Two Chaosbunnies in the Desert: Bodie, part 3

Part 1 of this saga is here. Part 8 of this saga is here.
Part 2 of this saga is here. Part 9 of this saga is here.
Part 3 of this saga is here. Part 10 of this saga is here.
Part 4 of this saga is here. Part 11 of this saga is here.
Part 5 of this saga is here. Part 12 of this saga is here.
Part 6 of this saga is here. Part 13 of this saga is here.
Part 7 of this saga is here.

Bodie, California was a Victorian-era gold mining town high in the mountains between California and Nevada. The Victorians weren’t very big on human rights, or treating workers well, or sex, or just about anything else, but there is one thing they liked very much, and that was technology.

At some point, today’s cutting-edge tech will look as hopelessly antiquated as the detritus littering the ruins of Bodie. But tech always starts somewhere, and the Victorians were all for embracing the bleeding edge, especially where it making money.

One of the many places Bodie kept up with the state of the art was transportation. When the town was founded, horses and stagecoaches were the order of the day, but that changed as the automotive arts gained ground. Today, the ruins of ancient cars lie scattered all over what’s left of the town.

The residents of Bodie were willing to adopt any new technology that offered to make their lives better or, more to the point, more productive. They may not have had a sewer system, they may have dug their wells directly downstream of their outhouses, but they were on top of mechanization as soon as it was out of beta.

And the trend of abandoning old tech where it lay and replacing it with new didn’t end with mining or stamping machines. The derelict wrecks rusting quietly into the hills span years of the automaker’s art.

They also used whatever worked. In the winter, snow in Bodie could get two stories deep. If that made it most practical to let the horseless carriages get buried and break out the sleds in winter, that’s what they did.

Some of the abandoned cars look personal; others look like working vehicles.

There’s a certain sleek beauty to the lines of this one, I think.

Compare that to the severe utilitarianism of this (possibly horse-drawn?) ore cart.

But they weren’t technofetishists. Their approach to technology was relentlessly, brutally practical. If it worked, they used it. As many of the vehicles dotted about Bodie are old tech as new.

This is a different relationship to technology than many of us have today. They wanted things that worked, not things that were new. If it helped them get gold out of the ground, they used it, and that was that. It’s hard to imagine that utilitarian a mindset today. “New iPhone? Why? My phone makes calls just fine.”

One of the creepiest and most splendid things about Bodie is the fact that when the gold left, so did the people, sometimes with such abruption it seems as thought they forgot to pack.

In reality, it’s more like they didn’t bother to pack. It’s difficult to get up and down the mountain even today; in a time when the only way in our out was by stagecoach (on a toll road!), there would be little incentive to take anything with you that could easily be replaced when you got wherever you were going.

So the buildings in Bodie have rooms that look like their owners stepped out a half-century ago to pop on down to the store for milk and eggs, and never came back. It’s both unsettling and marvelous.

The cast-off child’s toy in this room is a reminder that people raised their kids here, in this inhospitable mining town with its brutal heat and bitter cold and chimneys belching mercury fumes.

Bodie had its own post office, which doubled as the postman’s living quarters.

This was someone’s home. Someone cooked meals here, sang songs here, experienced joy and sorrow here, lived here.

It’s hard to forget that countless lives played out here, from beginning to end. These people lived in an inhospitable place, in a different time, but they lived here, and they experienced the same range of feelings that you and I feel.

This was, first and foremost, a working town. The town had a blacksmith. Apparently, according to the tour guide, this was it. I have no idea what those things on the table are.

The general store looks very much like it did when the town was at its peak, at least if you ignore the film of dust that has fallen like a funeral shroud over it all.

I bet the aspirin was a guaranteed best seller.

The plaster bandages too, I reckon. Industrial accidents in the stamping mill were horrifying.

The Bodie Hotel is one of the best-preserved buildings still remaining. The sign says “meals at all hours,” and I believe it. This place probably never slept.

This room still has a bunch of toys, long abandoned, and what looks like it might be a proto-skateboard of some description.

I wonder if the child these belonged to was sad to give them up.

This room looks expensive to me.

The headline is less interesting to me than the article beneath it: “Blast at magnesium plant injures 22.” There are people today who want to abolish OSHA. How short our memories are.

Bodie at its peak was home to many, many taverns. Today only one remains.

Next door to the sole remaining tavern is a gym. And you want to know something freaky? The cabin where Eve and I wrote More Than Two has that exact same model of hob.

Seriously. The exact same model. Check this out:

Freaky!

One of the guides explained that this was a “buggy,” as opposed to a “stagecoach.” There’s a big difference, apparently (and in fact the toll road into town had different tolls for buggies, wagons, coaches, and freight wagons).

We left Bodie as the sun grew low, and headed out to…well, that is a story for next time.

Two Chaosbunnies in the Desert: Bodie, part 2

Part 1 of this saga is here. Part 8 of this saga is here.
Part 2 of this saga is here. Part 9 of this saga is here.
Part 3 of this saga is here. Part 10 of this saga is here.
Part 4 of this saga is here. Part 11 of this saga is here.
Part 5 of this saga is here. Part 12 of this saga is here.
Part 6 of this saga is here. Part 13 of this saga is here.
Part 7 of this saga is here.

Bodie, California is a classic nineteenth-century California gold rush town. It’s high atop a mountain in the desert, and every part of the town exists for one purpose alone: to facilitate the extraction of gold from the surrounding hills.

The whole of the town exists to support the stamping mill, the large gray building about which everything else revolves. On our second day there, Bunny and I toured the stamping mill. This can be done only as part of a twice-daily guided tour group. The stamping mill, you see, represents the absolute apex of Victorian-era technology, and Victorian-era technology was not exactly built on a foundation of safety first. Even when it hadn’t been abandoned for nigh on a century.

This is a view of the mill from what’s left of the bank, which was, not coincidentally located right across the street.

In principle, a stamping mill is relatively straightforward. Ore goes in the top. It’s crushed into a fine powder—”about as fine as flour,” the tour guide said—by large mechanical hammers. Then, and this is where the famed Victorian indifference to human life really shines, the powder is sifted across a pool of mercury. The mercury reacts with gold to form a mercury-gold amalgam, which becomes a semi-solid mass that workers roll up into a ball and stick in a safe (I swear I am not making this up).

The rock doesn’t stick to the mercury and is discarded. The ball of hideously toxic mercury-gold amalgam is then, get this, placed in a furnace, where the mercury is boiled off, leaving molten gold behind. The molted gold is poured into bars, assayed, and then shipped off down the mountain.

The whole fearsome, dangerous, mind-bogglingly toxic process begins with getting bits of gold ore into the top of the stamping mill, which is done via conveyor belts.

Rain or shine, summer or winter, the gold ore is hauled into the small brown wood building behind the mill, situated atop a hill because Bodie often saw 20 feet of snow in the winter and the mine operators were stubbornly unwilling to let a little thing like that stop the flow of money. The building in the foreground with the very narrow chimney is the furnace where the mercury was boiled off, and I can’t believe I’ve now typed that phrase twice.

