One of the best reasons anywhere to pull off the highway is just south of Bridgeport and north of Mono Lake—Bodie, a gold-mining ghost town well worth the wander.
To get to Bodie State Historic Park from the highway you’ll bump down a dirt road for five miles, which helps, once you get there, with social distancing—a breeze here anyway, certainly during the off-season. Dogs on leashes are welcome too, good news if Fido’s bouncing along with you.
Because of the ongoing coronavirus crisis, buildings typically open to explore are now closed, the park’s popular public tours canceled. To support the town’s preservation, support the nonprofit Bodie Foundation, which sometimes offers private tours.
A strangely silent place still standing—more or less—in the shadow of the old Standard Mine, the busted boomtown of Bodie still evokes the truly wild Wild West. The town is preserved in its entirety in a state of “arrested decay,” no thanks to occasional earthquakes and brutal sagebrush winds. Only about five percent of Bodie’s weatherbeaten 1860s and 1870s wood-frames still stand, the rest destroyed over the decades by fire and the elements. Still, there’s plenty to see. And you can get a deep sense of bad, brawling Bodie on your own. Pick up the self-guided tour brochure, or download the PDF in advance.
In some ways the best part of storied Bodie is its stories. Told that her family was moving to this wild frontier town in the late 1800s, for example, a young girl reportedly said, “Goodbye, God. We are going to Bodie.”
But a Bodie newspaper editor felt the need to defend this godless Gomorrah, in its heyday a gold mining town with a population of more than 10,000 employed at some 30 mines.
The child had been misquoted, he claimed. What she’d actually said was: “Good, by God. We are going to Bodie!” Which certainly underlines the importance of emphasis, not to mention spelling and punctuation.
Townfolk liked yarn-spinning too. Bodie had the West’s widest streets, wickedest men, and worst climate and whiskey anywhere, they boasted.
Virgin Alley and Maiden Lane in Bodie’s redlight district offered neither, and a local minister described the community as “a sea of sin lashed by tempests of lust and passion.” Fisticuffs and murders were daily events.
But somehow, California’s largest ghost town actually survived as a living, breathing community until 1942.
So: Wander at will through godless, lawless, treeless Bodie. Peek through tattered lace curtains into the Boone Store and Warehouse, Wheaton & Hollis Hotel and Bodie Store, Sam Leon’s bar, and other restaurants, saloons, livery stables, and miners’ shacks abandoned for more than a century.
Peer past peeling wallpaper into dusty rooms furnished with rusted woodstoves and bedframes and banged-up wash basins. Inside the Henry Metzger and Lester E. Bell homes are wicker baby carriages; the morgue features three child-sized coffins. Sadder still is the time-twisted child’s wagon rusting in the middle of the street.
Done with town, head for the hillside cemeteries to meet some of Bodie’s former residents, colorfully remembered there. Fenced-in cemetery areas were set aside for decent folk; most bad Bodie boys were buried on Boot Hill.
Bodie is open year-round, even if the road isn’t. Which means you can come in the dead of winter too—by skis, snowshoes, or snowmobile. You might call the park office and let them know you’re coming, just in case. But come prepared for anything: sub-zero temperatures, strong winds and white-out conditions. Even four-wheel-drive vehicles with chains can get stuck. A memorable adventure, though, right?
Up the Road Encourages Responsible, Safe Travel
Here are previous Up the Road episodes that explore why we should travel, how to do it responsibly, and how to travel responsibly now, in the shadow of COVID-19. Not everyone should be traveling now, of course, depending on your potential vulnerability to the deadliest effects of this new virus. But everyone who does travel needs to do so responsibly, to prevent viral spread. Take a listen:
- Up the Road: Why Travel?
- Up the Road: Why Travel in Northern California
- Up the Road: How to Travel
- Up the Road: Why Local Travel Matters
- Up the Road: Travel That’s Not About You
- Up the Road: Heading Up the Road Again—Responsibly
- Up the Road: 2020 Travel Strategy
- Up the Road: More on Responsible Travel 2020