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Bodie, California, is a journey back to the Gold Rush

BODIE, Calif. Nothing against Virginia City or Tombstone or any other collection of Gold Rush-era wooden structures along that ribbon o’ highway, but they are to ghost towns what Disneyland’s Matterhorn is to true alpine peaks.


BODIE, Calif.


Nothing against Virginia City or Tombstone or any other collection of Gold Rush-era wooden structures along that ribbon o’ highway, but they are to ghost towns what Disneyland’s Matterhorn is to true alpine peaks.

That is, a pale, sterile and blatantly commercial imitation of the real thing.

You won’t find staged gunfights at high noon in Bodie. No trinkets to buy, cardboard cut-out miners to pose next to or T-shirts for sale. Nor can you belly up to a faux saloon where women in diaphanous bodices flit their false eyelashes at you.

Bodie, rather, is the real thing. Or, as close as you can get, due to the ravages of time and the vicissitudes of the harsh eastern Sierra weather. It is a California State Historic Park, after all, duty bound to maintain a dirty realism, rather than perpetuate a cinematic cliché.

And, boy, is there a lot of dirt in Bodie, which lies in central California east of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, 121 km southeast of Lake Tahoe. Dirt, and its first cousin, dust. That, apparently, is what the old West was really about. Dirt collecting at the crook of your neck, grit working its way into your molars, a scrim of dust obscuring your vision. The landscape in summer, and well into fall, is as brown as a fleet of UPS trucks, so brown as to be monochromatic. Then, in snowy winters, the site is blanketed in white.

No wonder that, back in the day, no fewer than 65 saloons graced this erstwhile gold-mining metropolis that boasted a population of 10,000 in its heyday. People’s throats had to be parched from all those swirling airborne particulates. And, come winter, they needed stiff libations to gird themselves from the cold.

Alas, the edifice of only one saloon remains, the Sam Leon Bar on Main Street, nestled between the barber shop and the ruins of the carpenter’s shop.

That’s the problem with hewing to strict realism when it comes to preserving historical sites — you’ve got to work with the original materials. And, while you are allowed to subtly prop up a rickety building (“stabilize” is the operative verb) and make small repairs if the wind knocks down a plank or two, true renovations or re-creations are frowned upon.

It is verboten, too, for Park Service employees or members of the nonprofit Bodie Foundation to play house and furnish rooms with period-appropriate pieces and accoutrements. They aren’t even supposed to rustle the dust collected on old pie tins.

All of which is not done to ensure the appearance of verisimilitude but to give visitors an actual screen-grab of what Bodie was like as a Gold Rush boomtown in the late 1800s.

The term Park Ranger Ryan Randar uses is “arrested decay,” as if the 500-acre site with 170 remaining buildings was suspended in amber.

So when you peer into the dust-streaked windows of the Boone Store & Warehouse, you see what was on the shelves in 1900, when the Boone brothers shuttered the windows during an economic downturn and told townsfolk: “We’ll be back when times are better.”

We’re still waiting for their return. Meantime, the cans of mustard, Old English pipe tobacco and Ghiradelli chocolate and display cases for Guittard & Co. coffee rot on the shelves. The cash register is enveloped by cobwebs, the counter so coated with dust that the fine wood panelling is just a myth.

And when you peer inside the pine Jeffrey Miller House, built by patriarch Tom Miller, who worked for the Mono Lake Railway & Lumber Co., you see the kitchen just as the family left it in the late 1800s — cabinets flung open, cups and plates on the table, dirt caked in the muffin pan.

These rooms and others like it have been this way since 1962, when Bodie was awarded National Historic Landmark status. There is a Pompeii-preservation vibe to Bodie, and visitors use their imaginations to fill in the gaps. They wonder about people’s lives during the period, the boomtown carousing, the ladies taking tea, the search for culture in a town that, before William S. Bodey set down stakes in 1859 following a discovery of gold nearby, formerly was a harsh milieu with jagged rocks and few, if any, trees to block the relentless summer sun or provide firewood during snowy winters. State Parks officials say the spelling was changed to “Bodie” in the late 1800s “to avoid the name being mispronounced.”

Nancy Frye, vice-president of the Bodie Foundation, says it takes vigilance to keep the town the way it was at its demise in 1932, when the mines had been played out and the last of a series of fires made stragglers find other accommodations.

“Initially, the inside-of-buildings photographs were taken and nothing was moved,” Frye said. “It was all catalogued. But since then, some of the more valuable paper items have been moved because the dust and the rats that have gotten in there.”

Preserving Bodie as it is, Frye said, “is difficult because sometimes there is horrific wind and snow.” Occasionally, then, rules will be slackened and shiny new roofing will cover gaping holes.

Call it a compromise to history, a way of keeping the bulk of a structure the way it was by bolstering a small portion.

Visitors don’t seem to mind that a part of the roof on the Methodist Church, erected in 1882, is visibly newer than the rest. It wasn’t the weather that gutted part of the church, it was vandalism. In the years since the final religious service was held in 1932, the church has been a favourite of vandals. They even stole an oilcloth painting depicting the Ten Commandments, thereby violating No. 8.

For the most part, the public has been respectful. Or maybe it’s just that Bodie is so far out of the way — 20 kilometres east of Highway 395, between Bridgeport and Lee Vining, the last part of which is a bladder-busting, rocky dirt road — that it’s too much of a bother.

It does not seem too much of a bother for tourists. Randar said about 250,000 tourists annually visit Bodie, impressive considering that the road in is closed seven months out of the year. A quick check of the guest register in the Bodie museum shows that, on just one page, people from Germany, Switzerland, France, Denmark and Korea had a look around.

“About half our visitors are from Western Europe,” Randar said, “and they think this is a town of ghosts.”