Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A Trip To Bodie

"Goodbye God, I'm going to Bodie."
Going to Bodie is like gaining high-velocity insight into the pioneer spirit of the West. Arguably the most successful mining town of the Gold Rush era, Bodie once boasted 10,000 people, 65 saloons and brothels, 3 newspapers, 2 banks, 2 miners' and mechanics' unions, a railroad, even its own Chinatown, "and was second to none for wickedness and badmen [...] a sea of sin, lashed by the tempest of lust and passion," according to the Bodie State Historic Park.

Set about 30 miles north of Mono Lake on the 395/270, with a final 3-mile unpaved road that sends Lexus and other chi-chi drivers packing, Bodie rose to prominence with the discovery of gold in the late 1850s. The town enjoyed continuing growth until the 1880s, when the mines dried out after reaping an estimated $35 million of gold and silver. The population plummeted, and Bodie was eventually abandoned to the "worst climate out of doors." The final blow came with a fire in 1932, which destroyed 95% of the town.

Unlike most mining ghost towns -- which disappeared into oblivion -- what makes Bodie unique is that about 200 buildings remain in a state of "arrested decay," thanks to its original owners, and to the State National Parks which took over in the 1960s. Enough to get a glimpse for what the town once was, in an eerie journey that takes the visitor to a house that still has its spring bed, rocking chair, stove and sewing machine; a store window still boasting merchandise; a barber shop; a gas station; a schoolhouse with desks and books; a church, as if service were to resume after a quick dusting; and the Bodie museum, with detailed memorabilia attesting to the town's earlier success and sophistication.

The ungrateful climate, strong whistling winds, and extraordinarily well-preserved buildings and artifacts turn the visit into a spooky experience -- as if everything froze in time but could wake up in a snap. Bodie is a vivid account of the lives of pioneers who crossed the continent, and the world, for a hopeful unknown in a barren land where everything had to be fought for, created, earned.

Bodie is where you understand the spirit of the West -- and what it takes to be a pioneer. A worthwhile trip, and a lesson for us Euros, spoiled as we are by centuries of civilization, and land vindicated long ago by our ancestors. History in this part of the world may be easily erased, but it is very recent. Bodie is a testimony to that.

UPDATE: Late Night Coffee Shops on Bodie in the mid-1950s.
UPDATE: Ben Levy's superb flickr pix.
photos LA Frog