near the center of town. In winter, even four-wheel-drive vehicles get stuck in snowdrifts, and on some days visitors arrive by snowmobile and cross-country skis.

THE TOWN: Bodie State Historic Park is open year-round from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $3 per person. There is limited drinking water and no food. Smoking is not allowed.

The only way to really see and photograph the building interiors is to sign up for a workshop run by a photographer approved by California State Parks (see below). If you can't make a workshop but want to photograph Bodie's exteriors when the light looks as if it's shining right out of the 19th century, you can come on the third Saturday of every month, May through October, when the town is open a half-hour before sunrise until 30 minutes after sunset.

WHERE TO STAY: The closest town is Bridgeport, Calif., 20 miles northwest of Bodie on Route 395. A better bet is Lee Vining, Calif., 30 miles southwest on the edge of Mono Lake. There are a handful of modest accommodations there, but the place to stay from mid-April until the end of October is the historic Tioga Lodge (two miles north of Lee Vining on Route 395, 888-647-6423, http://www.tiogalodge.com/), an unassuming resort with cabins by the highway and nice views of the lake. Rooms are $58 to $107 a night, including continental breakfast. The registration building and restaurant were moved there from Bodie in 1897.

WHERE TO EAT: The Whoa Nelli Deli, hidden inside the Tioga (Mobil) Gas Mart at the intersection of routes 395 and 120 west in Lee Vining, is funky, fast and has great food. Try the "legendary lobster taquitos" with pineapple salsa ($9) or the St. Louis barbecue ribs with huckleberry barbecue sauce ($15) and the local beers. Closed November through April.

PHOTOGRAPHY WORKSHOPS: There is no complete and official list of the half-dozen or so photographers approved to conduct workshops inside Bodie's buildings. Some are occasionally listed at www.bodie.net/cal, and rangers at Bodie are happy to take inquiries about upcoming workshops at 760-647-6445.

Noella Ballenger (http://www.noellaballenger.com/) charges $380 for her workshops (not including food, lodging or supplies), which includes two days at Bodie (mostly indoors) and two days elsewhere in the Eastern Sierra area. A substantial portion of workshop fees goes to the Friends of Bodie.

INFO: Bodie State Historic Park, 760-647-6445, www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=509.

-- Gary Anthes

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