My Gold Country Road Trip: Hitting the Mother Lode

A few weeks ago, this western film and television fan made a pilgrimage of sorts to Ponderosa country. I didn’t cross paths with any Cartwrights, although I did encounter a perfect Hoss hat in a shop in Virginia City.

According to Baron Hats – the company that designed and manufactured all the hats worn on the TV show — the Hoss model was an original, just like the character for which it was created.

“With a gun and rope and hat full of hope!…”– from the lyrics to ‘Bonanza’

I spent 4 nights in rainy Incline Village next to Lake Tahoe, launching several day trips from there: Carson City, Reno and Virginia City. But the best excursion – the one I really planned my trip around – was to Bodie State Historic Park, home to a ghost town. (#Boo.)

W.S. Bodey of Poughkeepsie, NY discovered gold on the site in 1859. (He died several months later in a blizzard, which probably explains why the name of his namesake town wound up misspelled.)

At its peak, Bodie had about 7,000 residents. Only about 5% of the structures from that period survive, but that’s enough to provide a fascinating, throwback experience. When California State Parks purchased the land in 1962, it chose not to restore or renovate any of the buildings. It merely maintains them as they were discovered.

The town’s population dwindled after Bodie’s heyday of 1877-1881, although mining continued until 1942. What’s left standing has a bit of a Pompeii feel to it, as if everyone bolted one day with only what they could carry in their pickup trucks. Everything else – clothes, toys, furniture, mattresses, baby carriages – was left behind.

The Bodie cemetery is filled with the graves of residents that didn’t make it out – many of them gunmen killed in shoot outs. The visitor’s guide provides some back stories:

  • Alexander Nixon, a native of Tyrone, Ireland, died in 1878 at age 38. He lost a gunfight with a friend. They were arguing over who was the better man. Not sure there was a definitive outcome to the debate, but the friend was the better shot.
  • Chatto Encinos was killed by Sam Chung in 1880, for raiding Chung’s vegetable garden.
  • John Goff was shot in a claim jumping dispute in 1879.
  • Darwin award winner A.C. Robertson died in 1880 while trying to thaw out frozen gun powder in his oven. Seriously? Who DOES that?

Small flags are scattered amidst the cemetery’s desert brush. They pinpoint possible unmarked graves recently identified by human remains detection dogs. See what I mean? Spooky!

The visit was worth the 2.5 hour drive in each direction. As road trips go, I’d say I hit the mother lode.

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