Perhaps some of the most intriguing things to find at a ghost town are the pieces left behind. These give forth a sense of presence and a vague link to who was there before. In the highest country of the west I have stood, the heel of a woman’s shoe or the porcelain arm of a tiny doll in my hand. In these desolate places I look around me. Even if my imagination lets me see the town or camp or whistlestop that used to be here, I can also see how barren this land must have appeared to pioneers from all walks of life. And yet they came, stayed, lived in these places. They made or brought furniture along, often from far, far away. Shelves and cubbies were built to hold dishes and blankets and books. If a woman was along, tailored curtains were likely to replace rags over the windows, and there might even be a garden of flowers or a landscaped path. Later – a week, a month, a year or decades – they moved out. Those with spirit lovingly packed their belongings and took them along. Others left, intending to come back, and never did. Some just plain walked out the door and left their former lives behind for good. A few died there and their bodies lie under a forgotten stone while their spirits have moved on.
Or have they?
There are places – Jerome Arizona, Old Town San Diego, Cripple Creek Colorado, Virginia City Montana – that rejoice in their haunted histories. Ask the locals, especially the long-time residents, and chances are enough ghost stories will come forth to fill a crypt. Ask the ones who know the back roads, and stories of the long-dead local communities are likely to surface as well. The faded paths of the west are fairly riddled with triumph, but also plenty of tragedy in the way of broken dreams, horrifying accidents, fatal illness and a plethora of other maladies that make history colorful even as it is heart wrenchingly sad. It is of little surprise to learn that the spirits of many remain, looking for that lost child, waiting for a loved one return, or just plain failing to realize they were blown to bits in some mine. Others, I suspect, might just be hanging around for the sheer fun of it, looking after loved ones or trying to bring closure to some unfinished business. That perhaps explains why, for almost a year after she died and sometimes still, I have felt my mother tweak the curls of my hair.
There are stories like that everywhere, told by people who know good and well there really is something hiding in the closet, that there really are such things as ghosts, and that they did indeed see a pair of boots walking themselves down the stairs of an abandoned house. Like them, I believe, if only because enough experiences have come my way to make me know it is so. Like hearing the little girl clapping her hands and singing at the London Mine in Colorado, just like MaryJoy Martin said she would in her book Twilight Dwellers. The supper-time recording of metal pans and utensils being rattled in the Depot dining room at the Cripple Creek District Museum, which could not be explained even when we tore the room apart during extensive restorations. The time my folks found a shoebox hidden in a cupboard at our house in Pasadena, California, where a woman named Norma was said to have died. They were painting the kitchen, lamenting that if they only had $100 they could go somewhere fun for the weekend. The shoebox they found was full of cards. The inside of one of them read, “Go kick up your heels and have some fun. Love Norma.” Inside the card was a hundred dollar bill.
As residents of this part of the timeline, we have a tendency to think of ghosts in the modern day sense, as if they haven’t been haunting people, some of whom are now dead themselves, for years. It is easy to forget that some ghost stories go way, way back. Like the one about the fellows in Cripple Creek who watched in horror as a fellow miner, now dead with his shattered leg slung over his shoulder, arrived above ground in the hoist at the Mamie R. Mine and gave forth an eerie grin. That was in 1898. Or how long that lady of the evening has click-clacked in her high heels across the lobby of the Hotel Montezuma in Flagstaff. She died in the 1940’s. Think of the generations of people who have heard the whisperings and footsteps at the famed Whaley House in San Diego. Some of those tired souls have been put to rest by the occasional friendly psychic or a good sage cleansing, but many more remain.
As much as they scare me if I let them (I recently let myself be chased out of the basement at Ft. Whipple Museum in Arizona as an overhead tapping noise followed me around), I love ghosts. They can’t hurt me I know, and may even teach me a thing or two. I like to think of them as long-lost invisible friends and it makes me feel special to recognize they are there even as others refuse to do so. Technology is already making leaps and bounds, what with EMF meters, infrared photography and ways to actually record the occasional voice of someone who has not been seen since the day of their funeral. Perhaps the day is just around the corner when we can see them more clearly, have a conversation with them, and record their story for them so they will be remembered. Until then, I will continue exploring their former homes and their favorite haunts, waiting for them as they have waited for me.