The fourth in a series of occasional posts about tripping along U.S. Highway 395.
From Sonora Junction, Highway 395 heads due east before dipping to the south and finally cutting back east to enter Bridgeport. Crane your view to the right and you see the picture of green, brown and yellow grazing land backdropped by the Sawtooth Range of the Sierra Nevada. You could be looking at a location for a western movie.
It’s two lanes into Bridgeport but once in the town proper the street widens to accommodate angle parking. The parking signs instruct drivers to back into the parking spots. It’s odd. For me anyway. Apparently odd for others as well, as cars are parked at some very creative angles.
Downtown Bridgeport is slightly more than three straight, albeit long, blocks of 395 before the highway leaves town and curves to the south. If you don’t pay attention, you’ll miss a few motels, a hotel, a drive-in burger joint cheek by jowl with a Mexican drive-in, a meat market, a deli/food store with little in the way of selection unless you’re into the three food groups, beer, hooch and snacks. One filling station and convenience store and a little shop hawking Native American artifacts. There’s a bakery and there’s Ken’s Sporting Goods where you’ll find your hunting rifle, fishing gear and some advice on where to put that gear to use. If you’re looking for a soccer ball, well, you might find one about 80 miles north in Carson City, Nevada. Oh, and on a snowy day in winter, you’re out of luck – road’s closed.
Below, two views of the Bridgeport Valley
We’re staying at The Silver Maple Inn, a motel in the traditional “L” shape that was common to motor courts of the mid-twentieth century. A motel can run the gamut from a dump (and I’ve done plenty of those) to something comfortable, inviting and nearly posh (Posh isn’t really in the motel lexicon. For posh you have to step up to hotels and resorts, though you can stumble into some real fleabags in those categories as well).
The Silver Maple tends towards comfortable and inviting. The common area within the angle of the L is manicured grass where you can relax in a lounge chair under a shade tree and use the grill to cook the fish you were lucky enough to catch from one of the many nearby streams (the fisherman will tell you it’s skill, but he’s also the one who’ll regale you with a nail biter about the monster that got away). We’re staying in an unattached building called the Cain House, in a room dubbed the J.S. Cain room that’s furnished with antiques and an old four poster bed.
James Stuart Cain was an area big shot in the latter 19th century. Born in Canada he came to the area seeking fortune (because nobody moves to a place seeking poverty, although that was the fate of many who forged west and wound up disappointed and destitute). Cain started out shipping timber, which was used for not only the obvious, but in this area, for shoring up mines and building mining structures. Cain moved on to mining, eventually becoming President of the Southern Consolidated Mining Co. From there he went into real estate and banking. He died at 85, in San Francisco, was buried in Colma, just south of The City, and like those who went before and would go after, he didn’t take any of his riches with him.
The White man first laid eyes on the Bridgeport Valley in 1827, when the famous frontiersman Jedediah Smith traversed the Sierras and found gold near Mono Lake. Two other frontiersmen of note, John C. Fremont and Kit Carson, passed through the region in late 1844 after having left Kansas in May of 1843.
We’re three nights at The Silver Maple. In the early mornings I go out with my camera and tour the local area while Cora sleeps in. Morning temps are in the 20’s (F), far too cold for this Bay Area wimp.
My stomach hasn’t been loving life lately and I eschew the in-room coffee in favor of the mint tea that’s available in the office on a little side table to the right of the front desk. On our first morning there, the proprietor is manning the helm. We exchange good mornings and I stay and talk while taking my tea.
“Get’s damn cold here in the morning.” I remark.
“At times it’s known to be one of the coldest places in the United States.”
Who’d figure that a place in sunny California would rank among the nation’s most frigid.
“A lot of snow then. Are you open year round?”
“No, we close for the winter. I’d have to rent every room, every night just to cover the heating bill. And that doesn’t include other expenses and drawing a small salary. Eighty-five percent of the town shuts down in winter. Even the livestock head out of town. This area is summer grazing. In the fall they drive the cattle to Nevada for the winter. There’s a local ranch where guests get to do the cattle drive. Like in the movie City Slickers. I wouldn’t pay a thousand dollars to drive somebody else’s cattle.”
I assume she’s talking about the Hunewill Guest Ranch which is southwest of town. I’d just finished driving the backroads outside of town and on the fringes of the ranch. In the morning the view is spectacular; cattle grazing on land as flat as your dining table and the Sawtooth Range in the background, lit up in pink and orange pastels by the morning sun.
That must be a good gig for the ranch. Get paid a shit ton by people who want to get up at the butt crack to commune with bovines and spend the day getting dirty and saddle sore. Makes Tom Sawyer’s little fence painting dodge look amateurish (you have to read the book to get it).
She continues, “We have a big local Basque community. Sheep ranchers. They drive their sheep 60 miles overland into Nevada. Ranching is a big deal here. A lot of the local kids graduate high school and then go to college at the University of California in San Luis Obispo. They come back home with their degrees in Ag/Ranching.”
There’s no grocery store in town, unless you count the deli. If you want to survive on anything other than crackers, Cup o Noodles and uninspired deli sandwiches washed down with half pints of Ten High you’ve got to travel to get provisioned.
The nearest Costco is in Carson City, Nevada, which is about an hour’s drive. Before Carson put up a Costco, they drove to Reno, 115 miles and two hours away.
“We spent the night when we drove to Reno,” she tells me.
She describes the routine.
She keeps three chest freezers at home, each one specially ear marked; one for meat, one for vegetables and one for fish and seafood. When you get home with your load, it’s basic inventory control, FIFO, First In First Out. Rotate the stock.
Whenever she leaves town she makes sure to bring a 120 gallon ice chest filled with block ice, just in case she has an opportunity to shop. The ice chest is a must if you’re headed for Carson. When they shop, they shop for a month’s worth of supplies. They even shop for block ice. Twenty miles south of Bridgeport, in the opposite direction from Carson, is Mono City. That’s the closest block ice. If they’re headed south to Mono they make sure they have the cooler with them.
There are different worlds and different realities, in which people survive. She’s learned to make her way around in Bridgeport. If she moved to San Francisco she’d probably take the wrong bus to God knows where, maybe end up huddling up and clutching her purse somewhere down in Tangie town. Me? I know the right stops and take the right busses and if I find myself somewhere I shouldn’t be, I know right away to make my way to a more hospitable block while keeping a close watch on my person and my valuables. There is the converse. If I lived in Bridgeport, I’d probably spend my first winter living on crackers, Cup o Noodles and deli sandwiches washed down with half pints of Ten High.
She negotiates the dusty back roads without the trepidation that I suffer. On the other hand, she might get confused and terrorized by San Francisco’s one way streets that I’ve committed to memory.
There was a time when I was ready to take on her kind of life but as I’ve aged and the parts (my parts) have required more frequent tune ups and repairs I’ve become more or less happy to live in suburbia (though if I could go back to the city I would). There’s security in knowing that a major hospital is a twenty minute drive away and I don’t have to think about a life flight helicopter ride if the ticker stops ticking.
I’m not up to taking a 60 mile drive to do the shopping. I forget things.
“Did you remember to get the capers?”
“Fuck me. Okay, I’ll see you in a couple hours.”
I would love to be able to get up early in the morning and take pictures of nature just out the front door. I don’t doubt that no two sunrises or sunsets look the same. It would be great to be able to drive 30 minutes to catch fresh trout for dinner. These days if I want to catch fish I ask the monger to throw it to me.
I used to think it would be great to have the grandchildren visit from the Bay Area to spend time in the country with us, maybe for a summer. Better than being able to watch my granddaughter do a guitar recital or take in my grandson’s basketball games whenever I choose? Hardly.
I like the idea of being able to drop nine bucks for a 16 ounce beer at a ballgame. Just do it on a whim. Okay, I’m not exactly down with the nine bucks for a cup of Bud Light (and don’t even ask about a good beer), but you get the idea.
It’s time to roust Cora. We’re going time traveling. We’re going to Bodie.
Bodie is a genuine western ghost town, a ghost town in the proper sense. You see, there are numerous places in the west that are called ghost towns in books, or by tourist dollar seeking chambers of commerce. They’re old towns indeed, studded with historical markers and old buildings that have been restored and rented out to house an inn, a saloon that sells French fries and nachos, and doesn’t allow games of chance, a general store that sells t-shirts and goo-gaws and of course there’s a candy shop that sells old timey candy by the pound at exorbitant rates.
And then there’s Bodie. Strolling around Bodie you could easily conceive of a disease having raced through town, stopping life and time in their tracks. All that’s missing are the corpses.
