One of the nation's best preserved ghost towns is just a short drive from Reno
Bodie, California is 135 miles from Reno—a short distance, though it takes two and a half hours or more to get there, depending on the weather. It’s 12 miles from the small town of Bridgeport, on Highway 270 through Cottonwood Canyon. The last three miles of road that climb to where Bodie clings to a mountainside at 8,379 feet are unpaved. They’re passable for most vehicles when the roads are dry. But that’s not the case this time of year. As of March 19, the town was still snowed in, with all of Highway 270 from Bridgeport closed.
The park is still open, but visitors would have to ski or snowshoe the 13 miles to reach it—a feat of athleticism at that elevation. Some snowmobile in, but even that is a serious task, according to park interpreter Catherine Jones.
“You’d need to be pretty experienced and kind of be familiar with the area—and maybe prepare plans in case something happened,” she said. “It’s a really long way. But people do that probably more often than skiing or snowshoeing in.”
Most of the few hundred thousand people who will visit Bodie in 2019 will wait until the warmer months, when the roads are clear and more daylight means longer park hours. For now, only the people skiing and snowshoeing around town most days are the park rangers who live there.
A gold mine
Bodie was established in 1859—the same year as Virginia City on the historic Comstock Lode. It became a boom town in 1876 after the discovery of a rich vein of gold ore, and in its heyday was home to some 10,000 people.
Jones, whose background is in anthropology and history, knows a ton about Bodie’s history. It’s her job and something she said she’s become deeply invested in during her six years at the park. While she’s not a park ranger—they’re the park’s law enforcement—she wears the same type of uniform and has even stayed overnight under the starry sky in desolate Bodie. She’s well prepared to answer questions, but there are, of course, a few she gets most often.
Visitors to Bodie will learn that the more than 100 remaining buildings there are maintained in a state of “arrested decay"—meaning they’re kept standing but left, for the most part, as-is. But what does arrested decay mean, and how is it achieved? According to Jones, it means that “whatever kind of maintenance” is needed to keep a building standing, will be done—but in such a way as to try to disguise its newness. The Parks Department uses recreations of historical supplies, like 1800s-style square nails and glass from Germany made using techniques that yield the same wavy, single-pane windows of the era.
So the buildings are maintained using historically accurate replica materials. But what about their contents? Visitors often wonder if the artifacts of everyday life they contain—like plates on tables—have been staged. According to Jones, the answer is likely, though it was years before Bodie became a state park in 1962.
“That’s an interesting question, and it’s really kind of the number one question—and probably the hardest to answer, too,” Jones said. “I can’t imagine that there wasn’t ever any staging—and there was one family who owned most of the buildings before it became a state park. And, actually, Ella Cain, a member of that family, started the museum.”
Surely, Jones said, Cain had some ideas on “preserving things for display and for history and for tourists to be able to see.” She suspects it was Cain who staged many of the houses after the town’s post office closed and most of its residents departed in the early 1940s.
What other nagging questions come from Bodie’s visitors? The other big one concerns the pervasive myth that taking something—any little rock or artifact—from the town will result in bad luck. Superstition aside, it begs the question of how big a problem theft is at Bodie.
“People do take things a lot,” Jones said. “And they’ll hear of this supposed bad luck if you do, and then, sometimes, they send things back, which creates an even bigger problem.”
The problem, according to Jones, is that the Parks Department has no way of knowing if an artifact even came from Bodie, let alone where in the town.
“You wouldn’t go into a museum and start touching artifacts and moving them around and looking at them—but people do, constantly,” Jones said. “They’re bringing things into the museum they find that they think are really interesting—but they need to stay in place because they tell a bigger story there.”