The mercury. Was boiled off.

Jesus.

Bodie is about money. That’s it. From stem to stern, everything about the town was in service of making money. The Victorians, ever practical, used whatever new technologies would help with that endeavor, and cast off whatever bits of technology were no longer useful. Even now, the ground around the mill is littered with broken bits of machinery, like this cast-off drive belt made of woven iron.

Or this enormous camshaft. His thing was mounted to an axle driven by an absolutely huge, room-sized steam engine or, later in Bodie’s history, an almost equally ginormous electric engine. The camshaft spun around and as it did, the cams lifted and then dropped hammers that crushed the rock. The hammers were more than a story long and weighed over a thousand pounds apiece. The din, according to the tour guide, could be heard halfway up the mountain. Workers wore cotton in their ears to keep from going deaf.

It didn’t work; deafness was a common problem among stamping mill operators. So were horrifying industrial accidents, mercury poisoning, and in at least one case, being sliced in half by a drive belt.

This being a Libertarian paradise, an injured, poisoned, or deafened worker was fired, given a couple of hours to pack, and kicked out of town.

Our tour started with the machine room, which was, naturally, the second most important part of the stamping mill. The mill had a state-of-the-Victorian-art workshop, with lathes, presses, and other metalworking equipment able to repair or even fabricate almost any part the vast machine required.

This is all that’s left of the huge electric motor that once ran the place. The Victorians were as pragmatic as they were reckless with the lives and safety of others. The mill had multiple stamps, each of which had multiple hammers. They reasoned that it was cheaper to build one enormous engine to power all that than to make numerous smaller engines to power each hammer individually. That presented a single point of failure, true, but as the saying goes, an airplane with three engines has three times as many engine problems as an airplane with only one.

The engine turned this pulley, which fed power to the rest of the mill via the biggest belt you’ve ever seen. It was, according to our guide, this belt that once cut a luckless worker in half.

This is the business end, literally, of the stamping mill: the stamps themselves. Each hammer is a ten-foot-long iron rod with a hook on the top end and a several-hundred-pound iron weight at the bottom end. The camshaft spins, lifting and then dropping all the hammers, and crushing everything beneath them into very, very fine dust.

The dust then poured down the slide and onto the pools of mercury.

Across from the stamps is yet another workshop, this one equipped with large metal-turning lathes to manufacture oversized parts. I say that is if everything in this entire building wasn’t oversized. We make things smaller and smaller; the Victorians, on the other hand, were size queens. If a part didn’t weigh a ton and a half, it was firmly in the province of jewelers and watchmakers, not machinists. It’s a wonder they could make a pocket watch any smaller than a manhole cover.

Once out of the mill, which even today probably violates a dozen EPA regulations on mercury exposure, we wandered around some more, looking at the old-school mining equipment scattered like weird metal vegetation.

Like this steam-powered elevator that lowered miners into the deep shafts.

When I say the castoff bits of Victorian tech were everywhere, I mean everywhere. You can’t walk anywhere in Bodie without tripping over, stepping on, or stubbing your toe on it. The Victorians believed the only thing better than iron was more iron. Subtle they were not.

The rod in the foreground of that last photo is one of the tops of the giant hammers from the stamping mill. You can see the hook that engaged the cams in the camshaft that lifted and dropped them. If a particular hammer or stamp needed to be fixed, the worker would take a block of wood, reach in to where the camshaft ran through the top of the stamps, and jam the piece of wood in under the hook to hold that hammer up…because, naturally, they wouldn’t stop the mill just for a paltry thing like service.

Workers lost their fingers doing this. They were fired and given a couple hours to leave.

When we came back out, Bunny and I saw…a bunny. A real, honest-to-God Bodie bunny, right there watching us.

This was not the end of our adventures in Bodie, or in fact of our adventures period; I still haven’t got to the copulating dinosaurs yet. Stay tuned!

Two Chaosbunnies in the Desert: Bodie, Part 1

Part 1 of this saga is here. Part 7 of this saga is here.
Part 2 of this saga is here. Part 8 of this saga is here.
Part 3 of this saga is here. Part 9 of this saga is here.
Part 4 of this saga is here. Part 10 of this saga is here.
Part 5 of this saga is here. Part 11 of this saga is here.
Part 6 of this saga is here. Part 12 of this saga is here.

We are nearing the end of this tale, gentle readers, but what an end it is.

Bunny and I piled into the Adventure Van, headed to where we had heard of a large ghost town called Bodie, an 1800s gold-mining town in the rugged mountains of eastern California. Bodie was a–

“Hey, pull over!” Bunny said.

I pulled over near this apparently abandoned(?) building advertising bail bond services. Seemed legit.

We took some pictures, tromped about for a bit, then climbed into the Adventure Van once more, headed for Bodie. Bodie was a thriving gold mining town with more than ten thousand residents at its peak, located at more than eight thousand feet elevation in the Sierra Nevada mountains. It was a huge and fantastically profitable gold mining town, producing tens of millions of dollars (in 1850s dollars!) in gold. Miners were paid $4 a week for dangerous, heavy physical labor under grueling conditions; of that $4, $2.75 per week was deducted for room and board.

You get there by following a narrow dirt track up and up and up into the mountain. Bodie is well off the beaten path, in much the same way that a manned excursion to Mars is not a jaunt down to the local grocery store. Fortunately, it was not a terribly steep grade–stagecoaches loaded with gold had to be able to make the trip, after all–and the Adventure Van was up to the journey with a minimum of grumbling.

We drove for a couple of hours. “I hope this is worth it,” I said. Bunny said something noncommittal.

It was worth it.

When at long last you’ve traveled up to the summit of the Bodie Hills, the first thing you see from the road, aside from a “State Park” sign, is this.

This was the jackpot, the mother lode, the Platonic ideal of a Western ghost town. This, gentle readers, truly was the bee’s knees.

We parked–with, I must confess, some excitement–and left the comforting shelter of the Adventure Van into the dry, dusty heat of Bodie, California.

The moment you step out of the parking lot, thoughtfully provided for you by the California Department of Parks and Recreation, you walk up a slight rise and see…this.

This small picture can not do justice to how amazing this place is. Click on the picture to see a (much) bigger version.

Less than a quarter of the town remains; the rest burned to the ground quite some years ago. At its peak, the town had sixty-five saloons, numerous brothels, and several churches that one could go to for absolution of one’s sins, which were numerous indeed. Bodie was by all accounts a very violent place; common hobbies included murder and various lesser crimes. According to one of the tour guides we spoke to, it’s not uncommon for people who do heavy labor at high altitudes without proper acclimatization to suffer psychotic breaks.

Bodie had an extensive network of roads, all unpaved. Again, click on the picture to embiggen.

