I cannot remember the first time I ever visited a ghost town.
I do know that I’ve been seeking such places, first as part of my family and later as an adult, as long as I can remember. My parents were inherent gypsies. For much of my childhood we spent countless days roaring through the back country of the southwest and even Baja. From the hot and dusty deserts of California to the lush mountains of Colorado, we traversed many a trail gone dim and found history and solace in some amazing places. The family hobby suited us.
At least part of my love for history stems from the fact that my parents had to find some way to keep me and my sister from acting like yard apes in the backseat. My mom would read to us on the road about where we were going or where we were. She always had a history book of some sort on hand, supplemented by local brochures. Because of her, our explorations led us to some stunning places during the 1960’s and 70’s. It was the perfect time to visit long-abandoned towns, ranches and whistlestops before they sank back into the earth and ceased to exist at all.
Some of my favorites: Bodie California, where it took us over two hours to drive 13 rough miles to a place that looked as though everybody just up and left. Animas Forks and a handful of other towns scattered over precarious Engineer’s Pass in Colorado. Also Carson, where I kicked an 1860 gold piece up with my foot. That nameless place in the California desert with just two buildings left, one of them tagged with a bright, mystical sun. Mogollon, New Mexico.
The treks to find these places have almost always began from a small but charming town, and these share an equal place in my heart. As a kid I loved playing Bingo at Lake City, Colorado. We had an awesome cabin at Big Bear California and I had the whole attic room to myself. A favorite memory is the lone road trip I took up the whole western side of Montana. Julian, St. Elmo, Jerome, Pinos Altos…the names run together like old friends who were at my party.
What freaks me right out these days is, it has come to my attention that I’ve been in this nomadic state of living for over 40 years now. I never outgrew it. I still like to climb to the tops of old decrepit mills, step into abandoned houses to see how people lived, dig around in ancient dumps and photograph lone tombstones standing in a field. And I still laugh like hell when the tires unexpectedly sink into mud or I stall out while crossing a river.
The trouble is, the ghostly western world of yesteryear is slowly fading to dust. Today’s rides down the history trails might yield only piles of what was, not what might have been. Sometimes there is only a bare patch of ground left. Other times a cemetery or a few buildings might mark the spot. If we’re lucky, the place has been carefully preserved and watched over. Or even fenced to prevent access. But the numbers of those few survivors are small compared to what has been lost.
The people who remember these places are dying as well. Some of them have been replaced by those who don’t know, don’t care, or don’t want to share history. Fences have been put up, buildings torn down, the land plowed under and new development planted over. Even as history evolves, scrambling to document it and remember it is a race unto itself. Can it be done?
Yes. Because for as many of those new generations who don’t know their history, there are still others who do. These are the preservationists, historians, writers, genealogists and history buffs who spend countless hours researching history, documenting it and then tracking it down. They are the ones who collect old photographs, postcard, diaries, documents and letters. They keep old maps, index newspapers and spend hours on the web. Then they go out and they find these places, standing or not, never quite knowing what the outcome will be, and they explore them and take pictures. They love history. They are like me.