There are some 3,800 ghost towns in the United States, most abandoned in the 19th and early 20th centuries in favor of bigger cities, or casualties of changing industry. Some languish as ruins, others are designated as national parks. And a rare handful are in the midst of being developed into luxury vacation spots.
The old silver mining town of Cerro Gordo, Calif., nestled in the high-desert mountains near Death Valley, is one of those. It was purchased in 2018 by two entrepreneurs, who planned to convert it into a “destination for dreamers” — an Instagrammably rustic resort, open to overnight accommodations as soon as this spring.
In March, one of the entrepreneurs, Brent Underwood, left for a trip to the lonely location that was only meant to last a week or two. Instead, a pandemic and then an unseasonable snowstorm hit, making it close to impossible for him to leave. (The next closest town is three hours away by car, and an eight and a half mile drive down a steep washboard road separates the camp from the main highway.)
After months of imposed isolation, Mr. Underwood, 32, said he plans to stay indefinitely. He’s learned to “slow down and let stillness reveal what is most important,” he said.
To pass the time, and with limited cell and internet service, Mr. Underwood developed more rustic hobbies. He took up animal tracking, monitoring the activity of a bobcat who appeared to visit his porch nightly, leaving paw prints in fresh powder. He melted snow for potable water. He explored the silver mine tunnels for which the town is famous and found graffiti scrawled into the wall from 1938.
He has also continued to work on repairs. At its most populated, over 4,500 residents lived in Cerro Gordo, but only 22 original structures remain. Two historic homes — known as the Mortimer Belshaw and Louis D. Gordon “mansions,” named after the oil barons who bought out Mexican prospectors in the 1870s — had been converted to modest bed-and-breakfasts by the former owners. Mr. Underwood toggles between both properties, both as resident and renovator.
Out of fear and respect (and social distancing), the few places Mr. Underwood has avoided are the cemetery and the bunk house, which he reports is haunted. (“The longer I’m here the more things happen to me that I can’t explain,” Mr. Underwood said in May. “I was a firm nonbeliever prior to purchasing the property.”)
During the gold and silver rushes of the late 19th century, living in isolation was par for the course, an inevitable cost of the frontier dream. Though this existence was brutal and often boring — not to mention violent, racist and dangerous — the hardship itself has been romanticized within the public’s whitewashed imagination of the Wild West. (It continues to be of endless fascination today: A Reddit forum where Mr. Underwood described the idiosyncrasies of his stay went viral in April, perhaps fueled by many people’s collective boredom or weariness with stay-at-home directives).
In part, that’s because intense solitude — whether in the 1800s or 2020, in quarantine or in a ghost town — rewires the mind and bends the spirit. It shrinks the distance between a dreamer and their ghosts, forcing a reckoning with one’s own unwieldy thoughts for hours, days and weeks on end.
‘This Too Shall Pass’
Living in the middle of nowhere is just another day’s work for the park rangers at Bodie State Historic Park, California’s biggest and most celebrated ghost town. Open to the public whenever the road is accessible, Bodie is known for its “arrested decay” condition, in which the structures built in the 1800s are maintained but only to the extent that they don’t deteriorate.
At 8,379 feet elevation in the Sierra Nevada mountains, Bodie is so remote it boasts its own microclimate. A handful of park rangers including Taylor Jackson, who has worked at Bodie for three years, live an isolated existence there most of the year. “I mean, the nearest grocery store is two hours away,” said Mr. Jackson. “If you forget to buy the milk, you’re not going to have milk that week.”
This makes it impossible for Mr. Jackson, 38, not to imagine what it may have been like for an early settler during Bodie’s heyday from 1887 to 1892. Once, during a particularly nasty snowstorm, a roof was almost ripped off a building. Mr. Jackson and three other rangers struggled with rope in gale force winds to tie down the aging metal sheeting. It was a task he knew could have befallen early pioneers some hundred years ago.
“I’m still shocked on a daily basis as to how these people were able to make it through the winters the way they did,” he said. “Their walls had holes in them. I mean, the snow was coming in through their house.”
For Brad Sturdivant, a former superintendent park ranger and former executive director of the Bodie Foundation, snow and isolation provide a relief. Mr. Sturdivant had spent 24 winters working at Bodie since 1975 before helping to establish the foundation in 2008. “For some of us it was the best time of year because it gave you the opportunity to sit back,” he said of the lonely winters. “Well, not sit back, it gave you a chance to prepare for the next year.”
When open, over 150,000 tourists visit Bodie annually, recalling the bustling town at the turn of the 20th century. (The park has recently reopened for the season, after closing under stay-at-home orders at the height of the pandemic.) But when it is snowed in, it’s rather empty.