We take 395 south to the exit for Bodie. After leaving the highway, we’re on paved road for part of the way until the pavement ends at a washboard dirt road. Ten miles of bumping and grinding and we’re not talking strip club. The road gets a fair amount of traffic and I try to follow tire tracks to ease the wear and tear on the kidneys and the fillings. I have a rented sedan and while it’s a rugged ride, the car will be fine as long as I don’t drive into the occasional crater. The bouncing is an irritation, but the thoughtless behavior of oncoming drivers is maddening. I get it, you’ve got your four wheeler with a raised suspension and for you the road is as smooth as rose petals and even if you wander into the deepest pit, you’re oil pan is probably safe – and you’re important. You’ve got a pressing meeting, a plane to catch (the nearest airport is over the hills and far away) or you just realized that you left the water running in the tub. Whatever the hubbub is, it’s all about you and you’re racing against your impatience and basic manners. I learned a lot about driving from my dad. Many of the courtesies of the road that I picked up are passe – because in these hurry up days courtesy itself has generally become passe. I was taught that when you’re on a dusty dirt road you slow down for approaching traffic so that you don’t envelop the other driver in a dust cloud that makes a Saharan sand storm look like clean air. Time and again a 4×4 roars past like the driver’s vying for the grand prize in an off road rally.
There’s a ranger station at the end of the road. From the ranger station you look to the front and to your right. Groups of buildings rise out of a dry, rocky land covered with a scraggly carpet of sagebrush. The town sits in a bowl, enveloped by a ring of hills. From a distance many of the buildings look as if they’ve received a shine and a buff. The wood is a deep, rich brown.
There are few reasons why anyone would want to live in this rugged land. While it can get cold in the winter with some snow during the hard months, the rest of the year is rather temperate. But there’s nothing here to recommend it. Except gold. That was the draw in the late 1800’s when four prospectors arrived in the area in the summer of 1859 and found gold. The men had traveled from the west, crossing the Sonora pass, the same route Cora and I had taken.
At the time, the discovery drew little attention as miners were busy with the enormous silver lode of the Comstock to the northeast in Virginia City, Nevada. Mines eventually play out and with the ebbing of Comstock’s bounty, attention was turned to Bodie. In 1876, Bodie’s population was measured in the dozens. Four years later the population numbered 10,000.
With 2 churches (Catholic and Methodist), at least 2 newspapers, a telegraph office, post office, over 20 operating mines, a number of stamp mills, hotels, several general stores, stables, doctors, pharmacists, union halls, schools, and breweries, Bodie boasted a main street that stretched over a mile in length. Like any self-respecting western mining town Bodie had the requisite sin and sinners; gambling houses, saloons, cat houses and opium dens. The many gunfights that took place in Bodie earned it the reputation of being a “shooter’s town.”
By 1892, when a spreading kitchen fire destroyed the western side of town, the population began to wane and the town’s demise was imminent. The final doom was sealed in 1932, when a young boy started a fire which burned down most of the town.
The town is named for W.S. Bodey, who had sailed around the horn from New York. Bodey was one of the four original miners. During an attempt to get supplies from the nearest town, Monoville, Bodey became lost in a winter snow storm and perished. His body was located the following spring and he was buried in an unmarked grave near the place where, alone, he froze to death. Twenty years later the residents moved Bodey’s remains to the town cemetery. The spelling discrepancy, Bodey and Bodie, is due to a misspelling by a sign painter.
“Arrested decay.” It’s a term that was coined fairly recently if you consider the overall age of the English language. The term was first used in 1962, when the state of California used it to describe the method of preservation used at Bodie, which doesn’t seem to be preservation at all.
“Arrested decay,” has been described as “preservation as found.” With the exception of maintaining the structural safety of the buildings, the town has not been touched since the last resident left. What the residents left is what the visitor sees.
There’s an eerie sensation when you walk through the town and look through some of the windows and see merchandise on shelves and in store windows, mannequins in the clothing stores and a rotting world globe in the schoolhouse.
There are “ghost towns” and then there are real ghost towns, places like Bodie where you wouldn’t be shocked to see a phantasm touching the fabric of a dress that’s decades old. You look at a second floor window fairly covered by a tattered shade and wonder if the ghost of a long dead sporting woman is looking back at you.
Old relics and parts dot the fields but taking anything is grounds for being arrested for looting a historic site.
After we’re done with the town, Cora decides to wait in the car while I walk to the cemetery. Here are the stone memorials to the individuals who lived and perished in Bodie. Below, views of the cemetery:
Back down the slope, the town itself is a memorial to a community, once vibrant, full of vigor, a place where people greeted each other, interacted, carried out commerce. Within those buildings and behind decaying curtains that still hang in windows people ate, slept, conversed, argued, fought, and made love. One day alive with people and the next, a place where only modest possessions remain to commemorate a community.
Below, views of Bodie: