SEEMINGLY oblivious to her surroundings and our presence, the woman jogged by just as we were pulling away. She was a fleeting image, an apparition, perhaps, transplanted from Rock Creek to Dry Gulch and the last thing you'd expect to see in Mineral City, a Nevada ghost town. Then, before we knew it, she was gone, and so were we.

Digging into the ashes of history, we were prepared for the unexpected, but this ghost jogger in the high country was a bit much. We could only speculate on her presence. She seemed even more out of her time and place than we.

A long time ago, countless newcomers came to the deserts, mountains and plains of the American West to find their fortunes, or maybe they were just the human flotsam and jetsam of an earlier recession, looking for work where they thought they could find it. When the bubbles burst, they left the towns as ragged monuments to their shattered dreams. In time, the buildings crumbled, the grasses grew and the ghosts moved in.

The more accessible often fell prey to those grave robbers of history, the human scavengers, or, worse yet, to the restorationists and architectural revisionists who have turned places like Georgetown, Colo., into places like Georgetown, D.C.

Still others remain, in various stages of deterioration, for frustrated time travelers like myself. What drives me toward such dubious destinations is the excitement of finding a part of the past in its natural state of decay. There is also the solitude that goes with the territory. The frustration stems from the necessarily subordinate role ghost-town hunting always assumes on western trips. Ghost towns -- always involving a detour -- must somehow be squeezed in, in the rush to reach the coast and back.

Someday, there will be an endless summer. Not for surfing and searching for the perfect wave, as in the movies. Instead, it will be for the hide-and-seek games ghost towns play on those who would peek and poke amidst their rumpled ruins, searching for links to the past.

In my endless summer, there will be time for serious serendipity. There will be time for well-researched forays from the paved highways and interstates onto roads of dirt, gravel and rock. There will be an uncomplaining crew of companions, regarding every turn of the road with the same unabashed anticipation as mine.

Admittedly, expectation may exceed experience, but getting there can be half the fun. To me, it's often a downright challenge.

There was our first ghost town hunt in 1965, for Charleston, Ariz., an adobe ruin some miles from Tombstone where we first learned of its alleged existence. We had to wade across the San Pedro River and, even then, it appeared only from a distance once we had waded back to the other side.

To reach Bannack, Mont., whose heyday as the territorial capital lasted about as long as the gold, we drove carefully over a slick mud road. Much of the town remained, albeit all but uninhabited during our 1969 visit, and it was possible to conjure up images of the Old West from the ruins of the jail, the church and other vacant structures. There also was a "ghost mine" on the hillside across Grasshopper Creek. From the "No Visitors" sign at the bridge, we learned it was owned by a company in which we held some stock. (We quickly called our broker with instructions to sell, sell, sell.)

There have been others, sought after and sometimes found. We never did find American City, miles above Central City, Colo. We found Annie Oakley overlook instead, an alpine meadow we had to ourselves, which was quite all right after all. Solitude was scary, however, in Minto, a ghost town along the Klondike gold rush route in the Yukon Territory. A mass murder had caused the natives to flee their cabins, and whatever spirits remained seemed evil.

My wife prefers the roadside ruins, easily accessible from main highways with minimal wear and tear on our car and her sense of security. Independence, Colo., on the road between Leadville and Aspen, was one such place. Its last resident left in 1912, but several wooden ruins survived on the slope just over 12,095-foot Independence Pass when we stopped in 1971. (The word, now, is that newcomers living in nearby ski towns want to "restore" the place. A restored ghost town, however, is a contradiction in terms.)

Other towns merely teetered on the brink of extinction. Sargents, Colo., had a few folks remaining, a water tank and a train station, although the tracks had been torn up after World War II. Shaniko, Ore., a former sheepherding center, was trying hard to "make it" commercially as a ghost town, but the wooden water pipes kept failing, drying up its entrepreneurial dreams. And Granite, Ore., clung to life with one store. Its proprietor said he was also the street commissioner and complained about tourists knocking over mailboxes, oblivious to the fact that people still lived here.

And there's Seibert, a farming town on Colorado's "Golden Plains." There were a mere handful of stores and several vacant storefronts when we paused there in l971 for breakfast. The waitress forecast, "Someday, a big wind will come along and blow us right off the map and we'll wind up just like those ghost towns up in the mountains."

This summer, the cafe closed. A grocery, one of only two ongoing operations on Main Street, was barely hanging on. "If we can't keep this up, this town will take a tumble," said John Holdren, its young proprietor. "Except for the (grain) coop, there's no other reason to come into town. People are really great, but there's just nothing left to make a town here anymore. There's nothing left to restore."

The only thing worse than a failing ghost town, however, may be a successful one. Take Virginia City, Nev. Please. Driving through on our way back east this year, we first encountered an abandoned building at the entrance to town. It was posted, "No Trespassing. Nothing Inside." End of ghost town.

