Ghost Town Guardian

Odd Jobs, On the Road, People, Travel Destinations
on February 22, 2011
David Calvert

Mark Langner stands atop Bodie Bluff in California’s Bodie State Historic Park, hand shading his eyes from the sun’s glare while surveying the remains of the once lawless gold-mining town.

“The whole town is at your feet,” says Langner, 51, the park’s supervising ranger. “This is one of the best views of the Sierras.”

Langner embraces the quiet, desolate scenery and the solitude of the once-thriving town whose last residents departed more than 50 years ago.

And it’s a good thing, too. For the last 13 years, he and his wife, Lynn, 51, have been among a handful of ranger residents who live year-round in several of the park’s retrofitted historic homes, even during the wintertime when temperatures drop below zero and snow piles so high that Langner can climb up and peer into the second-floor windows of Bodie’s abandoned buildings.

“This is the best backyard in California, with great outdoor recreation opportunities,” explains Langner, whose early ranger work included several California beaches. “I always wanted to live in a place where the elevation was higher than the population.”

At an elevation of nearly 8,400 feet and spanning a thousand acres, Bodie is nestled in the Bodie Hills east of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The area is the essence of remoteness, subject to high winds and brutal winters, with the nearest town—Bridgeport (pop. 818)—20 miles away.

During its gold rush heyday in the 1880s, Bodie boasted 2,000 buildings, including stores, brothels and 65 saloons, and a population of 10,000, making the town the third largest in California at the time. Gunfights, robberies and murders contributed to its reputation for wickedness.

The gold eventually ran out and two fires destroyed much of its structures so that, by the 1940s, Bodie had faded into history. In 1962, what remained of the town’s was designated a state historic park and a national historic landmark, with 200 buildings preserved in a state of “arrested decay”—meaning that the interiors are maintained just as they were left, furnished and stocked with goods—all serving as a living time capsule of life in the Old West.

“We keep the windows and roofs up and keep the foundations level. It’s a struggle to keep these buildings from falling down,” Langner says.

Neville Baxter of San Luis Obispo, Calif., who love visiting ghost towns “for the history,” calls Bodie “the gem of ghost towns.”

“But I don’t think I could live here in winter,” adds Neville, 81, who toured Bodie with his wife, Rosemary, last fall before the first snowfall.

No matter the season, the state requires Langner to live on site to provide law enforcement, fire protection and emergency maintenance.

Langner has closed the park only once in 13 winters when strong winds blew out windows and toppled a water tower in 2007. He’s responded to four plane crashes, and several years ago rescued a group of skiers who got lost amid a fast-moving storm.

Fortunately for the ranger, his wife has an adventuresome spirit, too, and their 10-year-old cat, Willy, doesn’t seem to mind the chilly temperatures or isolation.

“The place has really grown on me. It’s a one-of-a-kind experience living here,” says Lynn, a senior park aide who also works as a massage therapist in Bridgeport, weather permitting.

Given the stark living conditions, the Langners have learned to adapt. He grew up in the conservation-conscious East Bay area near San Francisco, but notes that “you have to leave your water running in winter here or your plumbing freezes.”

An 800-megahertz radio keeps the line of communication open with other park officials, and a landline telephone and satellite Internet work except during storms.

Because the historic town appears frozen in time, Langner often thinks about the prospectors who once lived and worked in Bodie. “It amazes me that guys could be working underground, with mines up to 1,200 feet deep, and come out to three feet of new snow,” he says.

Today, an appetite for history is common among most visitors, along with a mutual desire to protect the park for future generations—all of which make Langner’s job rewarding.

“Each day is different—search and rescue, law enforcement, park interpretation, talking to visitors,” he says. “I can honestly say I enjoy going to work every day.”
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