A photograph of the abandoned wooden buildings in a Western ghost town.
Bodie, California. Carol Highsmith/Library of Congress

To be an off-season caretaker of Bodie, California (winter population: 5), you need a high tolerance for cold, solitude, and two-hour grocery runs.

Ranger Taylor Jackson points his shovel to a speck in the blanket of white that covers the ghost town of Bodie, California.

The 100 wooden structures in the middle of nowhere that make up this long-dead community seem pristine. The cloudless March sunlight blasts from above and bounces off the snow’s surface, giving the buildings the angular, distorted shadows of a Surrealist painting. It looks like a mushroom trip is supposed to feel.

And yet Jackson is ignoring all of that—he’s used to it by now. All he cares right about at this moment is that tiny, distant object peeking from the snow. He begins to trudge to it.

As we get closer, I can see that it’s the top of a small roof, the base of its structure buried beneath nearly five feet of snow. Jackson bends over, shovels out a small hole, crawls onto his knees, and peers inside. Hidden behind the white crystals that had formed during the night’s snowstorm are two mercury temperature gauges. One had the previous day’s high: 29. The other had its low: -5.

“When it gets down to a certain point,” Jackson tells me, “it’s just plain cold.”

Jackson stands back up and notes down the previous day’s high and low, later to be sent to the National Weather Service station in nearby Reno, Nevada. It’s part of his daily list of tasks as one of the Bodie State Park rangers. We plod along in our heavy and awkward footwear—him in snow skis, me in old-school snowshoes—and he continues his rounds.

Jackson making his rounds in Bodie, where he was one of five people to stay through the winter. The structures left from the Gold Rush boomtown are preserved as a state park. Jackson’s job is to keep them upright and keep scavengers away. (Rick Paulas)

In his mid-20s, hatless but with a trimmed blonde beard, Jackson wears a full gear belt that includes a radio and gun. His jacket is classic forest-green rangerwear. “My normal shift is seven-to-five, but if something happens outside of those hours, we make adjustments,” he says. “During a storm, we’re all just hunkered down, waiting.” The first part of his shift today, then, is trying to figure out what the night’s previous storm did to his town.

We trudge up Green Street, and I lag behind, more than once on my hands and knees to dig a loose shoe out of the snow. I tell myself it’s because I was using the park’s disintegrating snowshoes, but really it’s because I’m not in anything close to ranger shape. It’s a hell of a workout just trying to cross the snow-filled street.

On our walk, Jackson tells me that didn’t used to believe that “snow blindness” was an actual thing until he lived it for himself. He’s felt how the sunlight can bounce off the white snow, how it can sunburn your corneas if you’re not wearing protection. He tells me how he’d heard that members of the Donner Party experienced that during their infamous winter of cannibalism. That happened not too far from here, we both know.

We hit the crossroads where Bodie’s Green and Main Streets meet—more accurately, five feet above the crossroads—on our way to the Wheaton & Hollis Hotel. Built in 1885, this building originally handled “the applications for the purchase of the government land.” It’s where any specters who held crooked, bigoted power back in the day would be imprisoned in a state of forever-haunt if, you know, ghosts actually exist.

The two-story structure, now stuck in its last incarnation as one of Bodie’s hotels, is one of the park’s main attractions. On a sunny day, visitors peer through the front windows to glimpse the bar, the tall mirror behind it, the old cast-iron stove, the pool table where two cues still rest on the dust-covered felt.

“Don’t touch the dust when we go in,” Jackson says, wiggling his key into the frozen lock on the door. “It’s important for all the photographers. They like how it looks.”

We walk inside, and I notice an old kettle that’s been dusted by snow. We look closer and see a subtle crack in the window. Maybe it gave way during the previous night’s storm, maybe sometime before. That’ll need to be fixed, so Jackson makes a mental note before we continue our rounds to make sure the other artifacts are okay.

A snow drift blocks a window at the old hotel. (Rick Paulas)

“There’s these people who’ve watched American Pickers, and they come and ask, ‘How much do you think this is worth?’” Jackson says, walking through the hotel’s back hallways, pointing to the tin wall paneling. “It’s priceless history, in my mind. But you see people with dollar signs in their eyes.” He finishes up his inspection and we prep ourselves to head back into the cold.

