The thirteenth day of our road trip fell on Independence Day. We were staying in Mammoth Lakes at a ski lodge hotel. Our suite had two large bedrooms, two bathrooms (which is a boon when you have six people sharing a space), and a spacious living room and kitchen-diner. It was a welcome slice of domesticity after a few days of being crammed together into hotel rooms with regular proportions. Despite having access to kitchen facilities, however, we decided to go out for breakfast as our 4th of July treat. The hotel receptionist recommended a place in town named The Stove so it was to there that we headed. It was a quaint little place, clearly popular with locals and tourists alike, and we enjoyed a pleasant breakfast to set us up for the day. The diner was on the street where the town’s Independence Day parade was happening so we saw fun runners come jogging past and poked around at some of the stalls that were set up, including one where my younger kids obtained some new reading material. We decided to get out of town before the parade, however, as we feared we might end up stuck by all the road closures.
Our first destination for the day was Bodie, a ghost town I have wanted to visit for a very long time. It was a long drive up a winding, narrow, rubbly road to reach Bodie so – even before we set foot in the town – I was struck by how challenging life must have been for those who lived and worked there before the days of motorised transport. I had assumed the national holiday might mean that people were at home with family and friends, doing the home town celebration thing, but when we pulled up to the entry booth the ranger informed us that the car park was full, the overflow car park was full, so we ought to just find a space on the road somewhere and park on the right. I thought maybe that all of the visitors might detract from the sense of isolation and abandonment – those qualities one really wants from a ghost town – but the site was so vast that actually it wasn’t problematic.
Bodie was a mining town founded after a chap named Bodey found gold there in 1859. The town gradually grew and peaked in the late 1870s, booming after a rich seam of gold ore was happened upon following a mine collapse. During that period, Bodie had an incredible 30 mines and 9 stamp mills, where the ore was processed. The population ballooned to about 8000 people but rapidly declined with mine closures. Fires, the climate, and the passing decades destroyed many of the structures in the town and then the state park service stepped in and decided to preserve Bodie in a state of what they refer to as “arrested decay”. Apparently what remains represents a mere 5% of what was once there so it really had been a massive town at one point in time.
We had a guide book to the town which was useful in identifying buildings and in breathing life into the old bones of the place by telling some of the stories of the people who lived and worked there. We happened to be parked near some mining equipment so it was there that we started our tour of the 100+ buildings still standing in Bodie. This equipment had been relocated from the Red Cloud mine and included the head frame and the cages that hauled miners and ore out of the mine shafts.
From there we wandered among the residential and commercial buildings and the wonky outhouses. Many of these still had their contents inside. We could peer through the windows and see dust-laden rooms containing busted furniture, plates and bottles on tables, blankets on beds, layers of wallpaper peeling. As we did so, we learned about some of the residents of the town. We learned about the schoolteacher whose father was a Sheriff killed in a shootout near Mono Lake, about a very naughty schoolchild arsonist who burned down the original schoolhouse, the murder of one man and the lynching of his killer, the one-armed manager of a baseball team, the women of the red light district, and those of Chinatown, and we saw coffins propped up against the wall in the morgue. We were able to step just inside the Methodist Church so we could view its interior and were able to enter and wander around one home. It was fantastic.
The Miner’s Union Hall is now a museum and we had fun looking in the display cases at all the personal items, photographs, hearses, and glass bottles. We also loved finding random rusty objects lying in space between buildings, old vehicles standing like sculptures among the long grass, and gas pumps.
We took a wander past the lopsided hotel and the fire station and headed towards the stamp mill. It was here that iron rods, mercury and cyanide, were used to separate the gold from the rock. It was through being superintendent of this mining company that President Herbert Hoover’s brother Theodore lived in Bodie. It would have been very interesting to tour the stamp mill but we knew the kids would rail against the idea so we didn’t get tickets. We took a route past some more houses, the schoolhouse, and the hydroelectric substation, and then sadly it was time to return to the car and leave Bodie.
I absolutely loved visiting Bodie! It actually exceeded my expectations, which were high. I could have stayed there for hours and hours, maybe even days. I especially would have loved seeing it at night to see if it made the place feel eerie at all. I am so glad we were able to fit a visit to Bodie into our road trip.