The Real Gold At Bodie

Mark Twain divided Bodie’s weather into two seasons, “the breaking up of one winter and the beginning of the next.”

The only important location in the park from which records had not been collected was the Boone & Wright store. Harvey Boone was the town’s leading merchandiser when in 1879 he and J. J. Wright built the store and adjoining brick warehouse. Metal siding of flattened five-gallon kerosene cans—a common building material in Bodie before the development of corrugated iron—protected the structure from the elements.

Susan opened the padlocked door to the building, and we entered the store’s rear office with Patty, Judy Walker, who was an intern, and two veteran volunteers, Dorothy Roberts and lone Harmon. Bodie dust lay thick on the surface of the bookkeeper’s desk. Rodents had chewed up much of the contents of the drawers, but in a rear alcove we came upon cardboard boxes bulging with undamaged maps and strikingly rendered engineering drawings apparently collected during prior explorations by park employees.

The sales area yielded few records, but its shelves and floor space were crowded with retail stock: glassware, plates, coffee tins, empty food and condiment crates, hardware, tools, wearing apparel, shoes, and accessories. Judy donned a faded but once fashionable veiled hat, poignantly incongruous with her silk-screened T-shirt from a recent hundred-mile supermarathon.

A dank hallway cluttered with bricks, lumber, and pipe led to the back of the store. This rubble was home to Bodie Cat, a mangy calico and recent mother of a litter of kittens. Despite being a proficient hunter of ground squirrels, the wary cat was not above accepting nightly handouts from Marta Murvosh, one of two senior interns who resided at the park during the summer.

Two sets of ten-foot-high double iron doors separated the warehouse from the hall. We crowded into the narrow passage behind the first pair of doors and accustomed our eyes to the darkness. We then swung open the doors leading to the three-thousand-square-foot structure. In the dim illumination of a single light bulb was the astonishing inventory of memorabilia and relics gathered in the months after the park’s dedication. The walls were lined with wagon wheels, loggers’ pikes, mirrors, and shop signs. A magnificent safe from the Bodie Bank, tantalizingly unopened, was all but buried under saddles, bridles, and harnesses. The floor was piled high with boxes of artifacts, furniture, newspapers, barrels, leather suitcases, and book-filled cabinets. I knew that on this, the last day of my work at the park, I was as close as I would ever come to experiencing the feelings of Howard Carter upon entering the tomb of Tutankhamen.

Turning south onto 395 for the seven-hour journey home, I thought about how fragile the town and its contents really were. There was no doubt that had the state not made Bodie part of the park system, the town would have disintegrated. On the other hand, increasing tourist traffic, combined with the necessity for park officials to compete for funds just to maintain the structures in “arrested decay,” had created new stresses. An off-site visitors’ center would reduce some of the pressure, but that was nothing more than a dream. More substantial were those ominous rumblings from just outside the park, where a Canadian open-pit mine operator was drilling exploratory holes on Bodie Bluff. Yet even as I reflected on Bodie’s vulnerability and wondered how long this national treasure could endure, I somehow knew that the time had not come to start carving the town’s epitaph. After all, old Bodie was one of a kind: not a ghost but a survivor.