The history of Bodie reads like a parody of Wild West clichés. The discovery of gold transformed this one-horse mining camp into a boomtown of banks and brothels, saloons and schools. When the gold supplies dwindled in the early twentieth century, so did the population, and today Bodie is preserved in a state of arrested decay.
Rough Guides writer Greg Dickinson travelled to Mono County, California, to prospect these haunted streets.
The time portal to Bodie is located about three miles west of the town. Only, unlike the DeLorean time machine in Back to the Future, you need to reduce your car’s speed to cross this wormhole.
The tarmac road reaches a sign that reads “Bodie Historic Park” and a crunch falls beneath your tyres as you land on the sun-bleached dirt track. There’s no looking back now, literally, as a cloud of whipped-up dust in the rear window distorts any memories of the modern world.
Slowly and jerkily I approached Bodie, air conditioning blasting the hell out of my face. You can’t help but feel a bit intrepid on this track near the border of California and Nevada, but I knew mine was just one in a long list of vehicles that had pounded the road over the last 160 years.
The first horse and carts arrived in 1859, when prospector William S Bodey discovered gold and established a mill here. Over the next couple of decades the dozen-strong population swelled to ten thousand – families, thieves, miners, journalists. All moved to this remote town in the foothills of Eastern Sierra in hope of a more prosperous life.
These days, it’s tourists who make the journey – about 200,000 per year – in cars during summer and snowmobiles during the treacherous winter (Bodie is over 2500m above sea level). And there are some unwelcomed guests, too.
“The ghost hunters are a pain in the neck,” the park ranger told me as we wandered along Main Street, her swagger reminiscent of a gun-totin’ sheriff. My flip-flopped feet were chalky white, the camera slung around my neck already disconcertingly hot in the midday sun. “They watch these ghost hunting TV shows about Bodie and try to break into the park at night. Now we have to patrol the place twenty-four seven.”
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I empathized with her. California State Parks probably does have better things to spend its time and money on than foiling ghost hunters. Although a small, devious part of me – a part I would never reveal to this ranger – could relate to the impulse to break into Bodie after dark. During the day there was something intoxicatingly unsettling about the place, even with the tourists milling about. I couldn’t imagine what it must be like in the dead of the night.
As we walked I recognised the buildings that flanked Main Street from the infinite Instagram photos I’d scrolled through before arriving in Bodie, all padlocked doors and faded wooden beams propping up improbably angled roofs. But what the photos can’t capture is the arthritic creaks that the buildings make in the lightest breeze, barely strong enough to propel a hay bale.
“Don’t be tempted to take anything home with you”, the ranger said, seeing me pick up some piece of twisted metal off the ground. If you remove anything from the town, the legend goes, you’ll be haunted by the “Bodie Curse”. In the museum I read accounts of visitors who had taken items – nails, bottles, books – and written in to say they had been plagued by bad luck. Yeah, right. This was a fantasy one step too far for me.
The ranger led us around some of the town’s best-preserved spots with the tallest of accompanying tales. The old school which was burnt to the ground by a pupil, whose family was subsequently banished from town. The tiny jail consisting of only two cells but nonetheless frequently occupied during the height of Bodie’s lawlessness. The road where Chinatown used to be, with its Taoist Temple and sordid opium dens.
But I was just as interested in everything that wasn’t covered by the tour.
One particularly unassuming house caught my eye and I slipped off from the group. I half expected to peer through the window to see a perfectly presented scene, complete with waxwork models and a faded information board, maybe a broomstick propped up against the wall. But what I saw was a collapsed ceiling and rips of wallpaper defying gravity with the very last of its fibres. On the floor, ochre-drenched sheets of paper that were dropped and never picked up. This is no Disneyland, I thought, this is real.
I peered into the carriages of the battered old cars lying about, inspected the random bits of metallic junk that have been left to rust in the greying bush. Were it not for the blistering heat I could have spent hours exploring this ghost town, and what remains is only five percent of what was once here.
After a couple of hours I traipsed back to my car. Before putting the keys in the ignition, I paused. Quickly, I rummaged around my pockets to check I hadn’t accidentally picked up an unwanted souvenir from the park.
Fact and fiction blur in this ghost town, and I wasn’t going to risk taking the Bodie Curse back home with me.