What came next was a gaudy tourist trap. There were casinos, some privately owned museums of dubious merit, a house of wax figures, a mall with 10 "unique shops," guided tours for a fee and, in some spots, a 25-cent charge to use the restroom. Mark Twain, who lived here once, probably wouldn't recognize the place, especially since the Great Fire of 1875. Or maybe he would recognize the former mining town now mining tourist gold. In his 1871 book, Roughing It, Twain recalled seeing in Virginia City "intensity in every eye, that told of the money-getting schemes that were seething in every brain . . "

These days, there is certainly no shortage of books about ghost towns. But book buyers, beware. The widely circulated guide by Lambert Florin ("Ghost Towns of The West"), for example, is out of date.. Many down-and-derelict datelines are now "living" ghost towns.

"Although the mining industry is now a mere shadow of its former self," notes a guide to Southwestern Colorado, in words applicable throughout the West, "you will find a number of 'back to nature' folks busily remodeling what once were vacated buildings in an attempt to rebuild the town."

Another problem with many ghost town books is maps. A lot don't have any. What you really need is a detailed ghost-town Triptik. Like the explorers of yore, you can chart your own course but usually with experience as the only guide. It does help, however, to read about the towns. At least you'll know what it you're looking for even if not always where to find it.

After Virginia City, we were seeking Gold Hill and Silver City, nearby mining towns. We just didn't know to go straight instead of turning left. When we realized our mistake, there was, as always, no turning back.

No matter. Dayton, Nev., lay just ahead. But the abandoned hotel of the picture books had been reborn as a chi-chi antiques shop. A short while later, we passed the turn-off sign on U.S. 50 to Sutro Tunnel. It wasn't until the museum in Fallon 50 miles east that we learned of the ghost town there (in a small pamphlet entitled "California-Nevada Ghost Town Atlas"). Sure enough, Florin's book had nine pages on the place, but no map.

Between the Nevada towns of Eureka and Ely, we encountered the stone ruins of an old house. Was it a way station for the short-lived Pony Express? There was no marker to tell us, but there were signs of a recent campfire inside the crumbling building. It was not a full-fledged ghost town, but we were getting close.

After one mistaken left turn to what we later learned was Garnet Hill, a prime place for stone people, we were in Mineral City, the original site of Ely, the current seat of White Pine County a few miles west. For reasons nobody seemed to know, Mineral City is now known as Lane City. Its lanes are dirt paths on a sloping hill, winding past a dozen or so shell structures. Off to one side is an old school, to which "exceptional" children are bused, and the homes of the three remaining families, one of which runs a tavern-gas station close to Rte. 50.

Across the highway looms the imposing Ruth Copper Pit, which the postcards call the "largest open pit copper mine" but which closed a few years ago. William and Lucy Cooper still run the "Wagon Wheel" Tavern, and when 1,400 people were working at the mine, the Coopers packed them in. Now, only ghosts, and occasional passersby, haunt Lane City's only business.

My motherlode of curiosity barely mined, we pushed on to Osceola, described on a roadside marker as "probably the longest-lived placer camp in Nevada." Its date of birth was listed as 1872, its date of death, 1940. Here, said the sign several miles from the site, one gold nugget found was valued at $6,000.

A switch-back road took us five miles into the mountains over roads more suited to a four-wheel drive jeep than our compact station wagon. At last, we came upon a cemetery, where iron railings surrounded family plots and only the wind whistling through the sagebrush broke the silence.

The largest plot belonged to the Marriotts, seven tombstones in all, including several small children "gone but not forgotten" and "budded on earth to bloom in heaven."

Osceola, a former county seat, once bustled as a regional trading center, complete with a dance hall, restaurant, butcher shop, houses, schools and stores. But virtually nothing was left. There was an old mining shaft and one or two buildings in shambles. An apparently inhabited house belonged, a sign said, to one Bill Marriott. It was posted "No Trespas ing," and we didn't stop.

Since my wife was staying in Berkeley, Calif., and planning to meet us in Denver, only Eric, my 11-year-old son, shared the shunpike detour. Filling my wife's shoes as a seasoned second-guesser, Eric had a few things to say as we bumped along the gravel toward what I hoped would be U.S. 50.

"Where's the main highway, Dad?" he said. "Main highways are paved, Dad." He did not relish hunting for ghost towns. "It's too long, boring and we almost got lost. I like the big cities." Sigh.

Back in the big city, I decided to phone Bill Marriott at his home in Osceola. His gold-seeking grandfather had come here from California in 1872, he said. Bill Marriott, now 66, had worked in Salt Lake and spent time in the service, but otherwise had lived in Osceola most of his life. Aside from Marriott, another miner lived there "and my dog makes three."

He said he had a daughter who lives in Washington's Virginia suburbs, as well as two other grown children.

Leanne Njus, the one who lives in Vienna, Va., said we should have stopped at her father's house. "He would've been happy to take you out and show you around," she said.

Well, maybe next time.