Ten miles of rough road separate the ghost town of Bodie from the paved highway. Swift-moving clouds add to the particularly scenic melancholy. In a group of people, Bodie is charming, even a little mysterious; but when you stand alone in the shade of a crumbling house, you feel the severed edge of civilization. Bodie’s allure runs deeper than the harpsichord in the schoolroom or the bleached swatches in the window of the general store. Bodie embodies the hope that no matter how brutal our present, the past was infinitely worse.
My visit to Bodie coincides with the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks in the Northeastern U.S. Since late August, the online versions of the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times have been competing with each other for the most emotionally devastating triptych. The media, it seems, would rather replay the collapse of towers that killed thousands instead of investigating the collapse of an economic infrastructure that is disenfranchising millions. While no one should trivialize the pain of those who lost loved ones, there’s a difference between commemorating an anniversary and indulging in a 3-week long disaster orgy.
And yet, disaster orgies are nothing new. The 200,000 annual visitors to Bodie aren’t exactly indulging in carefree whimsy. The park service took over the operation of Bodie in 1962. Prior to that, it was a kind of well-appointed junkyard for antiques scavengers and drunks with innovative shaving habits. Now, sexless park rangers describe the once thriving red-light district while, further down the street, a father gleefully tells his child about the innumerable murders and hangings.
A former mining town, Bodie faltered economically around 1915 when James S. Cain was unable to revitalize the Standard Mill. The last residents finally died or moved away in the early 1940s, leaving behind over 100 Victorian era structures riddled with rocking chairs and unwashed antique dishes. The town nearly faltered again when budget cuts threatened to close it down in 2010. There’s something haunting about seeing failure that is relatively contemporary. The ruins of Greece are romantic; the ruins of Bodie are what your grandparents’ house would look like if they’d developed meth habits.
I lose count of the number of iPads and telephoto lenses that are casually whipped out to capture Bodie’s rotting clapboard and filmy glass. Of course, the story of this town isn’t about its sagging porches. Bodie is as much about the fortune seekers who deserted the town as the unfortunate who watched civilization desert them. It’s about how when disaster strikes, we recover and rebuild, at least until we don’t. Most importantly, Bodie is proof that no matter what heinous shit happened in the past, we have survived to remember it.