They came for the gold. They were a little late, and they weren’t quite in the right place, and the competition did a little better, but they found enough, close enough, to keep something going until someone hit it big. And then it ran out, and so did they.
Bodie’s story is typical in the Sierras: boomtown gone bust. Here, it’s even more typical than its successful counterpart, boomtown gone boom. For every Reno, there are ten Bodies, most of them long disintegrated into scraps of wood and metal strewn around the mountains, in places no one ever goes. Why one survives better than another is anyone’s guess. In the beginning, it’s about ore, but in the end, chance makes the decision.
I first came to Bodie when I was about 13, on a vacation with my family that based us near Lake Tahoe and took us on day trips like this one, through the smaller towns on the east side of the mountains and then out six miles of dirt road in the heat and dust. In my memory, we rode here in the back of my uncle’s blue Toyota panel van, named Squirt, after the soft drink. It is a magnificent sight, coming up out of nowhere, the buildings nestled between hills, rising above scrubby manzanita and the sandy ground with just enough consistency of shape and variation of color so that you can tell there is a town, even at a distance.
The last time I was in Bodie was 25 years ago. It was the summer after my high school graduation and somehow I lucked into a trip to the mountains with my mom, uncle, and grandfather. No sisters. It was right before my grandfather unraveled into the abyss of dementia. I knew it was starting though, because he kept telling the television to slow down, and asking why the picture had to change so fast. (A sentiment, to be honest, I now share with him.) Between outings, I pulled a blanket onto the windy lawn behind the condo and read Bukowski’s Women, in what had become a burgeoning love affair with his debauched misogyny that even now, I betray my feminist instincts to devour.
I had been given my very own Olympus OM-1 as a graduation present, and this was the first of many trips on which it would accompany me. Even then, they were hard to find. I loved the feel of its weight in my hand, the click of the lens as I switched between f-stops, the ratchet of the film being clicked into place. I lugged it up into Lundy canyon with me, photographing columbine. And then, I took it to Bodie.
Bodie was founded in 1859 after gold was discovered in the hills. The cache wasn’t great, and compared poorly to the mass of silver found in nearby Aurora. Twenty years later, gold-bearing ore was discovered and the town boomed to around 6,000 people at its height. It was big enough for a bank, a red light district, and gymnasium called the Bodie Club, which sported both workout rings, and cold beer.
It bustled with business, a train track was built, families laid claim. Miner’s organized into a union, and Chinese workers built a Chinatown on one end of town. But by late 1880, mining booms in Montana, Utah, and Arizona began to pull people away. Despite a resurgence in the early 1890’s, when cyanide processing allowed a second-pass at discarded mill tailings, the population continued to diminish, until the 1910 census recorded just 698 people, mostly families, still living in the town. By 1932, when a fire demolished much of ‘downtown,’ Bodie, it was down to 120 people.
My memory of Bodie is mostly of the wood, and the wind. On that visit 25 years ago, the story of the town was different. It was of a place people had left in a hurry, due to a fire in the mine. Food plates were on the table, clothes still hung on hooks, pottery and goods still lined the shelves of the store. I may have made that story up to match the pictures I took, looking in through six-pained windows at a yellow pitcher, a table setting. The wood warmed a reddish brown in the sun, grooves worn deep in the pattern of its grain by the wind, heat, and cold of the century it stood there. Curtains, edged in lace and slightly tattered, frame the scenes.
Now, Bodie has a proper parking lot and a restroom, and the day I was there, a google-camera car was in the lot. The driver got out and put on a photographic contraption to walk the main streets of town, so soon you can experience it from your desktop.
But the wood is the same. Even when the sacred photographic light of morning has passed and the amateur professionals are packing up their tripods, the wood still glows weathered and warm. The picket fences that remain have grown skinny and rickety over time, their moorings less secure.
The buildings stand proud against the few defined streets. The hotel is there (no guests), and the Bodie Club. The mercantile is now a museum/foundation shop. The piles of debris, or of trash – wood, cans, bits of tin and leftover shoes – have grown a little larger as time wears down structure. Trash as artifact and memory. Reminders.
The wind is still predominate. Bodie is nestled in a crook of hills and as you walk upwards past the mine, toward the hilltop, the wind falls down against you, whispering secrets as it goes. When you walk the main street out of town, to the north – to where a bank and a brothel once stood – you hear little but your footsteps, the breathing of the dog that follows behind you, panting against the heating sun. The wind blows across the top of the metal stanchions that mark property lines and Do Not Enter areas like the sound of a drunken cowboy blowing across the top of his beer bottle in mockery of your wander. It slips quickly through the spaces left between shrinking wooden slats, pulling splinters of them with it, beckoning you in, just a little closer, just come here for one minute, it has something to tell you. Don’t leave yet; your time will come soon enough and it will be here, whispering, long after you have gone.