The large gray building on the left-hand side of the first picture is the stamping mill, the entire reason for Bodie’s existence. I plan to write an entire post about that stamping mill. Raw gold ore was carried to the stamping mill, where the rock was crushed to a powder as fine as flour, and gold was extracted from it by a process that was absolutely and completely bonkers and showed a careless–indeed reckless–disregard for the life, health, and safety of the people who worked there. More on that later.

Bunny and I eventually spent two days in Bodie, wandering around taking pictures–many hundreds and hundreds of pictures. I’ve condensed the trove down to about eighty or so, which will likely take several posts to work through. Apologies in advance for what I’m about to do to your bandwidth, O readers.

Life in Bodie was not particularly pleasant. The air at eight thousand feet is thin. During the summer, the temperature routinely exceeds a hundred degrees Fahrenheit; during the winter, twenty feet of snow is not uncommon. Everything from building supplies to construction equipment had to be carried up the mountain. There was one road that climbed into Bodie from the west, ran straight through town, and exited to the east. Naturally, as it was the only way into or out of Bodie, it was a toll road (buggies 25 cents; carriages 75 cents; discounts for firewood and mining gear).

The houses we saw tended to be quite small and simple, save for this one, a veritable mansion belonging to the overseer of the stamping mill. You can click this picture to embiggen it, too.

The tour guide didn’t say, but I suspect the stamping mill overseer made rather more than $4 a week.

This place was more typical of the houses in Bodie.

You’ll notice the remnants of derelict machinery in the foreground. Bodie is littered with abandoned equipment rusting quietly into the desert; it’s everywhere.

Even with all its violence and squalor, Bodie was the absolute pinnacle of Victorian technology. It was on the cutting edge of mining industry, and there was no new, experimental mining tech they would not use if it would increase the rate at which they could mine or process ore. The town of Bodie was a bit like the Silicon Valley of the 1800s–it was absolutely state of the art for new machinery and new techniques.

Bodie was abandoned rather abruptly when the mines stopped being profitable. All that tech was left where it was, because Bodie is so remote and inhospitable that it simply wasn’t worth carting it all back down the mountain again. So now it lies scattered everywhere, remnants of what was once innovative, up-to-the-minute industrial know-how.

In fact, I’ll probably dedicate an entire post just to various bits of cast-off technology we found littering the countryside.

At one time, Bodie sported several churches. Today, only the Methodist church still stands.

The writing on the archway in the back reads “Praise waiteth for thee O God in Zion.”

The buildings are in remarkably good shape because of the foresight of one person, James S. Cain, who, as people left, offered to buy their houses or shops for a dollar. Since they were leaving anyway, and there was little of value remaining, almost everyone agreed. He continued to work the mine, making far less money than it had produced at its peak but still enough for him to turn a modest profit. Later, he hired guards to protect the deserted town from looters and vandals.

In the early 1960s, what was left of Bodie became a protected state park.

Being a closely-packed, densely-populated town made entirely of wood in deep desert, Bodie had several fire stations, only one of which remains.

In the 1930s, after the town was all but completely deserted, a fire swept through it, destroying a significant percentage of the remaining buildings, including all of the brothels (of which there were once many) and all of what had once been Chinatown.

Only a few of the buildings along what used to be Main Street survive, including a tavern and a gym.

At its peak, Bodie had a significant enough population of children that it featured a large, two-story school. I’m not sure I would have tried to raise children here, but hey, that’s me.

This is what happens if you leave an 1850s-era globe in a window exposed to harsh ultraviolet light for over a century. I think this is amazing.

The sun really is brutal at 8,000 feet. Bunny and I both got sunburned right through our clothes–something that, I gather, is quite common at that altitude. Wish I’d have known about it before we were there!

The mill overseer’s digs, as I mentioned before, were quite luxurious.

“Luxury” is not the first word that springs to mind to describe most of the other housing, but the accommodations weren’t really that bad, considering. That is, if you can get past the harsh environment with its blistering heat and brutal cold, the violence, the long hours of backbreaking labor without insurance or OSHA regulation, and the lack of medical care or sanitation.

It’s hard to imagine what this place must’ve been like when it was home to tens of thousands of people, when we see only the few remnants that are left.

One of the nicest houses we found was located a good distance from the mill that was the hub of Bodie’s economic activity. It was huge, even larger than the mill overseer’s mansion, and crafted to a much higher standard. I’d love to know the story of whoever lived there.

Bodie had its own prison–necessary given the proximity to extremely valuable resources, the general criminal proclivities of many of its inhabitants, and the tendency of hard manual labor at high altitude to produce psychosis.

It also had a rather large cemetery, which included a special wing just for infants. Infant mortality in Bodie was frighteningly high, with cholera one of the leading causes of death.

The Victorians knew rather a lot about steam technology but rather less about medicine. All the buildings had outhouses; there was no sewer system. Outhouses were built near houses, and higher areas were more desirable for houses. Water came from wells, which were easier to dig in low areas. So a common pattern you see over and over throughout Bodie is outhouses located just up the hill from a well.

We arrived in Bodie late in the afternoon and soon had to make our exit. I asked one of the park rangers where the closest town was. She said we could go back out the way we came, which would take us to a town about an hour away, or we could continue through the town and go down the other side of the mountain to get to Aurora.

We opted for the latter. It turns out that either I radically misheard her, or she was playing a trick on us. Aurora, you see, is a ghost town in Nevada, even more inhospitable and inaccessible than Bodie.

We got to the base of the mountain and discovered we could go no further. The Adventure Van simply wasn’t up to what passed for a road. So we camped for the night at the base of the hill, near a sign that warned us not to travel any farther.

The next day, we drove back up the mountain to Bodie, which will be the subject of the next chapter.

Two Chaosbunnies in the Desert: Disaster in Black Rock Desert and Reconnecting with my Roots

Part 1 of this saga is here. Part 7 of this saga is here.
Part 2 of this saga is here. Part 8 of this saga is here.
Part 3 of this saga is here. Part 9 of this saga is here.
Part 4 of this saga is here. Part 10 of this saga is here.
Part 5 of this saga is here. Part 11 of this saga is here.
Part 6 of this saga is here. Part 12 of this saga is here.

In ther North American continent is a state called Nevada. In that state is a desert. This desert has the rather ominous name of Black Rock Desert, and it’s noteworthy for two things: rich hippies who get together once a year to have sex, do drugs, and build implausible things; and for being one of the most inhospitable places North America has to offer. The latter fact may bear some relationship to the former, as it is, I gather, only sex and drugs that make the place bearable.

In the 1800s, people came to this place in search of riches. Most of them found only pain. Some of them found lead, and presumably also pain.

In my various attempts to research ghost towns online, I came across a reference to Leadville, an abandoned mining town high in the mountains in Black Rock Desert, not too far from Gerlach. Google Earth showed the place quite plainly, and it seemed interesting, so with considerable optimism we set off two chaosbunnies in a 1992 Ford van.

Black Rock Desert is, as it turns out, no place for two chaosbunnies in a 1992 Ford van.

I told Siri to navigate us to the ruins, having given up on Google Maps, which had plainly shown it knows fuckall about turn-of-the-century mining roads. We headed down a long, straight paved road into the desert, me driving, Bunny drinking tea.

