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Mar 19, 2006
Death Valley, Calif.: These Ghost Towns Have Clean Sheets - The New York Times


The ghost town of Cerro Gordo, Calif.

Journeys

Death Valley, Calif.: These Ghost Towns Have Clean Sheets

IN the moonlight 8,200 feet up on the ridgeline of the Inyo Mountains, one can make out the remains of a dozen miners' shacks slung across a ravine almost eight miles up a steep dirt road twisting up from the desert plains of Owens Valley.


Stephanie Diani for The New York Times

Mike Patterson,, who owns Cerro Gordo, has rebuilt it with painstaking care.

Los Angeles, this fully modernized shack, in Cerro Gordo, Calif., with its two restored Victorian bedrooms, is yours for the night.

It has been half a century since anyone toiled in the creaky wooden mining works that hover above the ruins like ghost steeples. But inside the Belshaw House, a rickety Victorian cottage built by a mine owner in 1868, the perfect silence of the desert is broken by a gentle whirring sound that seems so incongruous out here that you would almost imagine it was from the central dynamo of the cosmos: it's the sound of a refrigerator and a water heater.

Although the original inhabitants could only have dreamed of such comforts, for $150 and a four-hour drive from

The desert wilderness around Death Valley is speckled with abandoned mining and railroad towns, some of which are owned by inventive and often colorful individuals who have made their own destinies under the sun. These individuals have converted what were once decrepit and isolated buildings into Meccas for desert aficionados.

"At its peak, Cerro Gordo had 4,800 people living here, along with five hotels, seven saloons, and two bordellos," said Mike Patterson, a wind-energy entrepreneur whose late wife, Jody, was a partner in the Cerro Gordo mines and who has combined enough claims to own the town outright. "There are probably about 600 of them who are still here in the cemetery on top of the hill."

Since 1985, Mr. Patterson has lived in a restored two-story Victorian miner's home, slowly rebuilding the collapsed shacks and creaky houses with a growing group of weekend volunteers. "Usually, when people come here for a second or third time, they bring work gloves," Mr. Patterson said.

Their effort has been a task akin to building the pyramids, but the results are stunning; the faucets now work in one of the most arid and isolated spots on the planet thanks to an ingenious system of pipes that connects to a spring at the bottom of an old mine shaft. Mr. Patterson also strung his own lines to bring in electricity.

The old general store in Cerro Gordo (which means Fat Hill in Spanish) has been turned into a ramshackle museum, where ancient mining tools, rusty pistols, a sun-bleached wooden tombstone and other artifacts from the pioneers are displayed. On one shelf sits a row of empty English beer and French Champagne bottles, many over a century old.

"Cerro Gordo used to be a very rich town," Mr. Patterson said. "It was the 'Comstock' to Los Angeles. It was only because it got so expensive to mine here in the 1950's and 60's that it was abandoned."

Apart from the Belshaw House, with its shower, full kitchen and two Victorian bedrooms, visitors can also stay in the Bunkhouse, which sleeps 12, but has more authentic toilet facilities in the form of an outhouse, which Mr. Patterson noted was 29 paces away — "unless it's cold or there's an urgency."

"One woman wrote me a nice thank-you letter where she complimented me for supplying talcum powder in the outhouse," Mr. Patterson said. "I finally figured out she was referring to the lime that you're supposed to throw into the pit."

Farther down the hill is the American Hotel, a two-story building with a rickety porch and terrace, where Mr. Patterson and his crew will cater larger parties in a modern restaurant kitchen they've installed. "We'll serve you anything you want with advance planning, as long as it's meat and potatoes," said Mr. Patterson.

While Cerro Gordo is a tribute to Gold Rush history, Death Valley Junction, a town built by the Pacific Coast Borax Company in the flat desert plains 18 miles east of Death Valley National Park, celebrates the vision of an individual.

In 1967, a former Radio City Rockette and ballet dancer, Marta Becket, rolled into the partially abandoned town with a flat tire and fell in love with its decrepit miners' community hall. She converted it into the Amargosa Opera House and staged one-woman dance performances, painting murals of a rambunctious medieval audience on the walls for the nights when no one came to watch — not that that happens anymore thanks to the worldwide publicity she has subsequently received. Death Valley Junction is now owned by a nonprofit corporation established by Ms. Becket, and her weekly show (8:15 p.m. every Saturday, October to May) is the hottest ticket for tourists coming to Death Valley.

