Dark. Completely dark – but for the stars overhead – and cold.
And early! Way too early.
It was 5:15am in California’s Eastern Sierras. A small clutch of cars and a congregated group of people with their hands shoved deep in their pockets, huddled against the kind of piercing cold that only a dry climate can produce in high summer, were stopped at the entry to Bodie State Historic Park,
It was 14 miles (three of them unpaved: rough and bumpy) from the nearest tiny town, and we were waiting for a Park Ranger to arrive and grant us access to the grounds. On the third Saturday of every summer month, the Bodie Foundation gives people the opportunity to photograph the Californian gold mining ghost town of Bodie in the early morning light (for a fee).
This early access allows photographers to wander around the almost-empty town before the “tourists” arrive at the official opening time of 9:00am. For me, it was a chance to try out the new tripod I had bought especially for the occasion. Tripods are a handicap rather than an asset on the kind of travelling I usually do, so this was a rare opportunity to practice shooting with one.
Named for Waterman (William) S. Body who found gold in the hills here in 1859, Bodie grew to be a town of 10,000 by 1879. The two churches were no match for the 65 saloons and rugged lifestyle; Bodie soon became known as the “most lawless, wildest and toughest mining camp the far west has ever known”. Robberies, stage hold-ups, street-fights and even murders were almost-daily events.
Bodie’s heyday was short-lived: by 1881, mining declined and homes and businesses were abandoned. Fires in 1892 and 1932 destroyed much of the town. Although it has been referred to as a “ghost town” since 1915, Bodie still had a total of 120 people at the 1920 US Federal Census, and has never been completely abandoned: dropping to three residents in 1943. Today, some of the California State Park rangers live on site, and we had to shoot “around” a modern white vehicle that was parked in plain view.
By eleven o’clock, the sun was high overhead, and the air was radiating heat.
It was time to leave the site to the tourists, armed with their guidebooks.
And the ghosts.