“Turn here,” Siri said. There was a conspicuous lack of place to turn–nothing but straight road and fence. I turned around.

“Turn here,” Siri said. The road onto which we were supposed to turn continued in its stubborn failure to exist.

“Turn here,” Siri insisted.

“Maybe Siri doesn’t know where we are,” Bunny suggested.

I kept going. Eventually, after quite a lot of faffing, we discovered the road Siri expected us to turn on, about half a mile from where Siri thought it was.

I say “road.” Of course, I jest. The thing we ended up turning onto was less road than two narrow rutted tracks through desert wasteland. Still, we’d managed to take the Adventure Van into some unlikely places before, so off we went.

And went. And went. And went. The road trail rutted track was narrow enough and rough enough that we were forced to move at about five miles an hour or else risk breaking an axle, and the remains of Leadville was some considerable distance into high desert. We drive along for an hour or two, and started heading up, the road trail rutted track hugging the edge of a mountain that rose abruptly from the desert floor.

We didn’t realize we were playing a game with the desert–a game the desert was determined to win.

We continued climbing, up and up, until we just…didn’t any more.

The van didn’t break down, precisely. The engine kept revving, but the van simply stopped moving. The tires didn’t spin, the van just…stopped. Even in low gear, the engine turned but the wheels didn’t.

I shut off the engine to keep from burning up the transmission, which would have left us well and truly buggered. The road kept getting steeper ahead of us, leaving the inescapable conclusion that we were not going to be visiting Leadville.

We both got out, Bunny looking perhaps a bit more grumpy than I.

From our vantage point, we could see the “road” we’d driven in on. I say “road” in scare quotes because, while it was much more a road than the one leading to Susanville, it still wasn’t what any reasonable person would describe as a proper road at all, though there certainly was quite a lot of it.

That left us with the not inconsiderable task of getting back down. You know that scene near the beginning of the movie Serenity, where the spaceship Serentiy is making reentry and part of the heat shield falls off, and Mal says “just get us on the ground” and Wash responds with “That part’ll happen pretty definitely”? It was a bit like that. I knew we could get the van off the mountain; I just hoped we could do it without arriving in disassociated condition.

My first thought was to put the van in reverse and back down the mountain. I knew turning around was a non-starter, what with the narrowness of the road and the steep cliff on the side and all, but, thought I, that’s why they invented reverse, right?

The desert had other ideas.

The ground was soft and the incline was steep and we were carrying luggage on a rack sticking out the back of the van, and these things all conspired to cause the back of the van to dig into the ground as soon as I tried backing it up.

So with forward, backward, and turning around all off the table as options, that left little choice save “pray for a miracle,” “learn to fly,” “unload all of our gear from the van, take the luggage rack off the back, and try again,” and “wait out here to die.”

Bunny and I aren’t particularly inclined toward miracles, we’d opted to take the van and leave the X-wing fighter at home, and Bunny seemed to have very strong feelings about not dying out in the middle of the desert, so with some resignation and a bit of grumbling, we started unloading the van. Half an hour later, we’d offloaded hundreds of pounds of stuff and carried it down the mountain a bit to where the road, such as it was, widened enough to, with a bit of maneuvering. we thought er could turn the van around, provided we didn’t have a morbid fear of death.

That just left backing the van down the road without tipping off the side and arriving at ground level in disassociated condition. I will save you the descriptions of the white-knuckle bits of that endeavor, as there are plenty of white-knuckle bits still to come in future installments of this story, and instead just say that by dint of much agony and a few close brushes with an untimely demise, we were able to get the Adventure Van back down off the mountain, loaded up once more with gear, and pointed in more or less the right direction, whereupon we left the desert the same way we came in: slowly, and with great concern over the possibility of a broken axle.

Back on the road again, we beat a retreat from the desert. As we left the boundaries of Black Rock Desert, I squinted off into the distance. “Is that water?” I said. Bunny made a skeptical noise. I stopped the van and got out to look. It looked a bit like water, maybe, but it seemed…I don’t know, dryer somehow.

It was, as it turns out, salt, not water. There is collectively not enough water in this picture to drown a gnat.

Final score: Black Rock Desert 1, chaosbunnies in an ancient Ford van 0.

We set off down the road, wallowing in the misery of our defeat and drinking tea. As the sun set, we made camp on the side of the road, still wallowing in the misery of our defeat. Bunny made pasta to go with our wallowing, and we resolved to make it to Bodie, the next (and last) ghost town on our itinerary, the following day.

The following morning, we were up bright and early before noon, and headed off toward California. The day was clear, and the promise of success loomed in–

“Hey, what’s that?” I said.

“Looks like a billboard, maybe?” Bunny said.

“No, I don’t think so,” I said. “Is that–?”

I pulled over. It was.

For those of you born after the advent of the Internet and broadband, there was once a thing called a “drive in.” Imagine a movie theater–no, not like that, a theater with only one screen. Outside. With a big parking lot in front of it. You would drive your car there and sit in it while you watched the movie. A little speaker about the same size and quality of a fast-food drive-through speaker was mounted at each parking space, but we people didn’t care because you didn’t go to a drive-in to watch the movie, you went to a drive-in to make out and/or have sex in the back of the car while a movie played somewhere in your general vicinity.

Changing demographics have not been kind to the drive-in industry.

We got out and poked around a bit. When this drive-in was abandoned, it happened all at once, it seemed.

Drive-ins had a small shack where the projection equipment was housed, and where the employees made popcorn. Before the movie started out, people in silly hats would come to your car and ask if you wanted popcorn. Then they’d run to the projection shack, make your popcorn, take it out to you, and let you get on with having sex.

We picked our way across a a field littered with broken glass and bits of rebar and electrical cable to the projection shack, which was an absolute catastrophe.

In a previous life, I was once a movie theater projectionist (at a regular theater, not a drive-in). To be fair, the projection booth I worked in wasn’t really a whole lot more tidy or organized than this.

I felt weirdly nostalgic, picking through the rubble of the projection booth. There was a fine layer of dust over everything, so it didn’t look like anyone visited frequently. Not even the local greasers with their pompadours and their muscle cars seem like they can be arsed to come out here all that often.

The concession stand was separated from the projection booth by a wall that ran down the length of the projection shack, without a door through it; the projection booth had its own door, and you couldn’t go from the concession stand to the projection booth. This seems to be typical from what I remember of my movie theater days. The projectionist occupies the most lofty stratum of the theater employee hierarchy, and the booth is his castle; riffraff like ticket sellers and concession workers aren’t permitted in his domain.

There was one lonely piece of graffiti in the concession stand, scrawled without any genuine effort at artistic merit on what was left of the popcorn machine. Honestly, the neighborhood truants, delinquents, and hoodlums really seemed to be phoning it in.

We made our way back to the van and headed off toward Bodie, which would prove to be the shining jewel of the trip. I have much to say about Bodie, and many many pictures. Those will wait for the next installment.