Watching Ms. Becket, still spry at 81, perform pantomime in tights and heavy makeup for an hour is a decidedly eccentric treat, but the isolated setting and the colorful murals lend a distinct glamour to the evening.

After the performance, audience members wander across the colonnade square to the restored Amargosa Hotel, whose lounges feature Ms. Becket's murals depicting architectural fantasies and a 16th-century Spanish landscape.

"You can smell the history inside; it's very intense," said Raimund Koch, a New York photographer staying at the hotel in November. Indeed, within the cavernous hallway and lobby, slightly dusky smells from the carpets mingle with a subtle bohemian whiff of old cigarette smoke and the dry fragrance of the desert.

For those seeking more creature comforts, Shoshone, 28 miles south of Death Valley Junction, is the most luxurious of the Mojave's private towns. Shoshone was another stop along the closed-down mining railroad built by the borax company. In the 1920's, a local sheriff named Charlie Brown found out that a highway from Baker was planned here, and he purchased what was then nothing more than the train station and a few old shacks.

Now, his granddaughter, Susan Sorrells, owns what has become a thriving village thanks to all the traffic going to Death Valley National Park. Ms. Sorrells and some two dozen employees run a 1,440-acre empire that consists of a motel (rooms $63 to $133), a gas station, an R.V. park, a health clinic and about 24 houses that they rent out to fellow desert aficionados. There's also a cozy restaurant, the Crowbar Cafe, and an adjoining bar, which features the town's original railroad ties as a foot rail. Down the street, the funky cybercafe C'est Si Bon, serves crepes and coffee amid colorful outside sculptures and a pet pig.

Clusters of feathery salt cedar trees shade the town from the desert glare, but if things get too hot, one can wander down to the edge of town to a simple spring-fed swimming pool.

"I've traveled all over the world, but there is something very special about this place, a sense of freedom, that keeps me here," Ms. Sorrells said. Soaking in the pool, watching the sun set over the parched wastelands and the cheerily named Funeral Mountains, one doesn't have to own the town to understand exactly what she means.


 

Ghost Towns in Death Valley
   
 

 

If You Go

Apart from Cerro Gordo, which is almost eight miles from the nearest paved road, Death Valley's private towns are easily accessible by car. Make sure that the gas tank is full and that you have enough water and other provisions before driving out into Death Valley's wide expanses.

CERRO GORDO Four-wheel drive is highly recommended for the drive up the steep dirt road from Highway 136. Mike Patterson, who owns the town, does not take walk-in visitors. Call him at 760-876-5030 for reservations and for road conditions before going up (the road isn't plowed in winter). For more information, visit www.cerrogordo.us. The bunk house ($300 a night) sleeps 12. The restored Belshaw House ($150 a night) sleeps four and has a kitchen and a bathroom. Day visitors can come for a tour of the town and its museum ($5 a person).

DEATH VALLEY JUNCTION Marta Becket performs her pantomime solo production of "Masquerade" at the Amargosa Opera House every Saturday from October to May (admission $15). Doors open at 7:45 p.m. for those who wish to look at the theater's paintings before the 8:15 p.m. performance. For reservations to the theater or rooms at the Amargosa Hotel, call 760-852-4441 or visit www.amargosa-opera-house.com. Hotel rooms start at $49.05

SHOSHONE Shoshone has come a long way since the mining trains stopped coming through. The Crowbar Cafe & Saloon (760-852-4123) serves hearty Mexican and Western fare, including Steak Delmonico ($15.95), fish tacos ($8.95) and flame broiled rainbow trout ($13.95). A few steps further down Highway 127, the tiny but funky cybercafe C'est Si Bon (760-852-4307) serves crepes starting at $6; a cappuccino is $3. Overnight guests can stay in the simple but clean Shoshone Inn with access to the town's hot-spring-fed pool; doubles start at $63.54. Hotel reservations and more information on the town: 760-852-4335 or www.shoshonevillage.com.

 

   
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