I had wanted to go to Bodie ever since I first heard of the place. It’s a Gold Rush ghost town that lingered into the modern era, a place of gambling halls and fancy girls, murders in the street and four graveyards — a place that lived long enough that it has gas pumps and some electric wires, but is so inaccessible and isolated that people walked away, leaving everything behind.
Even with modern transportation, Bodie is a long ways away. We left San Francisco early in the morning, drove up and through Yosemite, and came down on the eastern side of the Sierras. We’d waited to go until September, when the oppressive oven heat had died down somewhat but the passes hadn’t snowed closed yet. Our campsite, near a little creek, was shaded by aspens turned to gold. It had a water tap and a pit toilet. We had the place all to ourselves.
We waited to make the rest of the drive into Bodie until morning, unwilling to face the washboard road until we were sure we’d have enough time to see everything. The State Park Service oversees the ghost town now, making sure the old buildings don’t fall down. There is much to see: roulette wheels and crystal chandeliers, striped cotton mattresses and coffins for sale. The church. The rusted-out old cars. The horse-drawn hearse.
I poked around the graveyards while my friend Samuel toured the old mine. In its heyday, Bodie dug out $30 million in gold, $1 million in silver. The stamping mills worked around the clock, crushing the quartz stone to extract the precious metals. Bodie would have been loud then. Now all I could hear was the wind.
I knew Bodie had been as wealthy as it was dangerous, but I was shocked to see how much remained in the graveyard. There were plenty of graves marked only with boards, but there were also ornate metal fences, wrought or cast iron, shipped from back east or carted over the Sierras. There were plenty of marble gravestones, too. Those would have been heavy to drag over the mountains before paved roads were built and yet the survivors felt strongly that their griefs required permanent monuments, ones that stand decades after the town was abandoned.
Who was Elizabeth? She had no last name on her marker. Did she lie there alone or were her children with her? Was her husband there, with no one to buy him a stone to remember his name? Or had he loaded all he could on a mule or into a wagon, into his pickup or his car, and left her and all they’d shared behind?
Here was a love that left stone flowers to brighten her grave, but left no last name to keep her memory alive.
I wondered if she knew all the songs the wind could sing. Did she sing them to herself when the wind fell silent? Did those left behind in the graveyards keep each other company at the end of the day, when the tourists left and the rangers locked up and the fat full moon rose over the desert?
I was glad when Samuel returned from his tour, when it was time to get back in our car and head back to our campsite. We may have been alone there, but it didn’t seem as lonely as Bodie.