Two Chaosbunnies in the Desert: Creepy Motel

Part 1 of this saga is here. Part 7 of this saga is here.
Part 2 of this saga is here. Part 8 of this saga is here.
Part 3 of this saga is here. Part 9 of this saga is here.
Part 4 of this saga is here. Part 10 of this saga is here.
Part 5 of this saga is here. Part 11 of this saga is here.
Part 6 of this saga is here. Part 12 of this saga is here.

“Hey! Pull over!” Bunny said.

We were in the third–or was it the fourth?–day of the Faffing: wandering around more or less aimlessly, not finding any genuine ghost towns but still having great success photographing the many and varied ruins that dot the Pacific Northwest like acne on a geeky kid’s the day before the high school yearbook photo.

We were driving along a long, boring stretch of road in–god, I can’t even remember what state we were in. Possibly Oregon. Or maybe California. Weeks on the road will do that to you.

“Hey! Pull over!” My ears pricked up. Maxine had become quite adept by this point at spotting interesting things from the road, and she rarely disappointed.

We pulled into an utterly deserted parking lot, gravel crunching under the wheels of the Adventure Van. The sign said Juniper Lodge Motel and Restaurant. The creepiness of the surroundings said photographic gold mine.

We hopped out (get it? Hopped out?) and cautiously poked around. The first thing Bunny found was a portable toilet of the kind you usually see in the backs of campers and RVs, that looked a bit like someone had been cooking meth or something else equally unpleasant in it. I won’t disturb you with a photo, because I didn’t take one (if I had, it would be exactly the sort of thing I might like to share, so consider yourselves lucky, O gentle readers).

The Juniper Lodge Motel had been built as three long, low buildings on three sides of a square, with the road making the fourth side. I’m guessing the gas station used to be in the middle, perhaps, though it seems that would be a rather unpleasant arrangement for one who was wishing to sleep while all night long, people pulled in to get gas.

We cautiously entered the first building, wary of collapsing ceilings, snakes, and drug-crazed gangsters, all of which seemed like they might be a distinct possibility. All we found were ruins.

The bar and restaurant–at least I’m assuming that’s what this was–looked like something straight out of a nightmare horror movie, perhaps a movie called Freddy Krueger Visits the 1977 Guide to Interior Design Bar of the Year or something. That orange! Those beams! That fake wood paneling!

Someone had been there before us, which showed that fears of drug-crazed, machete-wielding gang members perhaps weren’t so far off base as all that.

The rooms were spacious, once upon a time, even if perhaps I might not have chosen that particular texture for the fake wall paneling, if it had been up to me.

The building to the right as you face the motel from the road, where the office once was, had reached a quite spectacular level of decay, one that made us fear for our safety dare we even to venture within. Much of the floor was gone, revealing that the building wasn’t precisely built on what one would call a “foundation” in any traditional sense of the word.

Photos taken, we set off again. We had, at this point, a new Plan. It was a Plan ambitious in its audacity, that would take us into Black Rock Desert questing after a…well, that will have to wait until next time.

Two Chaosbunnies in the desert: Faffing

Part 1 of this saga is here. Part 7 of this saga is here.
Part 2 of this saga is here. Part 8 of this saga is here.
Part 3 of this saga is here. Part 9 of this saga is here.
Part 4 of this saga is here. Part 10 of this saga is here.
Part 5 of this saga is here. Part 11 of this saga is here.
Part 6 of this saga is here. Part 12 of this saga is here.

Fresh from the spectacular triumph that was Susanville, the semi-mythical old mining town on the end of an ancient and long-derelict road that nobody save Apple knows about (and boy, would I love to know how Apple added it to their maps!), we spent the next couple of days in a kind of Ghost Town Limbo. We had entered that period in our adventure I have come to think of as The Faffing.

It is a fact known to anyone familiar with the Great Northwest that the ruins of nineteenth-century boom town lie in scattered disarray across the countryside like clothing at a drug-fueled Roman orgy. Once you get into the desert of the Great Northwest, it’s difficult to swing a cat without hitting the remains of some old logging or mining building from the 1800s.

That is, in fact, exactly the point of our journey. Other countries, possessed of a less exuberant excess of rolling countryside that nobody much wants, or perhaps gifted with a more pragmatic approach to resource allocation, don’t have long-abandoned towns that just kinda sit around for a century and a half because nobody can be arsed to do anything about them.

And even in places where people do want to do things with the land, there’s just so damn much of it that if there happens to be an old tumbled-down log cabin or a gold processing building building of some sort, nine times out of ten it’s easier to work around it than to move it. So it stays there, quietly being Somebody Else’s Problem.

It’s this sort of neglectful attitude toward the dwellings of times gone that drew Bunny to the tour, as her native land of the United Kingdom of Britainlandia is, being on an island, much more conscious of making use of every square meter or hectare or whatever the hell unit of measure they use all the way over there.

So during The Faffing, we saw, and photographed, a great many tumbled-down buildings standing silent testimony to times long gone, though we were rather less successful in finding any real ghost towns. What ghost towns there are are often poorly marked, and the ones that are well-marked, we discovered, seem to be conspicuous in their existential absence when one goes to the appointed spot.

The Faffing was not a time of no productivity, but it certainly didn’t compare to the discovery of what was left of Susanville. Still, we did discover some pretty neat stuff as we wandered about aimlessly in the Adventure Van.

Like this abandoned building and rickety, half-collapsed footbridge over a surprisingly deep and treacherous creek, spotted by Bunny’s eagle eye as we drove down some county road or other.

Or this house, which looks like it ought to feature quite prominently in an episode of Scooby Doo. It was on the outskirts of some quiet little town in Oregon whose name I’ve already forgotten, but man, if I were a kid living in this town, this place would likely haunt my nightmares.

There are tons of old farm buildings lying in ruins all about the Pacific Northwest, some of which look like they might collapse into dust if some poor unsuspecting sod the next county over sneezes too vigorously.

We struck gold with this find, the remnants of an old one-room school building a couple miles outside the semi-but-not-really ghost town of Shaniko, Oregon. Bunny, as per usual, spotted it and said “Hey, pull over!”

The schoolhouse looks a lot Little House on the Prairie and a lot more “Outtake from an episode of Dexter” these days, which adds, I think, to the ambiance. It’s a cool old building, for sure.

We took a random detour from looking for old ghost towns when we spotted a sign pointing to a lava flow in an ancient forest, because, you know, chaosbunnies. The detour took us a lot farther out of our way than the sign suggested, but after quite a lot of travel, we did indeed eventually come to the ancient lava flow.

Oregon’s terrain has been shaped by catastrophic geology, much of it volcanic. Enormous seas of lava once covered quite large expanses of it, wiping out everything around them and leaving behind terrain that, millennia later, still looks kind of like a lunar landscape.

Where these huge flows of lava encountered forests, the lava encased the trees in solid rock. The trees died and disappeared, leaving these formations as their only remains.