“If no one was up here for winter,” Jackson says, “I genuinely believe we’d be looted.”

***

As the story goes, in 1859, four prospectors discovered gold in the desert valley north of Mono Lake, near what would soon become the California–Nevada border. One of them was named W.S. Bodey—no one’s sure what the W or S stood for. He froze to death that winter and the survivors named the area after him. A game of telephone ended with the erroneously “Bodie” spelling.

Bodie sits on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada range, near California’s border with Nevada. (David Montgomery/CityLab)

Other miners trickled in, but it wasn’t until 1875, when a mine cave-in exposed a gold vein, that the big-city moneyed interests got involved. They invested in infrastructure, famously claimed over telegraph blast that “the mines are looking well,” and soon came the flood of miners, as well as those “mining the miners” in restaurants, hardware stores, opium dens, and the red-light district. The boom was on.

At its peak around 1879 or 1880, somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 people lived in Bodie, with 40 to 50 new people arriving by stagecoach every day. Many worked in one of the town’s nine stamp mills, or at one of its 200 restaurants, which served delicacies like oysters on the half-shell, imported all the way from San Francisco. When they could, they drank in the town’s 65 saloons, where they’d often get involved in skirmishes that gave Bodie its rep as one of the Gold Rush’s most dangerous towns. There were reputed to be six shootings a week.

A Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of Bodie made in 1890. The town was then a decade past its 65-saloon peak and already in decline. (Library of Congress)

One infamous Bodie story goes that during a night ball at the Miners’ Union Hall, two men got into a verbal altercation over one of them dancing with the other man’s wife. They were separated, but one came back a few minutes later, shot the other fellow in the head, and rode off into the night. An impromptu vigilante group caught up with the murderer, a man named Joseph DeRoche, six miles later. They brought him back to town and hung him from the tree where the murder had occurred. Tour guides still proclaim that “the 601 rode that night”—the code that the vigilante group gave itself.

“It stands for six feet under, no judge, one rope,” Jackson says. “Maybe. There’s no factual basis for that, but it sounds awesome, right?”

For a brief moment in time, there was even a movement within Bodie to turn the town into the state’s capital, but that idea dried up with the mines. The living conditions in Bodie were harsh, and other boomtowns lured workers away. Mules got stuck in the Main Street mud, and their corpses remained until the snow thawed. The soil’s extreme alkalinity meant that trees didn’t grow and firewood had to be purchased from nearby Mono Lake. It cost a week’s worth of wages to heat your home for two weeks, which isn’t a very sustainable way of life. When the gold and silver were mostly gone, it didn’t make much sense for most folks to stay way out there.

In 1892, a fire burned down a chunk of the town, leaving only spare stragglers among the increasingly vacant structures. They survived on occasional scores from private mines until 1942, when the U.S. government banned any mining not considered essential for the war effort. And that was that for the town.

A few odd loners stayed, helpless as the town was slowly picked over by invading scavengers. In 1962, the state of California purchased the land to be used as a historical park, and to be kept in a state of “arrested decay.” This means keeping buildings upright, but also never adding new ones, not even explanatory plaques. Keeping it as close to how it was as possible, as if encased in formaldehyde.

It also meant this town in the middle of nowhere needed a year-round staff.

***

During the summer, the park bustles with 1,000 visitors a day, roaming the streets, peering through windows, touring the looming stamp mill. (Fun fact: A bobcat recently used the stamp mill as a hunting ground to teach its young cubs.) The park has about 20 employees to handle these crowds, but during the winter, when roughly 15 “brave” (or maybe “insane”) visitors every month show up on their snowmobiles or skis—the 11-mile road between Highway 395 and Bodie remains unplowed in the winter—the staff is trimmed down to a skeleton crew.

This year, it’s five people. They live in one of the nine buildings that have been retrofitted for habitation with modern amenities like heat, electricity, and the internet, its signal bounced in from a satellite on the ridge. That’s fine enough most days, except when a gust of wind shifts it an inch and knocks out Netflix. Then, a ranger must climb the tower and tweak the satellite as they radio back into town: “Is it working now? Okay, how about now? Now?”

