Spending our time untethering the mind, getting the fidgets out, exploring the in-between ideas, and learning kintsugi.

Calico and Skidoo – Two ghost towns of California

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Shooting at Calico

Shooting at Calico

This is something fascinating about California – it is littered with ghost towns, small towns that sprang up and disappeared during the glorious days of its mining era – between 1850s to early 1900s. Miners came from all parts of the world in search of the gold in the hills of California.

Last autumn, when we decided to go on a long road trip, from Bay Area to Las Vegas, it only seemed appropriate to visit Calico ghost town, which was on our way.

We had started early from Bay Area and had arrived at Calico ghost town about 4. Even here, 150 miles away from Zabriskie Point of Amargosa Range in Death Valley, the mountains retain some of the unusual colors of gold and amber. It had appeared more amber in the light of the setting sun.

This town had boomed for fifteen years between 1881-1896 and was a ghost town by 1904. At the entrance, while paying the fee on my visa card I knew I wasn’t exactly in for a 100 year old ghost town experience. What looked romantic from the outside turned out to be like a Western movie set. More like “Good, Bad and Ugly” and less like “Treasure of Sierra Madre”. The highlight appeared to be a train ride which we looked down our noses as too touristy. But the live shooting show turned out to be entertaining. Somewhat. Although he looked like a saloon operator from a Western, he was a good shot.

Visit to Skidoo happened much later in the trip, when we were homeward bound via Death Valley. We started driving from Stovepipe Wells village. We kept driving and it kept getting more and more remote. If the rented Ford broke down, we would have to hike back 10 miles or more but 10 miles on a nice autumn day was not so scary.

When we finally reached the end of the road, we were in Skidoo, the GPS system in the car said so. Besides, there was no where else to go. There was emptiness all around, nothing but an interpretive sign. No rotting houses or fences, no piles of anything, nothing at all. Was I expecting to see the noose that claimed its one and only victim in Death Valley? No, but I was not expecting an uninterrupted view of the blue sky, desert shrubbery and salt flats either. It was a ghost town alright.

A broken cabin at 23 Skidoo

A broken cabin at 23 Skidoo

Skidoo was actually called 23 Skidoo. No one seems to be sure why 23 skidoo. It is a slang that means “go away”. I heard a tale about a 23 mile long water pipe. Then there are others – 23 mining claims, claims filed on 23rd of January, 23 men who founded the town and so forth. This town was even younger than Calico, it was at its height between 1906-1907 and had petered out by 1917. It was the longest standing and most productive mining town in Death Valley!

One could see the mining holes. Some were covered up by chicken wires. Their entrances looked barely wide enough to let a small child through. I was reminded of the 180 lb plumber who had crawled underneath our apartment through an entrance that had looked equally small. We found some beer cans that looked relatively new, probably some illegal camper.

On our way back from Skidoo, a few miles from the main road, we stopped at a cabin. We explored around a bit. There were remnants of a disused mine in the vicinity. The cabin was well preserved and had a relatively newer cot. We would learn later that there is a community of homeless people who move around in Death Valley and live in abandoned cabins. We also learnt that wood was expensive in Death Valley since the local vegetation is mostly desert bushes and hauling from faraway places is difficult. So, when one mining area was depleted, people broke down the buildings and re-used the materials elsewhere. That explained the nothingness of Skidoo.

Two ghost towns, less than 200 miles apart, similar origin but vastly different finale. In one, I had found a movie set and the other had vanished entirely. Nothingness was better, an empty canvas where the interpretive sign had sketched a bare outline – my imagination filled in the rest.

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  1. […] Great hiking, spectacular textures and colors, hours of four wheel driving, poking about the old ghost towns, whimsical people….there is nothing that we don’t love about this vast desert. You can […]

  2. […] yet another visit, we found ourselves looking at nothing in the ghost town of 23 Skidoo. This town was at its height between 1906-1907 and had petered out by 1917. It was the longest […]

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