We took quite a few pictures, but as this was only incidental to our real purpose (if indeed chaosbunnies can be said to have a “purpose,” as opposed to a mere intention) we did not linger long, and were soon off.

We found some more ruins, this time just outside yet another town whose name I’ve already forgotten but that seemed to be a regional freight transportation hub, judging by the astonishing number of large trucks that formed an unending stream of traffic through the town.

It really is quite astonishing just how many of these ruins lie about, being ruins. We stopped frequently to take pictures of yet another ancient relic of centuries gone by, sometimes to the consternation of state police who wanted to make sure that we hadn’t abandoned the van and headed off through the countryside with cameras and bunny ears and tea because we were, you know, like, in trouble or anything.

Just what set of unfortunate circumstances might force someone to abandon a van armed only with these three aforementioned things is not entirely clear to your humble scribe. Still, it is gratifying to know that people were looking out for us.

We still had some interesting random discoveries, and a few moments of stark terror, closing inexorably in on us, which I shall detail in later episodes of this chronicle.

I have a small stuffed hedgehog that accompanies me almost everywhere I go. Her name is Lilith, and she was a gift from Eve. Those of you who saw us on the European book tour likely recognize her. Lilith rode on the Adventure Van’s dashboard during The Faffing, and appeared quite unfazed by the whole experience.

Two Chaosbunnies in the desert: Susanville, or, Siri knows better than Google

Part 1 of this saga is here. Part 7 of this saga is here.
Part 2 of this saga is here. Part 8 of this saga is here.
Part 3 of this saga is here. Part 9 of this saga is here.
Part 4 of this saga is here. Part 10 of this saga is here.
Part 5 of this saga is here. Part 11 of this saga is here.
Part 6 of this saga is here. Part 12 of this saga is here.

The next stop on our whirlwind tour of ghost towns, cunningly planned through extensive and repetitive Googling of “ghost towns west coast,” was Susanville.

It would prove an elusive target. Susanville was established in 1864 when some bloke found a big lump of gold in a remote corner of Oregon, and a bunch of other blokes came flocking to the spot hoping to find more lumps of gold. Times being what they were, it wasn’t considered a proper town because it didn’t have its own post office, so in 1901 a bunch of miners, ahem, stole the post office from a neighboring mining town, making Susanville an improper town. Or so the story goes. It is not clear to your humble scribe how one steals a post office, nor whether the legitimacy conferred by a post office remains if the post office is stolen. Such matters are not for me to understand.

I used Siri to plot us a route to Susanville, and we were off. The trip started promisingly enough when we found a turnoff precisely where Apple Maps said it would be, with a much-faded sign suggesting we were on the right track.

Alas, things soon became complicated. I navigated the Adventure Van for quite a long while on a narrow single-lane dirt, steadily moving farther and farther from civilization, until Siri told me to take a left turn onto a road that most completely and utterly did not exist. There was not the slightest sign that a left turn had ever existed in that spot, nor that one is ever likely to exist any time between now and when the stars burn out.

Bunny and I scratched our heads. “Let’s keep going,” she said. “Maybe GPS isn’t sure where we are. We’ll look for a left turn.”

We kept going. A left turn failed to appear. After we had traveled a considerable number of miles, with Siri telling us “make a U-turn, make a U-turn” over and over until madness threatened, I got the idea to try Google Maps.

This is not, I would like to point out, ordinarily such an insane idea. Google often knows better than Siri the ways of human navigation. In this case, however, Google was worse than useless. Siri showed us the road we were on, if I may be forgiven the literary excess of use of the word “road;” Google showed nothing but an endless expanse of featureless green. Where Siri believed there to be an exuberance of roads, including the one we could not find. Google showed nary a trace of human existence at all.

We turned around. “Turn right,” Siri said. Again, the road onto which we were supposed to turn persisted in its obstinate failure to exist.

“Maybe there used to be a road here,” I said. Bunny looked doubtful.

I stopped the van. “Siri says there’s a road right here,” I said. “Let’s get out and walk. Maybe we’ll find it.” Bunny still looked doubtful.

We walked for a while. “Siri says the road is right here,” I said. “Let’s just stay on the road according to GPS and see what happens.” Bunny looked very doubtful.

Still, the one thing you can count on if you’re a chaosbunny is there will be chaos. We set out through the field, watching the phone closely to keep the little blue dot centered on the road Siri insisted was there and reality insisted just as passionately was not.

When we’d walked for ten or fifteen minutes, Bunny pointed ahead. “I think this might be a road after all,” she said. “Look!”

Sure enough, there was a slight depression that was just regular enough to make it seem that, if you squinted hard enough and perhaps dropped acid, might seem it was once a road.

With a new surge in confidence, we kept walking. After another twenty or thirty minutes or so, and an inconvenient but fortunately narrow stream we were forced to jump across, we found… a road. A real, genuine, unmistakeable, honest-to-God road, exactly where Siri told us it would be.

We trotted along the road and rounded a large outcropping of rock, and then, there in front of us…a decaying house, tucked in the shadow of tall trees, glorious in its ruin. We had begun to believe it no longer existed, so as you can imagine, gentle reader, that moment when we rounded that corner made our hearts sing with joy.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you: Susanville, Oregon.

We poked around the ruined buildings for a while, taking pictures like mad and giggling like…well, like we were mad.

The largest house we found maintains silent watch over what used to be an old gold stamping mill, there on the other side of the river. Little remains of the mill but a heap of lumber.

I’d love to know what life was like out here, back when people came to this place in search of wealth. The few remaining houses are quite large, and were probably surprisingly comfortable given the remote inhospitality of the place.

Some of the remaining structures look a bit creaky. I was reasonably sure they probably wouldn’t collapse on us without warning, entombing us in a pile of old lumber and avarice.

When tea-time came around, Bunny sat down on an ancient and massive tree stump and…well, looked very English.

Tea properly handled, we resumed our explorations. I have no idea what this is, but it’s quite lovely.

We forded the river to examine the ruins of the stamping mill more closely. At first, I thought it was a lumber mill, but Google says no, this is where gold ore was brought to be crushed and processed. Of course, Google also said there was no road out here, so what does Google know?

The view back to the largest house from the mill is quite beautiful. I don’t imagine life here was easy, but it certainly did offer scenic natural beauty in spades.

In fact, it’s so lovely I’m a little surprised nobody lives out here now.

Susanville was amazing, and it was with heavy hearts we bid farewell to it and started the long hike back to the Adventure Van.

As fantastic as Susanville was, still more wonders waited in our future, though we had to pass through stark terror to get there. That story will come in time.

Two Chaosbunnies in the desert: Now we’re getting somewhere!

Part 1 of this saga is here. Part 7 of this saga is here.
Part 2 of this saga is here. Part 8 of this saga is here.
Part 3 of this saga is here. Part 9 of this saga is here.
Part 4 of this saga is here. Part 10 of this saga is here.
Part 5 of this saga is here. Part 11 of this saga is here.
Part 6 of this saga is here. Part 12 of this saga is here.

