After my initial foray into photographing ghost towns, I was hooked and decided to take a full week vacation exploring ghost towns. A year earlier I’d been bored with my job doing drafting and took a job with a building contractor. As a result, I sold my Porsche and bought a station wagon. Although the pay was less, I was excited about my new job since I wanted to learn about construction and loved going into the field to be responsible for getting buildings built according to the drawings. When this job ended, I mapped out a week-long trip. I would be driving and sleeping in my station wagon on alternate days to save money. I was excited because I was on my own and would spend as much or as little time as I wanted at each stop along my planned route. I was not only interested in seeing ghost towns, but also photographing scenery along the way. So, I planned other stops to satisfy that need as well.
On a chilly October morning in 1971, I set out from Los Angeles and drove toward Death Valley on route 395. There some beautiful scenery as I approached Owens Lake for my turn off to Death Valley National Park. At the time I was experimenting with black and white film as well as color slides. So, I often took the same shots with two different films. As I drove into the park, the temperature climbed and names like Furnace Creek began to make sense. I stopped along the road to snap photos of the carcass of a 1920s or 30s bullet riddled abandoned car chassis, a wild burro, and the multicolored hills. Although the area seemed desolate, it was alive with subtle colors, the purples of the mountains, the yellows of the minerals in the hills, the golden scrub brush along the road, which turned red in the early morning light as can be seen in the photograph here. I spent the night in my station wagon and listened to the sound of coyotes howling as I watched the moon rise.
The next morning I headed for Rhyolite, Nevada. Rhyolite is a true ghost town with little remaining. The photograph of one of the remaining buildings' front shown here is a popular one taken by many who visit ghost towns and, in fact, was one of the first photographs I saw when researching ghost towns. Rhyolite is reached over dirt and gravel roads and although it is only about 6 miles from the nearest very small city, it’s a long way from any large city. So, I was surprised to see other people checking out the ruins that early in the morning. There wasn’t much to see, just one main building in disrepair although rather majestic in its own way. I remained only long enough to take some photographs.
It’s hard to explain the excitement I feel when I’m at a ghost town ruin. Since I am an architect, I might attribute this to my fascination with buildings in general. And I have travelled around the country taking photos of newly constructed building by architects I admire. However, this is different. It’s something deeply engrained in me that wants to capture my view of the architectural ruins. Perhaps it’s the connection I feel with how people lived in these towns and the beauty of the simplicity of the buildings that remain. The storefront in Rhyolite is an example of a building that must have been elegant when it was whole.
When I left Rhyolite, I again drove back through Death Valley and made a stop at a small ghost town called Ballarat, California. It is truly out in the middle of nowhere and I was surprised to see that the one remaining building in the town was being used as a “convience” store. I took a couple of photographs and hurried on to the next stop on my itinerary.
Some of the country along route 395 in California around Owen’s Lake, Lone Pine and Bishop is very beautiful. Farms and open fields are set against the majestic eastern edges of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The Alabama Hills in front of the Sierra Nevada Mountains are strewn with boulders making an interesting contrast. The area’s fame comes from being the backdrop for early Hollywood westerns. Ansel Adams immortalized it in many beautiful black and white photos. I took my own versions and I especially like this one.
Continuing north I made a brief stop at Mono Lake, a salt water lake with many eerily shaped crystalline mounds of salt. Nearby I found the road to Bodie, California. Bodie is a state park now and the entire town was left to deteriorate with time and weather. It’s about 30 miles from the nearest highway on a dirt and gravel road. I loved roaming around Bodie. Many of the buildings are in good shape; I especially like the beautifully weathered wooden walls which change in color with the changing light. The town stretches across a relative flat area with the stamp mill on the hillside behind. The building interiors show the same types of decay. As I looked through the windows I could imagine how people lived in them. Cows roamed the grounds freely along with tourists. I took many photographs of Bodie; here are some of my favorites.
When I left Bodie I drove back down state route 395 toward Mono Lake again to see if I could find the remnants of Mono Mill, a sawmill used to shape lumber for Bodie and other local towns. Off the main highway along another gravel and sandy road, all I found were large wooden wheel ruins and a sign saying Mono Mill had been there. Then my car got stuck in sand. Since this was before cell phones, I hiked to a store to arrange by phone for a tow. By the time I got my car out of the sand, it was dark and I settled into a motel in the area.
The next day I headed through Tioga Pass into Yosemite Valley. Some people think of Yosemite as just The Valley, but in reality a larger part of the park is outside the valley. The drive over Tioga pass is beautiful with many stunning views of lakes and granite formations; here is one of mine. When I reached The Valley, I spent the day exploring for light filled areas. It was a lot less crowded in those days and easier to drive around. I’ve included a couple of photographs from that time; I have since explored Yosemite in many different seasons and weather..
I’ll continue the story of my week long trip in the next blog.