“Bodie at one time was the third largest population center in the state of California, and it went away,” said Mr. Sturdivant. “The biggest lesson to take from Bodie’s history? This too shall pass.”
‘Real Reflection Moments’
At Dunton Hot Springs, a ghost town-turned-luxury resort in Colorado, A-frame cabins are clustered together in a meadow that blooms with wildflowers. A river runs at the base of a snow-peaked mountain range. And the natural hot springs can be taken inside a restored 19th century bathhouse or under the stars.
It was once another old mining camp filled with hard labor and even harder luck, but since 2001, when a German billionaire named Christoph Henkel bought and developed the place, Dunton Hot Springs has been place of leisure for outdoors enthusiasts who seek an experience with outsize hospitality.
According to the executive director, Edoardo Rossi, 40, staying in a ghost town, even one that’s been renovated, is akin to time travel. Actual cowboys often cruise by with their cattle in warmer seasons and Butch Cassidy himself supposedly carved his name into the original bar top in the saloon. Plus, no more than 50 people visit or live at Dunton at any onetime.
At 9,000 feet elevation, 22 miles from the main road, the 20 acres of the old compound are surrounded by wilderness. Twenty staff members were sheltered in place during stay-at-home orders. “I’ve had some real reflection moments of what it must’ve been like to live at Dunton before the world traveled,” said Seth O’Donovan, 40, who lives and works at Dunton year-round as director of operations. “We’re way out here but we felt like a fluid part of the world because our guests travel in and out, all of a sudden that just stopped and overnight. It was just us.” The focus of Ms. O’Donovan’s job shifted from actively managing clients and staff to ensuring the immediate safety and wellness of the community.
The resort has reopened for business, with many of the communal aspects of the luxurious stay modified. (Meals are no longer shared family style, for one thing.) Travelers have not flooded back but “in the long term, I think places like ours will become more popular as people seek to be outside again,” said Mr. Rossi.
The developers of Cerro Gordo have a similar vision. “I certainly think that people will prefer more space to spread out over dense urban core areas,” said Mr. Underwood. “We have 400 acres here and never plan to have more than 20 or 30 people here at a time, so we definitely have enough room for people to not feel on top of each other.” As quarantines lift but social distancing continues, a vacation in an isolated historic site may also seem like a much safer option.
A ‘Heavy Heart’ for Friends in Cities
The term “ghost town” for the past few months has been bandied about to describe bustling cities and towns that lost their pre-pandemic vigor to emptied streets and unused office buildings. And while parts of the world may feel like ghost towns, it’s more in the abstract: the energy of life was still radiating indoors, from open windows and shut doors. Populations will occupy the public spaces again.
A true ghost town is different: it’s quiet and empty by virtue of being deserted. Time moved on and the world changed around it. No one sings from balconies or has food delivered. No one waits for life to start again, because it never went away. “There were some moments where I felt such a heavy heart for friends of mine in hospitality who are in cities right now,” said Ms. O’Donovan. “I live up here because I can leave work and go foraging for local and wild plants, I can go on my trail run and be with our deer friends. That connection to nature here has honestly sustained me. It is the connection to the wild, to me, that is — in some ways that I don’t even know how to express or argue right now — the entire point of this whole moment.”
For Mr. Underwood, the extreme isolation in Cerro Gordo was similarly clarifying. After six weeks alone he found a briefcase in the back of the old general store where miners once bought their sundries. The blue tattered luggage was filled with the ephemera of another man’s life — a miner who lived in the town, some hundred years earlier at the height of its second boom in zinc production during the early 20th century. “Bank statements from the 1910s, mining claims he’d taken out, lawsuits with other miners, divorce papers citing ‘extreme cruelty,’ uncashed checks, love letters, hate letters, everything,” said Mr. Underwood. “It was this perfectly preserved time capsule of a miner’s life.”
The fate of the miner is lost to time, but the discovery, Mr. Underwood said, “left me with an image of memento mori.”
“This man who had hopes and dreams, highs and lows, at the end, all he was reduced to was this briefcase of papers,” he said. “What do I want to leave in my briefcase of papers?”
He changed his routine, started taking a daily hike at sunset and learning how to photograph the stars. He learned to sand and stain floors and build decks. “All things I definitely wouldn’t have learned had I stayed in my apartment in Austin,” Mr. Underwood said.
And because of the former caretaker’s careful planning, he had enough stocked canned tuna and toilet paper for himself and all attendant spirits. “I’m already making plans for what I’m going to do next winter,” Mr. Underwood said. “I don’t plan on going anywhere before then so I need to be prepared.”