Our journey to Sparta presaged the lowest point in our travels, a long barren stretch of time (by which I mean about a day) during which we failed to locate any ghost towns of note, or indeed even any zombie towns, vampire towns, or other even approximately dead or undead towns.

But be assurred, Gentle Reader, for things did turn around, and amazement and wonder lay in our future.

We drove aimlessly for a while, chasing the ghosts of ghost towns whispered of in rumor and myth on Web sites of dubious provenance.

There is a lesson here, dear reader, which I hope that with this tale I might impart to you, so that you may avoid some of the travails which bedeviled Bunny and I on your journey. These words may, I think, impart to you a wisdom we lacked. This may be upsetting to those of you with more delicate sensibilities, so if this describes your constitution, you may wish to ensure you are seated before continuing.

Much of the information you will find on the Internet is rubbish.

Pure, unadulterated rubbish. Bunkum. Baloney. Poppycock, even.

So it was with the next ghost town we arrived at, the town of Cornucopia. An amazing ghost town, they said. Now completely abandoned, they said. No population, they said. A great example of an 1800s mining town, they said.

So we naively plotted a route, past the “Road Closed” sign, around the “No Access Turn Back” sign, up a winding dirt road and through steep and treacherous cliffs into the ancient mining town of Cornucopia.

What we found, I’m afraif, was not what we were promised. A stream, a couple of foundations, a scattered handful of modern houses with satellite dishes, a sign advertising WiFi(!), and one shell of an abandoned house. This, after many hours of driving, was all we had to show for our adventure.

It’s a very cool ruined house, mind, but still not quite what we were led to expect.

It turns out that Cornucopia is now entirely privately owned. Someone bought the town. I didn’t even know you could just buy a town, but apparently that is a thing that you can in fact do, and someone did it here.

Someone who didn’t much cotton to city folk, from the sound of it.

The sign reads “Warning! Cornucopia township, land and buildings are all private property. No shooting allowed. No trespassing without permission. Baker co. sheriff.” It also says “we don’t much fancy your kind ’round here,” but that’s more the subtext than the text.

Our spirits low, we wound our way back down steep (and nominally closed, though that’s never much deterred us) winding roads, heading off toward the next stop on our agenda, about which we had, I must report, some nontrivial degree of skepticism. Sparta and Cornucopia had been almost enough to make us despair of finding a really good, solid ghost town of the kind Hollywood movies had led us to expect. That cinematic ghost town experience felt beyond our reach.

And it was in this dark hour, when hope seemed naught but a flickering candle in a howling maelstrom, that Bunny said, “Hey, Franklin, pull over!”

Just like that, the storm ended and the candle roared into life, no longer a flicker but a towering column of flame, a flame to lead the lost tribes of Israel through the trackless wilderness. A flame that shed a clear, bright light on: Whitney, Oregon.

Without even planning to, we had stumbled upon a real ghost town.

Whitney provided plenty of photo opportunities to keep both of us busy for the next while.

And, astonishingly, the town of Whitney also is not uninhabited. It is home to someone who no doubt wanted to get away from the bustle and the hurly-burly of life in a big city like Cornucopia, and settle down somewhere a bit less crowded where he could relax in the shade and, I don’t know, shoot chipmunks (of which there were many) with a high-powered rifle (of which there was much sign).

Yes, someone lives here.

Alas, a real storm was fast approaching, preserving a metaphysical symmetry now that the metaphorical storm had departed, and all too soon we were forced once again to pile into the Adventure Van and be on our way.

Once more the miles sped beneath our wheels, and we were on our way to still more serendipitous discoveries…but that must wait for the next installment.

Two Chaosbunnies in the desert: This is Sparta!

Part 1 of this saga is here. Part 7 of this saga is here.
Part 2 of this saga is here. Part 8 of this saga is here.
Part 3 of this saga is here. Part 9 of this saga is here.
Part 4 of this saga is here. Part 10 of this saga is here.
Part 5 of this saga is here. Part 11 of this saga is here.
Part 6 of this saga is here. Part 12 of this saga is here.

And so it was, Gentle Reader, that emanix, having recently called upon her Aspect and bodily shoved a 22-year-old camper van from a deep ditch, calmly returned to the front seat and said “do you fancy some tea?” We drank tea, for all the world like nothing had happened. She fixed the broken clasp in her bra nonchalantly, as if popping out of clothing while performing impossible feats of force were an everyday occurrence with her (which, in all fairness, it might just be), and we were off.

I am not, Dear Reader, much of a planner. I would like to say I chose a route for us that was breathtaking in its efficiency and military precision, but that would be a lie.

Our next destination was the Oregon town of Sumpter, a town whose status as the incorporeal essence of the deceased is vastly overstated. It’s described as a ghost town on the Web, sure, but in reality, it has a population larger than many of the Midwestern towns I grew up in as a child. In fact, we arrived to discover the allegedly late town of Sumpter was having a street festival.

It was not a total wash. Sumpter does boast a tiny collection of ruined buildings from antiquity (by US standards, which means anything prior to 1950 or so). There was the old brick safe from the old bank that burned down during the old fire of 1917, for example.

We also found the remnants of a long-abandoned gas station, now completely overgrown and with trees sprouting from what was doubtless once a nexus of commerce for the town.

Something about this place kinda reminds me of a location from the video game Portal 2. I kept expecting to hear a synthesized voice say “Sorry about the mess. I’ve really let the place go since you killed me. By the way, thanks for that.”

The outskirts of Sumpter is home to an open-air museum of sorts given over to the study of the various ways in which large old pieces of machinery can gather rust. I recognized this mining dredge from my time in Nome, Alaska; it’s a smaller version of the dredges they used there.

I like this old tractor. They don’t make ’em like this any more.

Probably a good thing, really. This machine looks like it runs on leaded gas and the fingers of the careless.

One of the vendors at the festival was selling corn dogs. Corn dogs, for those of you who are not acquainted with this peculiarly and quintessentially American gastronomic innovation, are hot dogs breaded with cornmeal, deep fried, and served on a wooden stick.

Bunny found the notion quite intriguing, having grown up in a land where things like black pudding (which is neither black nor pudding–it’s actually fried congealed horror) is more conventionally served. She had one, pronounced it delightful, and we stopped for the night, resuming our journey the next morning toward Sparta.

Sparta is not really a town. Sparta is a wide spot on a long dirt road that is more a suggestion of a town. It’s like one of those places in an open-world video game where you get the feeling that the game designers weren’t really trying, or couldn’t think of anything to put there.

One reaches Sparta, if one is of a mind to reach Sparta, by spending a very long time traveling a very narrow dirt road through arid desert. And believe me when I say “long” and “narrow.” This is the real reason people were reluctant to invade Sparta: it’s just too much of a pain in the ass to get there.

One travels along this road until one finds, first, a crumbling foundation, and then, a few miles past it, a crumbling stone cottage.

One then drives past these things, interesting but not really a proper ghost town, until one arrives at the center of town.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is Sparta!!!

