Bodie State Historic Park: Ghost Town Roadtrip

And now my comrades all are gone;
Naught remains to toast.
They have left me here in my misery,
Like some poor wandering ghost.

Barreling down US 395—that long, lonely highway paralleling the saw-toothed backside of the mighty Sierra Nevada—it’s easy to zip right past the turnoff for Bodie State Historic Park, one of the West’s great ghost towns. Hardly anybody I know has been there, except for a few intrepid road-trippers unafraid of long dirt roads that go nowhere for miles. I finally made the trip last week.

It’s as if a neutron bomb hit the place. Scores of weather-beaten clapboard buildings stand in arrested decay. The town boomed in 1879, soaring nearly overnight to a population of 10,000. Within a year or so, the gold mines went bust and everyone left, abandoning their possessions.

The arid desert air works like embalming fluid. Cupping my hands against the window of a sideways-leaning house, I was stunned to spot a half-empty heavy glass bottle of faded-pink calamine lotion, its label weathered, but still clearly legible. The dry-good store still stocks century-old items, all covered in a thick layer of desert dust. Child-sized coffins lie toppled in the morgue.
This is one creepy place. Countless souls died miserable deaths in Bodie. Shootouts, robberies, and whisky-fueled, bloody brawls were commonplace. At its peak Bodie had only two churches, but an amazing sixty-five saloons. The town’s reverend called it ‘a sea of sin, lashed by the tempests of lust and passion.’

The detritus of a dead town lies everywhere—broken glass, rusty nails, splintered wagon wheels—and woe be to you if you pocket anything to take home. A little binder in the back of the museum (formerly the post office) shows page after page of hand-written letters from people who have taken, then mailed things back to the park in an effort to undo the curse they wrought. Some notes are short: ‘Take these god foresaken items back!’ Others ramble on, recounting stories of horror, like this, my favorite, ‘My father is in ICU bleeding from the nose and mouth.’ I didn’t dare test the hex, but would love to hear if you do. Feel free to post a comment telling me how your life has gone to hell.

Bodie never gets crowded. Most passersby spot the signs at the turnoff from US395 to CA 270 (Bodie Road), warning of a partially unpaved 13-mile-long road, and keep driving. The closest place to stay is Virginia Creek Settlement, a cute, simple and clean log-cabin motel, with a restaurant, beneath tall pines on the banks of a roaring creek. It’s in the middle of nowhere and close to the road, but it’s great for families and budgeteers. Fancier digs are at June Lake, Mammoth Lakes, and Lee Vining. I’ll talk about those in a future post about driving spectacular US 395, the forgotten California highway that rivals Hwy 1 for postcard-perfect scenery.