BODIE, Calif. — Nothing against Virginia City or Tombstone, they are to ghost towns what Disneyland’s Matterhorn is to true alpine peaks.
That is, a pale, sterile and blatantly commercial imitation of the real thing.
You won’t find staged gunfights at high noon in Bodie. No trinkets to buy, cardboard cut-out miners to pose next to or T-shirts for sale. Nor can you belly up to a faux saloon where women in diaphanous bodices flit their false eyelashes at you.
Bodie, rather, is the real thing. Or, as close as you can get, due to the ravages of time and the vicissitudes of the harsh eastern Sierra weather. It is a California State Historic Park, after all, duty bound to maintain a dirty realism, rather than perpetuate a cinematic cliché.
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And, boy, is there a lot of dirt in Bodie. Dirt, and its first cousin, dust. That, apparently, is what the old West was really about. Dirt collecting at the crook of your neck, grit working its way into your molars, a scrim of dust obscuring your vision. The landscape in summer, and well into fall, is as brown as a fleet of UPS trucks, so brown as to be monochromatic. Then, in snowy winters, the site is blanketed in white.
No wonder that, back in the day, no fewer than 65 saloons graced this erstwhile gold-mining metropolis that boasted a population of 10,000 in its heyday. People’s throats had to be parched from all those swirling airborne particulates. And, come winter, they needed stiff libations to gird themselves from the cold.
Alas, the edifice of only one saloon remains, the Sam Leon Bar on Main Street, nestled between the barber shop and the ruins of the carpenter’s shop.
That’s the problem with hewing to strict realism when it comes to preserving historical sites; you’ve got to work with the original materials. And, while you are allowed to subtly prop up a rickety building (“stabilize” is the operative verb) and make small repairs if the wind knocks down a plank or two, true renovations or re-creations are frowned upon.
It is verboten, too, for Park Service employees or members of the nonprofit Bodie Foundation to play house and furnish rooms with period-appropriate pieces and accouterments. They aren’t even supposed to rustle the dust collected on old pie tins.
All of which is not done to ensure the appearance of verisimilitude but to give visitors an actual screen-grab of what Bodie was like as a Gold Rush boomtown in the late 1800s.
Frozen in time
The term Park Ranger Ryan Randar uses is “arrested decay,” as if the 500-acre site with 170 remaining buildings was suspended in amber.
So when you peer into the dust-streaked windows of the Boone Store & Warehouse, you see what was on the shelves in 1900, when the Boone brothers shuttered the windows during an economic downturn and told townsfolk, “We’ll be back when times are better.”
We’re still waiting for their return. Meantime, the cans of mustard, Old English pipe tobacco and Ghiradelli chocolate and display cases for Guittard & Co. coffee rot on the shelves. The cash register is enveloped by cobwebs, the counter so coasted with dust that the fine wood paneling is just a myth.
And when you peer inside the pine Jeffrey Miller House, built by patriarch Tom Miller, who worked for the Mono Lake Railway & Lumber Co., you see the kitchen just as the family left it in the late 1800s: cabinets flung open, cups and plates on the table, dirt caked in the muffin pan.
These rooms and others like it have been this way since 1962, when Bodie was awarded National Historic Landmark status. There is a distinct Pompeii-preservation vibe to Bodie, and it makes visitors use their imaginations to fill in the gaps. They wonder about people’s lives during the period, the boomtown carousing, the ladies taking tea, the search for culture in a town that, before William S. Bodey set down stakes in 1859 following a discovery of gold nearby, formerly was a harsh milieu with jagged rocks and few, if any, trees to block the relentless summer sun or provide firewood during snowy winters. (Quick aside about the name: State Parks officials say the spelling was changed to “Bodie” in the late 1800s “to avoid the name being mispronounced.”)
Saving the past
Nancy Frye, vice president of the Bodie Foundation, says it takes vigilance to keep the town the way it was at its demise in 1932, when the mines had been played out and the last of a series of fires made stragglers find other accommodations.
“Initially, the inside-of-buildings photographs were taken and nothing was moved,” Frye said. “It was all cataloged. But since then, some of the more valuable paper items have been moved because the dust and the rats that have gotten in there.”