First and foremost, the job in Bodie State Park is about deterrence. Summer days are filled with visitors constantly trying to take a piece of Bodie home. It’s gotten so bad that, a while back, a ranger invented the “Bodie curse” in an attempt to scare them straight. This led to scofflaws returning items, but when the park began actually displaying the accompanying letters of apology and tales of misfortune, it predictably resulted in only more thievery: They wanted their notes in the laminated book. The rangers don’t like to talk about the “curse” anymore.

Tourists peer into the windows of a structure in Bodie in 2004. The ghost town attracts about 1,000 visitors a month in the summertime. (Lara Hartley/AP)

Which is to say: if no one’s around, people will certainly snatch artifacts. And some have tried bonkers stuff like skiing off the tops of century-old structures when the snow drifts get that high. So just having someone out there helps keep nonsense from happening.

“We’re trying to preserve this for the future,” Jackson says. “Not only mining history, but this was an area used in migration patterns by Native Americans, so when someone’s like, ‘It’s just an arrowhead’ and removes it from where it was … .”

At that point my frozen fingers stiffened up and I dropped my audio recorder into the snow. But you get the gist.

Rescue operations at Bodie are rare, but do happen. Snow drifts on the road occasionally end up collecting at more than a 45-degree angle, which, well, you can imagine the issue with that. But, Jackson says, some fools still try to take their two-wheel-drive Camrys through this obvious danger just to see the winter town.

“Do you have chains? No. Do you have a survival kit? No. Great,” Jackson says, annoyed at one specific individual who, you could just tell, muddled up his day a while back. “At what point do you realize you need to turn around?”

If deterrence is a passive activity, and rescue operations are rare, the winter ranger’s main duty is one of maintenance. Winds shatter windows and blow off rooftops, endangering the buildings and anything inside. If it’s a clear forecast after a bad storm, the crew will dig into their stock of custom-made, era-appropriate glass and install a new pane. But usually they’ll just board up the windows and wait for spring. When a 5.7 earthquake struck nearby in 2016, they had to close the park to the public to survey and repair all of the damage.

A final part of the job is the truly fun one: digging into the town’s history.

Taylor’s wife, Kaytlen, is spending her winter digitizing old slides, a task finally moved to the top of the agenda after the earthquake knocked over cabinets where the slides were stored. She’s also researching a tour about Bodie’s Chinatown, an under-analyzed section of town, partly because its buildings—the tangible things that make Bodie Bodie—are long gone, but also because of the inherent racism that comes with history being recorded largely by white men. “To work in the mine, you had to be white and male,” Kaytlen says, “so Chinese people mostly worked inside homes and restaurants.”

This is the Jacksons’ second year in Bodie, but their first “actual” winter, where the isolation of being snowbound really hit them. “Last year, I was able to drive this whole way in my truck except for one month, but this year, there’s so much more snow,” Taylor says, as he drives me back to my car in the park’s snowcat—a massive truck that can handle the snow (it’s what Scatman Crothers’s character used in The Shining). This is the winding, hour-or-more trip they all have to make just to get to the highway, then another hour to civilization.

“The first couple of times you’re like, cool, but then it’s like, I just want to get groceries,” he says. “It kinda sucks.”

But Ranger Jackson loves the job. It’s varied, never the same thing two days in a row. And while the treeless, desert landscape doesn’t look like much to the untrained eye, it’s beautiful once you learn how to look at it. This winter, he’s taking time to brew his own beer—a fun hobby, but also just logical when a beer run is two-and-a-half hours long. And he doesn’t miss the city, except for a few affordances it offered.

“I missed fast food, but in reality, it makes you become a better cook,” he says. “And I miss having my climbing gym, but this is the best climbing gym there is.” He uses a hand to present the snow-covered valley beyond the Snowcat window. “I don’t know, maybe everyone finds their inner truths out here.”

He drops me off at my car, we shake our gloved hands, and he turns his snowcat back around to began his long trip back home to his ghost town.

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