Seriously. This is it. This is Sparta.

We were, as you can probably imagine, distinctly underwhelmed. No crumbling old buildings quietly decaying into the desert sands, no burly spear-armed men thrashing about in ways that are no not even the least bit homoerotic not ever so don’t you even think that.

But fear not, Gentle Reader, for though our tale reaches a low point here, we were soon to discover ghost towns quite marvelous in their essential ghost-towniness, despite the lack of not-homoerotic burly spear-armed men.

Two Chaosbunnies in the Desert: On the taxonomy of ghost towns

Part 1 of this saga is here. Part 7 of this saga is here.
Part 2 of this saga is here. Part 8 of this saga is here.
Part 3 of this saga is here. Part 9 of this saga is here.
Part 4 of this saga is here. Part 10 of this saga is here.
Part 5 of this saga is here. Part 11 of this saga is here.
Part 6 of this saga is here. Part 12 of this saga is here.

As our journey around the Pacific Northwest unfolded, emanix and I slowly gained an awareness that not all ghost towns are the same. There is, in fact, an entire taxonomic classification of ghost towns–a phylogenic tree, if you will, of abandoned places.

The classic, Scooby Doo variety of ghost town–an entire town whose members have left behind, leaving empty buildings in their wake, is relatively rare. Ghost towns like that don’t usually last very long, unless they’re in high desert. The artifice of human hands is surprisingly fragile and crumbles quickly without human tending. Some of the ghost towns that had formerly be on our list, before we started validating them with Google Earth, are nothing but foundations scattered about in otherwise unremarkable landscape.

Some ghost towns are what Bunny calls “zombie towns.” They’re towns that were mostly or completely dead, then came back to life when the economic conditions changed. One ghost town we had planned to visit but then removed from our list is a classic example, an old mining town settled in the 1800s that became nearly deserted in the 1940s when the mine played out, then saw new life in 2011 when new mining technology made it possible to reopen the mine.

More common are ghost towns that aren’t really ghost towns. People still live in them; there are inhabited houses and ongoing business enterprises set in amongst abandoned houses. The town of Venango, Nebraska where I grew up is a semi-ghost town. Some of these ghost towns reinvent themselves as tourist destinations, playing up the “ghost town” mystique for the benefit of visitors.

Granite is a tourist ghost town. Being there is a bit like being on a very realistic movie set. There are still people living there–quite a few of them, in fact–and many of the abandoned buildings have little signs telling you what they once were.

Granite wasn’t all that impressive at first glance.

I have often been told not to judge a book by its cover. It’s advice that never made a whole lot of sense to me; if the cover didn’t matter, why not just put a blank cover with the book’s title on the front? Today, as co-owner of a publishing company, it makes even less sense to me. But the idea behind it has a small grain of truth. You can’t always tell from a first glance at something what you’ll get. First impressions can be deceptive. Something that doesn’t seem impressive at first might be far more impressive once you delve a bit deeper.

Sometimes, though, you can judge a book by its cover…and Granite was one such book. We hopped out of the Adventure Van and poked around for a while, waiting to be blown away by something amazing. Amazing things failed to happen.

We did both like this old dance hall, to be fair.

We knew it was a dance hall because a sign told us so.

That sign was probably old when mammoths walked the earth. Oh, the stories that sign could tell–skies filled with the leathery wings of great flying pterosaurs, the discovery of the western reaches of the New World by a strange species of hairless ape, Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy.

The building is for sale, if you want it.

The same style of sign identified the old fire station and the old church. (It’s hard not to put “the old” in front of the remnants of abandoned places–the old Miller place, the old asylum, the old space shuttle Vehicle Assembly Building, the old Detroit.)

But we soon found ourselves bored and in search of wifi. There was a small combination convenience store/winter sports staging and supply area/restaurant at the edge of town, where we wandered in search of food and Internet access. They had wifi but told us guests weren’t allowed to use it, on account of the considerable expense involved in airlifting data packets to such a remote place.

They also seemed flummoxed by Bunny’s English accent and even more befuddled by her request for tea. It took a while, but they finally sorted out what “tea” was an a loose approximation of how to make it, and delivered, after considerable fussing, a beverage which was more like tea than you might expect from, say, a Sirius Cybernetics Corporation beverage dispenser.

We headed out of town, pausing only long enough to photograph this rather fetching ruin of the old car, located just a short distance from the old lodge right next to the old tree.

We headed out to our next destination, which we hoped would be less semi-ghost town and more authentic ghost town than Granite, and we–

“Hey! Pull over!” Bunny said. “What’s that?”

“That” turned out to be a cluster of ruins–not a town, precisely, but more a gathering, or perhaps clump, of old houses long since abandoned.

And it was awesome.

I stopped the Adventure Van off the road, a narrow and straight strip of highway that cut through the desert like a length of electrical tape placed by some unknown hand over an otherwise innocuous birthday cake, or something.

We hopped out, cameras in hand, and explored.

That’s an enormous mound of old tin cans, now rusting, behind that house.

This lovely, lovely old stove was slowly turning to dust beside the collapsed wall of one of the houses. At least I think it’s an old stove. I’m not entirely sure. That’s an old stove, right?

We cautiously poked our noses into one of the houses. The floor was littered with decades of detritus. There were some magazines from the 1940s lying scattered amongst the refuse and rubble.

The building next to it was in slightly better repair–but only slightly.

This was our first real jackpot–a completely serendipitous find that was absolutely magnificent in its decay.

We wandered around for a time. Eventually, a car pulled up next to the van. “Hey!” a woman said to Bunny. “I think you’re trespassing.”

“Okay!” Bunny said. That seemed to be enough for her, and she drove away.

I paused to get one last panorama of the scene before we left.

We hopped into the van. I put the transmission in Drive, and approximately two hundred milliseconds later had dropped the front of the van into a ditch.

We got back out. Bunny shook her head.

A car traveling the strip of electrical tape stopped and a lovely young couple got out. “Need a hand?”

I pointed to the van. “Yep. We’re in a ditch.”

I got back in. Bunny and the couple put their backs against the nose of the van. The wheels spun.

I wish I could tell you, gentle reader, what happened next. I feel that I can’t quite properly comprehend it myself. It seemed as if Bunny turned green and…swelled somehow. And roared a mighty roar, a roar to make the heavens tremble and brave men weep. The nose came up out of the ditch and the van lurched backward as though tossed like a Dixie cup in the mighty fist of Hulk Hogan, who was perhaps at a picnic with friends and no longer needed it, having consumed the combination of Kool-Aid and Pabst Blue Ribbon it once contained.

The couple waved cheerfully and drove away. Bunny climbed into the front seat, once again her normal size and color. “I think I popped the clasp on my bra strap,” she said. I stared at her, thankful that time and circumstances have never conspired to cause me to be in a fistfight with her, as she would without question crush me like a bug.

And we were off once again, heading down the electrical tape highway across the great frosted birthday cake of life, destined for more adventures which I shall relate in the next chapter of this tale.