Get Out of Town!
Be Thankful You don't Live in Bodie
November, 2011 - Issue #85
A church still stands in Bodie, which also once boasted 65 saloons and three breweries.
A church still stands in Bodie, which also once boasted 65 saloons and three breweries.
Surprise them this year when the Thanksgiving dinner conversation turns to, "So what are you thankful for?"

Your savvy traveler answer: "I'm thankful I don't live in Bodie."

And here's why.

Spread across a small sage-covered valley at an elevation of 8,000 feet, California's most famous ghost town endures the twin extremes of broiling summers and brutal winters. Snow can drift 20 feet deep. The wind can blow 100 miles an hour. Temperatures can plummet to 40 degrees below zero.

Only one thing would draw people to such an inhospitable place - gold. The town's Standard Mine, which sits on a rise at the west end of town, produced nearly $15 million of the precious metal.

But when the gold ran out, so did the people. It was a story repeated throughout California's mountains during the 19th century. What makes Bodie different is how large it was and how long it lasted.

The town was named after Waterman S. Bodey (more on him later), who discovered gold there in 1859. Within 20 years, the population swelled to 10,000 residents, some of whom remained until the 1940s. By 1962, the 60-some structures not claimed by fire and climate became a State Historic Park maintained in arrested decay. Now Bodie's only permanent residents are park rangers.

In its heyday, Bodie had 65 saloons, three breweries and a reputation to match its nasty weather. Killings were routine, along with street fights, robberies and stage coach holdups.

When told her family was moving to Bodie, a young girl penned in her diary: "Goodbye God, I'm going to Bodie."

Our kids weren't so fatalistic when we announced that we planned a visit. But they did have one concern related to the idea of wandering through a "ghost" town - would we see any actual ghosts?

Of course not, we assured them. What I didn't say is I wouldn't want to be anywhere near the place at night. It's spooky enough in the daytime. And we didn't even visit the cemetery.

Unlike an Old West movie set, Bodie is tinged with unmistakable authenticity. Most of the wood-frame homes are still intact. Outside, the flattened kerosene cans used for siding and insulation continue to rust. Inside, the walls shed paint and paper while beds, dressers and tables gather dust.

In addition to homes, Bodie still boasts a church, barber shop, school, hotels, fire station, stores and the blue corrugated tin Standard Mine works. Walk the dusty streets, peer in windows, and it's clear Bodie was lived in - and died in.

The morgue sits at the corner of Main and Green streets in an unassuming single-story wood-frame building. Caskets still stand open in the front room, including one sized for a child.

It's a sobering reminder that life in an isolated mining town could be brutally short - a lesson personified by Bodie's founder. Waterman Bodey (residents later changed the spelling of the town's name ensure its proper pronunciation - BOH-dee) became lost in a blizzard while returning to his cabin with supplies. He froze to death and was found the following spring.

So there you have it. Thanksgiving might force you to endure crowded airports, overbearing in-laws and yams.

But at least you don't live in Bodie.
Eric Harnish lives in Castaic. He hasn't found gold there - yet.

Stake Your Claim to Bodie
From US 395 north, turn east on State Route 270 (Bodie Road). Continue 13 miles (last three are unpaved) to park entrance. Call before you go to ensure the road is open, especially in winter months. You don't want to meet the same fate as old Waterman. Admission is $7 for adults 17 and up. Children 6 to 16 are $5 and kids 5 and under are free. Pay with cash or check - but either way, spring for the $2 guidebook. It makes the self-guided walking tour come alive; 760-647-6445
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