Suffer little children to come unto Me and forbid them not, for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.
By the look of it, a whole lot of children were granted early admittance. Those words are etched on the grave marker of Nathan Cook, born Jan. 12, 1887, died Sept. 22, 1890. Nearby lie J. Emit Dechambeau, born Nov. 6, 1900, died April 23, 1905; and Gustav A. Seiler, born 1888, died 1891. There are about 80 headstones in the tiny Bodie Cemetery on the hill, many of the residents interred long before the indignities of puberty set in.
It's a testament to how tough life once was in Bodie, Calif., a miners' town established in 1861. At its peak in 1880, the community cradled 10,000 sturdy souls. Now, with a permanent population of zero, Bodie is routinely described with one of the spookiest phrases in the English language: It stands in a state of "arrested decay."
It is, cue the eerie moans and clank of chains, America's most famous ghost town.
Tucked into a valley in the eastern foothills of the Sierra Nevada, the town lay abandoned for more than 50 years. Dust settled in deep drifts and starlings claimed the eaves of most of the town's remaining 200 or so structures.
Bodie lies just northeast of Mono Lake, which made it an ideal add-on to a long week of day hiking in some of California's prettiest terrain. From Lake Tahoe down through Yosemite National Park, Mammoth Mountain and Kings Canyon National Park, the rugged wilderness of the Sierras offers itself up to hikers at all skill levels.
California took over Bodie in 1962, and the remnants of the once-bustling town are maintained as a State Historic Park. Rangers work to shore up roofs and bolster decaying window frames, gravity patiently rippling each pane's glass. But they do no more than that. Tables are still set with dishes, layer upon layer of wallpaper slowly flakes like sunburned skin from bowed walls, and a church organ awaits its congregation in perpetuity. It's as if, at the turn of the last century, a whole town experienced a collective vision of an easier life elsewhere, away from the fiercely cold winters and wicked Sierra winds. Poof, they vanished.
Going for the gold
It wasn't exactly like that, of course. The story of the man for whom the town was named is a cautionary tale about just how hard a miner's life was. After discovering gold in 1859, W. S. Bodey and his partner "Little Black" Taylor were caught in a severe snowstorm. Bodey perished, but in 1860 the first claims in the Mono District were recorded and the Bodey Mining District organized (only to experience a minor misspelling four years later). News spread fast, drawing rough-and-tumble fortune seekers and all the attendant saloons (65 by some estimates), gunslingers, brothels, opium dens and scofflaws for which the Wild West is famous.
Speculators streamed into the town after the Standard Mining Co. discovered a major deposit of gold ore in 1876. At its most populous, there was a man killed every day in Bodie. But that's not what did the town in. Dwindling gold, two major fires and the sheer brutality of being stranded here each winter caused residents to drift away.
These days, visitors to Bodie tramp around in the dry Sierra air, kicking up dust and squinting into the gloom of the dilapidated structures. There are no living history performers or docent tours, no museums or T-shirt concessions. At 8,400 feet, perhaps it's Bodie's elevation that plays tricks on the mind, conjuring scenes of bar brawls and bags of gold nuggets clenched in ghostly fists. Famous as a photographer's destination (only photography groups are granted admission to many of the buildings), Bodie is hauntingly lovely, but is it haunted?
Legend has it that the spirits of former residents protect the town, bestowing bad luck upon those who remove parts of it. Each year, park rangers report receiving apologies in the mail along with items taken from the park.
A drive up U.S. 395
Starting Dec. 18, Horizon Air will offer direct flights from Los Angeles to Mammoth Mountain, just in time for the winter sports season. But for us a long drive up U.S. 395 provided varied and memorable experiences. Heading from south to north, we stopped in at the museum at Manzanar National Historic Site, ironically set in the town of Independence, within view of majestic Mount Whitney.
Though few of the original barracks remain, this was the site of one of 10 camps in which Japanese-American citizens and resident Japanese aliens were interned during World War II. More than 110,000 men, women and children were ordered to leave their homes, 10,000 of them detained here in military-style camps, then released in 1945 with a handshake, a one-way bus ticket and $25. The interpretive center houses numerous exhibits and a moving 22-minute film about this shameful period in American history.
Back in the car, we were lured in by a series of homemade-looking signs that read "Really Good Fresh Jerky!," the number of miles until paydirt ticking down each sign until we reached Gus's Olancha Jerky, a decrepit gas station festooned with thousands of stickers. The jerky is a fabled Owens Valley impulse buy for folks on their way north to Mammoth, the chewy beef lending cars a suitable cowboys-in-the-saddle aroma.
Heading north to Bishop, those who haven't sated themselves with jerky feel compelled to stop into Erick Schat's Bakkery, its sheepherder bread, a Basque immigrant recipe, a pantry staple of locals and vacation-bound families in these parts. Pastries are sturdy and crowd-pleasing, the mechanical horse out front giving kids a few minutes of joy before hopping back in the car.
Hiking and biking
Mammoth Mountain has two distinct sets of seasonal allures, all those snow- and ice-oriented ones in winter, and the rest of the year others that are equally compelling. We took a gondola up to the Adventure Center, then rented mountain bikes that took us on a wild, careening zigzag down 2,000 feet from the mountain's summit along loose stone trails. In some parts expansive vistas of the High Sierra, in others tight pine corridors, the overall effect of the two-hour ride was to lock our hands into tight handlebar "claws."
Though the Mountain Bike Park is closed for the season (until spring), the Mammoth Lakes Welcome Center and Ranger Station at the entrance to town on State Highway 203 provides free mountain biking trail maps in the off season.
In the fall, the biggest draw on Mammoth Mountain is hiking through the riot of autumn foliage, with dozens of established trails. Because all of the hiking here is at altitudes above 8,000 feet, hikers are encouraged to bring lots of water and be prepared for changeable weather; permits are not required for day hiking. During our summer visit, we ambled down the backside of Mammoth Mountain on Dragon's Back; we followed a small creek along the Emerald Lake trail; and for a more muscled hike we went north past Mono Lake to Lundy Canyon, Ansel Adams' majestic vistas all around us.
Legs tired, on one of our last days we headed northwest of Mammoth on June Lake Loop, a short drive that emerges, unsurprisingly, at June Lake, a glacial mountain lake that dates back 5-million years and has been a trout fishing destination for at least a little of that time. The season runs from the end of April through October, with 40 boat rentals and a tackle shop. For about $50, we got outfitted with rods and bait and putt-putted out to the lake's grassy edges where other anglers seemed to be having luck.
There's a famous story about a little girl whose family moved from San Francisco to seek their fortune in Bodie. On the way she wrote in her diary, "Goodbye God, I'm going to Bodie."
But if God's not in the eastern foothills of the Sierra Nevada, I don't know where he is.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, can be found at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining.