Have you ever been to Bodie? It’s pretty unforgettable. I went there the summer before starting high school, and have always wanted to go back. Established after the Gold Rush, Bodie had a short-lived run as a boomtown in the 1880s, and it’s never been anything but notorious. It went from having 10,000 people at its peak, with more saloons than churches, to being all but abandoned by the 1940s. What’s really amazing is that Bodie is basically just as it was left when people lit out for greener pastures, albeit in what the California State Parks call “arrested decay”. Even the general store is fully stocked. I won’t go into all the details, but this video and website are excellent starting points if anyone’s curious.
Anyway, plenty of people have visited Bodie, but what’s it like to live there? A Year In Bodie, 1966-1967: A Park Ranger’s Diary by Carl and Margaret Chavez gives a slightly flawed but memorable glimpse of the hairy logistics and daily adventures that make up life in a ghost town.
Bodie became a state park in 1962, and even though it can be hard to get to, especially in winter, there has always been a need for park rangers to live onsite. People will be people and sometimes, among other things, people can get grabby. Ranger presence is obviously important. In the case of the Chavezes, they were freshly graduated from California State University, Humboldt and ready to take on California’s park system. As if that weren’t enough, about the same time Carl got assigned to Bodie, they learned that Margaret was pregnant. Since there was a tabu at the time on rangers with children living at Bodie, the Chavezes kept it quiet until they were well-along in the pregnancy, and it added a whole new dimension to their stay. Morning sickness at 8,400 feet–what fun.
The Chavezes arrived at their “new” digs in October of 1966, along with their supervisor, Bob Frenzel, and his wife, Dot, moving into the former J.S. Cain and D.V. Cain homes, respectively. Living conditions in these two dwellings were rustic to say the least, but lest living in Bodie sound like a setup for a “Here’s Johnny,” scenario, the families had propane and electricity, plus modern bathrooms. No TV, but they had plenty of books and a radio that picked up two stations. In spite of that, though, the ranger’s residences are still left pretty much as they were when the Cains lived there, and during the winter Carl catalogued all the antiques in the house. They also had J.S. Cain’s library at their disposal, and Margaret had a good time reading some of the bizarre volumes on the shelves, including a tome by one Dr. J.K. Kellogg. Yes, as in the cereal guy.
A Bodie winter is no joke. Temperatures can drop well below zero, with storms blowing up unpredictably, and the Chavezes’ main job in the wintertime was keeping warm and fed, as well as making any necessary repairs around town. Fortunately, the Chavezes and the Frenzels weren’t Bodie-bound. They were able to use a State Park pickup truck and a Tucker SnoCat to go to Bridgeport or Reno for groceries, mail, books, and in Margaret’s case, doctor’s appointments. Even so, getting around was perilous, as all the vehicles had to be kept in working order and stored outdoors in places where they’d be somewhat easy to find and maintain. Carl even used the old Bodie gas station for fuel until they could haul in a new gas tank. When it came to driving, Carl found he had to stick to the roads, such as they were. Offroading was tempting, but a few plummets into former cabin basements convinced him otherwise.
Margaret had her own challenges. The Chavezes didn’t have a fridge when they moved to Bodie, but they did have a cellar under the kitchen floor, and this was a passable way to store perishables, although not ideal. It was hard to keep meat fresh, and it wasn’t cold enough to keep anything frozen, such as ice cream. In the wintertime, this wasn’t a problem–they could just put things outside. The young couple made do, but it was a pain, not to mention it was a chore keeping mice and rats away, so as soon as they could, the Chavezes bought a refrigerator. They bought a vacuum cleaner as well, because the Cain house not only had antique furniture, but antique carpets and linoleum. Sweeping got old fast, hence the modern convenience. Laundry was both doable and labor-intensive, with the help of an old wringer washing machine from the 1940s, courtesy of Carl’s mother. As far as drying went, the Chavezes did what thousands of families did before the advent of the tumble-dryer–hang the laundry in the kitchen next to the nice, warm stove.
Margaret’s time in Bodie wasn’t drudgery, though. Since there weren’t a lot of people to impress, she didn’t have to do much in the way of maternity clothes. There was the usual nesting that every mother does when baby’s almost ready to come. Margaret bought a crib and gauze diapers, plus blankets and a lot of tiny T-shirts, which she decorated herself. She loved baking bread and experimenting with different recipes, so the house always smelled terrific. I’m sure Carl loved that. Once baby Abigail was born, Margaret enjoyed taking her on hikes around Bodie and making memories in that very unusual atmosphere.
The melting snow brought a new set of tasks. Not only did it mean the tourist season was upon Bodie, but there were cattle passing by, and cosmetic work to do around town. Believe it or not, there is a certain amount of staging that park rangers do in Bodie to maintain that long-abandoned appearance. Two of the Chavezes’ friends were teachers, and they helped rearrange the Bodie schoolhouse, even writing lessons on the chalkboards. It might seem like it shatters the illusion a little, but when a place has such severe weather as Bodie, things probably tend to shift and rattle around a bit. I didn’t get the impression that rangers move artifacts in and out of buildings, but just place them so they’re easier to see. For her part, Margaret had to keep the front door of the ranger residence locked and good curtains in the windows, because visitors would just wander in otherwise. It was pretty jarring for most of them to find modern appliances in a supposedly decrepit building. Some caught on more quickly than others, though. One woman acted as if Margaret was supposed to show her around the Cain house until she happened upon Abigail sleeping in her room, which sobered her up quite a bit.
The Chavezes aren’t professional writers (Neither am I, for that matter. 😉 ), and there is some repetition of details and slightly awkward prose in a very few spots. Also, the title says it’s a park ranger’s diary, but in actuality the book features excerpts from Carl’s journal, with lots of snipping. The diary was more source material than anything. I’m sure this was for length and for keeping sensitive information private. All of this is forgivable, though, as the subject matter is fascinating. I wish the book was longer than its one hundred twenty pages, as I now have more questions about what it’s like to live and work in Bodie than when I started. What would be very cool is to have more recent park rangers publish their experiences too. I know families are allowed to live in Bodie now, and they apparently have satellite TV and Internet, not to mention more reliable transportation (One recent video I watched showed a beefy Dodge Ram parked outside the ranger’s residence). Really, this aspect of Bodie history deserves to be told, because it’s such a unique part of the town’s history. I highly recommend A Year In Bodie, and now I’m itching more than ever to get back there.
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