Preserving Bodie as it is, Frye said, “is difficult because sometimes there is horrific wind and snow.” Occasionally, then, rules will be slackened and shiny new roofing will cover gaping holes.
Call it a compromise to history, a way of keeping the bulk of a structure the way it was by bolstering a small portion.
Visitors don’t seem to mind that, for instance, a part of the roof on the Methodist Church, erected in 1882, is visibly newer than the rest. In that case, it wasn’t the inclement weather that gutted part of the church; vandalism, rather.
In the years since the final religious service was held in 1932, the church has been a favorite of vandals. They even stole an oilcloth painting depicting the Ten Commandments, thereby violating No. 8.
For the most part, though, the public has been respectful. Or maybe it’s just that Bodie is so far out of the way — 13 miles east of Highway 395, between Bridgeport and Lee Vining, the last three miles of which is a bladder-busting, rocky dirt road — that it’s too much of a bother.
It, however, does not seem too much of a bother for tourists. Randar said about 250,000 tourists annually visit Bodie, impressive considering that the road in is closed seven months out of the year. A quick check of the guest register in the Bodie museum shows that, on just one page, people from Germany, Switzerland, France, Denmark and Korea had a look around.
“About half our visitors are from Western Europe,” Randar said, “and they think this is a town of ghosts.”
Once they are set straight, most don’t seem disappointed that they aren’t assailed by actual apparitions. Docents regale visitors with tales from old times, about gambling and boozing, prostitution and claim jumping, murder and mayhem, and even boring, old everyday life for families.
Some, like Los Angeles resident Jenene Arvidson-Perkins, get caught up in the Old West romance. This is her family’s sixth time visiting Bodie.
“The very first time we came, my daughter Stephanie was in third grade,” Arvidson-Perkins said. “She wanted to do a report and one of the terms they used that I still remember is that the town was in a state of ‘arrested decay.’ I love that term. Strangely, it still looks the same, as if you’d blow on it and it would fall over.”
A self-described history buff, Arvidson dragged her husband, Bob, daughter Stephanie and grandson Caleb, back out one more time to walk the ruins.
“I like to go to the graveyard and read the stones,” she said. “If you see mother and child on the same day, that probably was someone dying in childbirth. If you see certain dates, that was a plague or flu.
“I’m the one in the family that reads everything. It drives them crazy. But then I go ahead and tell them all about it. I like telling about this one lady here who was a ‘lady of the evening’ by force, but who married the town butcher. Her house was right next to the saloon. She donated a painting and did lots of great things for the town. But she couldn’t be buried inside (the cemetery) because she was a lady of the evening. This tells us about where our society was, where we came from.”
The woman to whom she referred was Lotti Johl, who lived the “Pretty Woman” scenario a century before the Julia Roberts film. She went from turning tricks in the red-light district to painting landscapes that hung in the town’s finest places.
Bodie is rife with such colorful stories. Some could be apocryphal, for all we know.
But Frye, who visited Bodie as a girl in the 1960s and later worked as a park aide and archivist, actually knew a Bodie resident, whose parents settled there at the turn of the century. Bob Bell grew up at the house his father, Lester, built near the corner of Union and Fuller streets. He worked in the mines until they played out, then, after the last residents left in the 1950s, he stayed on and helped the Park Service stabilize Bodie’s buildings. That’s when Frye made his acquaintance. Bell had the distinction of being the last person buried in Bodie, in 2003.
“So, to me, it’s not a fictional story,” Frye said. “It’s real. It’s like, ‘Hey, this is Bob’s house. We need to save it.’”
The Bodie Foundation holds fundraisers to augment State Parks’ shortfalls. But she’s concerned that, long term, Bodie’s decay might not remain so arrested.
Things happen, like the time a mountain lion wandered into town and briefly wreaked havoc, or the vandals, or the notorious high winds that have many structures tilting crazily.
“Because it’s a state park, we can’t sell stuff made in Japan, like in Virginia City, to keep it running,” Frye said. “We’re not like Yosemite. You know, Half Dome is never going to fall down. But, in Bodie, particularly the outlying buildings, once there are collapses and (buildings) fall down, then that’s it. It’s over.”