Goodbye, God. I’m Going To Bodie

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.

Bodie. Copyright Merilee Mitchell

It’s called Bodie.

Shredded Window. Copyright Merilee Mitchell

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.

Sled. Copyright Merilee Mitchell

It was infamous.

Large Wheel 2. Copyright Merilee Mitchell

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.

Dark Stairs. Copyright Merilee Mitchell

I kind of like that.

Bodie Window. Copyright Merilee Mitchell

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.

Rosa May. Copyright Merilee Mitchell

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.

Scary Outyhouse. Copyright Merilee Mitchell

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.

Buried Wheel. Copyright Merilee Mitchell

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.

Me In The Window. Copyright Merilee Mitchell

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.

Outbuilding. Copyright Merilee Mitchell

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.

Wood And Glass. Copyright Merilee Mitchell

“Did you get any good shots?”  I asked.

Furnace. Copyright Merilee Mitchell

“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.

Peek. Copyright Merilee Mitchell

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.

Church. Copyright Merilee Mitchell

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.

Old Car. Copyright Merilee Mitchell

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.”

Wheel And Town. Copyright Merilee Mitchell

So I left and went to where there were no people.  Her method worked.

Window Ghost. Copyright Merilee Mitchell

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.

Mom And Kids. Copyright Merilee Mitchell

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.

Zoa Julia 2. Copyright Merilee Mitchell

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.

Bodie Store. Copyright Merilee Mitchell

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.

Miners Lamp. Copyright Merilee Mitchell

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.

40 thoughts

  1. I’ve not been to Bodie, but we’ve got what seems like a similar place in Washington – Molson. It’s difficult to find a time when there aren’t tourists around. Unlike you, I can’t find the strength to include them in the history, and it’s probably a good thing that you can. Though, it *is* really nice when you can freely walk around a place without the fear of being hassled by residents or police.

    Great shots. You are really making me want to dip back into black & white. Thank you!

    • And thank you! I really appreciate it. I love being alone in places like Bodie. But the reality is that there are other people. So rather than fighting it, I find that if I look at the people as art objects, it is easy to allow them to be there, if that makes sense.

      • Oh it makes perfect sense! And you’re the better for it. But I still get cranky. To myself, I mean. I’d never get cranky at a person who was trying to photograph or even just look at something. We’ve all got reasons and rights to be there, and my messy little pictures are no more important than anything else. 🙂

      • They’re not messy! I love your photos!

        After my talk with the photographer in Tonopah, I realized that he had gone to Bodie with a certain expectation that wasn’t fulfilled and I thought that was sad. He wanted perfect, filtered light with no people, long exposures…. You aren’t going to get that when a park is open. So you have to adjust your expectations and have fun. I found myself following people to make sure I included them! It became a game…

        I guess it’s called being flexible and I’m certainly not perfect. There are many excursions I come back from and feel like a complete failure. Most in fact.

  2. An excellent essay, Merilee – not only are the photos giving me a sense of this place, your writing puts you into the picture, too, so to speak. The presence or feeling of lost people is so powerful, isn’t it? I think your sensitivity to place is so strong that it contributes to your understanding of it and to your work.

    • Thank you, Judy. Yes, I think you are right about that. I am empathic and can tell a lot about a place or a person. That is one reason why I love places like Bodie, yet can only take so much and then I have to go. Otherwise I become overwhelmed.

  3. These are just gorgeous.

    Spectacular post, Merilee!! Congrats on your feature, too. Well deserved!!!

    p.s. – Loved that it showed the “Eat” restaurant from our favorite Midwest town :).

  4. You really captured the spirit of Bodie. Great photos and the mood. Thanks for sharing your wonderful works and story. Really enjoyed!

  5. Great post, I like the way you’ve given us a bit of the history of the place. I concur with the person who said these are the best images of Bodie they have seen…Bodie is on my bucket list, but I don’t know that I will ever get there.

    • Thank you so very much!

      You must go. It’s only open May – November. It’s worth it. I need to go back, myself as I still have not done all that I need to do with it. I will be back there again next May. I have plans for Bodie…

      • Plan a long journey and see Death Valley as well. A popular “loop” for people is to fly into Las Vegas, rent a car, drive out to Death Valley, then across to the Sierras where you can see Bodie and Yosemite. Then you head to San Francisco and then drive down the California coast to Los Angeles, where you can then see Malibu, Hollywood, etc. Drive on down to San Diego, then back up to Las Vegas where you fly out back to home. Think about it! There is a lot to see and photograph!

  6. Hi Merilee, I believe my wife and I are the owners of the license plate frame you referenced. We ran into you at the Mining Park in Tonopah where you took a picture of our vehicle with our Bodie license plate frame. I had not been on your blog for awhile and something made me take a look at it tonight where I was amazed at your pictures and words of Bodie. You have a gift of words and visions. Bodie is absolutely a special place and perhaps we will run into you again someday.

    • Hey! I KNEW one day you would see that!!!!!! HA! Thank you for your kind words! I will be going to Bodie again near the end of May. Hopefully I will have the pleasure of seeing you both again!

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