The ghost town sits alone on wind-scrubbed hills covered in sagebrush, a short distance east of the Sierra Nevadas. It’s a collection of weather-beaten buildings that are still standing well over a century after they were originally built. Old cars and wagons are permanently parked where their long-deceased owners abandoned them. Grasses and wild iris grow next to flattened tires and wagon wheels. When you look inside the tattered, curtained windows of the buildings, you get the impression that the owners just up and left all of a sudden and without warning. Their belongings are still there, covered with decades of dust.
It’s called Bodie.
Bodie was once a bustling town filled with miners, saloons, brothels and stores. It was a boomtown centered around gold mining in the 1800’s through the early twentieth century, but eventually it was declared a “ghost town” sometime in the late teens. Bodie was a rough and tumble town like something you would see in the movies, with gunfighters, prostitutes, robbers and gamblers. Someone was shot almost daily in its streets.
It was infamous.
There is a legend about a child who was moving to Bodie. She wrote in her diary, “Goodbye God. I’m going to Bodie”. I think she knew she was headed to a foreboding and sinister place.
I kind of like that.
The first time I visited Bodie I was a small child, perhaps four. I can’t recall. The only real visual memory I have was of peering through the old windows, looking inside at the past. What I remembered the most from that first visit was how Bodie smelled and how it felt. The pungent fragrance of sagebrush was everywhere, coupled with that particular odor of things that are in a state of arrested decay. It was disturbing and eerie. I fell in love with it instantly.
I felt the energy of the place as if danger lurked behind every building. It was a powerful sensation as though the spirits of all the gunfighters, miners and ladies of the evening were still there. I could feel them and sense their presence watching me. I felt dizzy and thought I might faint. It was an experience I never forgot and I knew that one day I would have to return. It was a compelling and haunting place to me.
I didn’t see Bodie again until I was in my forties, married and with two boys. That same eerie feeling was there that I experienced as a small child. My youngest boy, who was about eight, was overcome by it all and complained of not feeling well. I remembered how I felt during that first visit of mine and I understood. I posed my children in front of a wagon in order to get a Christmas card photo and my youngest son suddenly passed out. He fell down face-first onto the ground, blood streaming from his nose.
A park ranger said it was the high altitude that caused him to faint, but I know differently. My son said he never wanted to see Bodie again.
Over the years, Bodie has continued to call to me, over and over again, wanting me to visit. It’s become a close friend of mine. In an odd way, I find it comforting, as though I’m with family while I quietly walk around the weather-beaten buildings, photographing the past. My goal is always to make a beautiful image, and to create a photograph that captures the eerie feeling of Bodie with its layers of history, its mystery and the spirits that I feel still live there.
A few months ago, while on a return trip to photograph Bodie, I stopped in Tonopah, Nevada. I ran into another photographer there, a man visiting from New Jersey. He had come all the way out west just to take photographs of Bodie.
“Did you get any good shots?” I asked.
“Not really. It was very disappointing. There were so many tourists there, I had a hard time getting any clean shots without people in them! I waited for forty five minutes until people left just to take one photograph!!!” He was very upset.
Panic set in. I was hopeful of doing justice to Bodie with my camera. His warning about tourists threw me into state of complete anxiety.
I decided to arrive the next morning when Bodie opened, so I could take some shots of it with as few people around as possible. It soon became apparent that my idea was shared by others as I drove down the winding, thirteen mile road that leads to the ghost town. I barely found a place to park and, nervous, started walking around to try to find my center and begin taking photographs. It was difficult. I felt ill at ease among others snapping away with their cameras. I was berated by one photographer for being in her shot while I squatted down on the ground, trying to shoot my favorite, rusted sedan that’s buried in grass.
That’s when I heard my mother’s words in my head. She had a certain method for viewing exhibits at museums when there were a lot of people around. She said, “Don’t be a sheep, following everybody else. Go to the exhibit where no one is standing and then wait until people leave the one that you really want to see.”
So I left and went to where there were no people. Her method worked.
But I noticed something while walking around the ghost town with the other tourists. I discovered that I sort of liked the other people that were around me. I decided that they are a part of the story, the narrative of Bodie. I allowed them to be in some of my shots. In fact, I invited it. I decided to make a game of it all and to play “hide and seek” with the other people.
It was fun. I ended up with shots that not only told Bodie’s story from my perspective, but also of its present, as a place of history that people enjoy.
A few hours later, while photographing the cemetery, I started having that familiar feeling of dizziness and like I was going to pass out. I was overcome once again by the palpable energy of the past in Bodie. It wasn’t the altitude. Even though I wanted to walk to the east side of the town near the stamp mill, I decided it was time to go, before my own nose became bloodied from falling on my face, like my son.
Before I left, however, I needed to do one thing. I walked over to the gift shop and bought myself a license plate frame that says, “Goodbye, God. I’m going to Bodie”. I had seen one on another car in Nevada and I knew I had to have one for my very own.
When I returned home, I put that frame on my Yukon to serve as a symbol that I will, indeed, venture once again to Bodie, after the snows melt and the tourists come back, to feel its energy of the past, and tell its story through my wide angle lens.