Ghost towns aren’t exactly uncommon out west. The massive population explosion of the gold rush era dotted the landscape with little pop-up mining camps that were abandoned when the riches ran out, leaving only the skeletons of their buildings behind. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you’ll find small tools or other everyday artifacts that the miners used, but mostly they sit empty and forgotten in the scrubland.
My sister and I made a hobby of finding these towns and photographing them. It was exactly like urban exploration, just with scorpions instead of rats.
Marissa got me started on it after we’d taken a short road trip through some desert back roads and came across a small settlement of aged buildings. They were worn by weather and near constant sun, but still sturdy, and my sister convinced me to go in some of them. It was a bit spooky, a bit exciting, and entirely fun.
We were hooked after that first time.
Every few weekends became dedicated to finding ghost towns and driving out to them to spend a few hours going through whatever had been left behind. Marissa would do some research on them before we went and fill me in on the history during the drive over and I’d try to find things to photograph that matched up with what she’d told me. We’d post a few pictures with the corresponding facts to an online blog, but mostly we just did it for our own entertainment.
“I found a new one,” Marissa said by way of greeting when she met me for lunch one day.
“Yeah, about two hours drive out. Not much about it online, I guess it wasn’t active for very long.”
“Think it’s worth checking out?”
My sister rolled her eyes with slow exaggeration at me. “Uh, duh?”
“You free Saturday?”
“Thought you’d never ask!”
And so our next adventure was born. We met at my apartment early Saturday morning and, armed with only my camera, a GPS, and a cooler full of snacks and water, we set out.
There really isn’t much to see out in the desert. It’s a vast expanse of sand and scrubland topped off by an inescapable sun. The mountains off on the horizon can be pretty impressive, but even they start to lose their appeal after an hour of staring out the window.
I knew we had to be getting close when Marissa pulled off the highway onto a narrow two lane road that wound us closer to those mountains.
“Is there some kind of sign or something I should be keeping an eye out for?” I asked.
“No. From what I read, you just kind of have to know where you’re going to find it,” she said.
In typical Marissa fashion, she turned down the music and leaned forward with a deep frown of concentration. Apparently, the quiet and narrowed eyes were essential to her being able to find where we were supposed to be.
“I think I see something, over there,” she pointed off to our left, where I could just make out the dark silhouettes of buildings against the blue sky.
The dirt path we had to take to get over to them was bumpy and I clung to my door to keep from being jostled around too much. As we neared the town, those outlines we’d seen from a distance solidified into old, faded wood. At least half a dozen buildings were scattered about and, surprisingly, each seemed to be in pretty fair condition.
“Jesus!” Marissa cried suddenly and she wrenched the wheel to one side while slamming on the brakes.
My seatbelt caught me sharply across the front as I was thrown forward and I let out a surprised yelp. As we skid to a stop, a black cat went slinking away from our car to vanish behind the nearest building.
“Sorry,” Marissa said shakily, her smile both relieved and embarrassed, “you ok?”
“Yeah, yeah,” I assured her. “Stupid cat.”
“Stupid cat,” she agreed.
After we’d taken a moment to settle ourselves, we shared a little giggle and grabbed the camera from the back seat to begin our exploration.
The saloon was first, little more than a plywood bar stretched across the back wall with some tables and chairs spread around the room. I was taking busy taking pictures of some boots left in one corner when my sister called me over to the bar.
“Look at this,” she said, gesturing to the shelves beneath the countertop, where rows of beer bottles were lined up.
“Oh, cool,” I knelt to set up a shot, but Marissa jostled my shoulder.
“No, Selene, look! These are modern bottles and they’re clean, no dust.”
A quick inspection proved her right and I lowered my camera. It occurred to me that the boots hadn’t been particularly dirty either. In fact, a look around the room showed that it was all pretty clean. Usually there were layers of dust and sand and spiderwebs. Not even the windows had the typical cracks in them.
“You think someone comes out here and uses this as a bar?” I asked skeptically.
“I dunno. It’s pretty far out in the middle of nowhere for a quick drink.”
“Let’s check out the others and see what they’re like.”
We walked from building to building, doing walk-throughs of each, and they were all in a similar, bafflingly cared for condition. We had just finished going through the small upstairs of one of the bunk houses and were descending the stairs when a voice from the front door almost had us tumbling over one another.
“What are you doing here?”
An Asian man just shy of being elderly was standing in the entryway. He was glaring up at us from beneath the brim of a stained cap, one hand still on the doorknob and the other clutching a baseball bat.
“Just looking!” Marissa said quickly. I shyly held up my camera to help confirm her words.
Although his dark eyes remained suspicious, he seemed to relax slightly.
“You shouldn’t be here,” he said.
“Sorry, we’ll go,” I grabbed Marissa’s arm and we scurried down the steps and out past the man.
Being out in the open seemed to embolden my sister.
“Wait,” she said, pulling herself free. She turned back to him and put her hands on her hips, her favored pose for when she was about to offer some attitude. “Why should we have to leave? Who even are you?”
“Henry Lee, the groundskeeper,” he said, clearly unimpressed with my sister.
“For a ghost town?” She ignored my pleading tugs towards the car and stood her ground.
“Even if that’s true, we’re not doing anything wrong and we came a long way to get here, so we’re not going to leave until we’re ready.”
“Marissa,” I hissed.
“This isn’t a playground, young lady,” Henry said testily.
“And we’re not playing, we’re just taking pictures.”
“You shouldn’t be doing that, either.”
Marissa scoffed. “Why not?”
“They don’t like it.”
My sister and I exchanged a glance, mine uncertain, her’s clearly asking if this guy was for real. It wasn’t lost on him and he shut the door firmly behind him with a sigh.
“You have no idea what this place is, do you?” He asked, speaking slowly as if addressing small children.
“Of course we do, we came here because of what it is,” Marissa replied.
“Then you’d know you’re standing in a graveyard.”
“A graveyard?” I peeked over Marissa’s shoulder at him.
“Yep, so show some respect and leave.”
He walked around the side of the building and despite my whispered urges to go, Marissa followed him doggedly. We found him putting the bat back into his truck, which was parked behind the bunk houses, and when he saw we hadn’t been so easily shaken, he slammed his door and crossed his arms over his chest.
“There’s nothing online that says that,” she said and I almost groaned. Of course my history nerd of a sister wouldn’t be able to just go without demanding more answers.
“There wouldn’t be,” Henry replied sourly. “It was just some dead chinks after all. Nobody gave a shit then, nobody gives a shit now.”
“This was a Chinese mining camp?” Marissa perked up slightly and her genuine interest seemed to soften Henry just a bit.
“Back in the 1850s, yeah. They called it Golden Beijing after they actually managed to strike some gold, but a tunnel collapse killed almost all of the men. The few women took their kids and ran. Good thing, too, because it was found out later that the collapse was intentionally set up by American miners who wanted the land and I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t have looked kindly upon a couple widows and daddyless babies hanging around.”
“Even with proof of their involvement, the law favored the Americans and swept the murders under the rug. The Chinese families weren’t allowed to try and dig out the bodies and, after the gold dried up, Golden Beijing was scratched from the records.”
As he talked, he went back around the bunk house and we followed him as he cleaned and swept down the line of buildings and set out beers and jerky along the bartop in the saloon. We learned he was a descendant of one of the murdered miners and he had taken up keeping the town clean and stocked after his mother, who had done the same, passed away.
“Those men never left,” he said soberly while twisting the cap off a bottle of beer. “Without a proper burial, their spirits can’t rest. There are rituals that have to be performed so that they can cross over. Without bodies, however, it is impossible for that to happen and so they exist in a tortured state. That’s why I come here, to try and offer some relief to them with offerings of food and drinks and new clothing when I can. It’s little comfort after what they’ve been forced to become, but it’s something.”
“So you really believe the ghost of your great grandpa is wandering around?” Marissa asked bluntly and I immediately apologized on her behalf.
Henry just nodded, his expression as grave as his voice. “Oh yes, I’ve seen them. They’re visible to the living at night, but you had best pray they don’t see you, too.”
“You’re messing with us,” Marissa laughed.
“Do you know what a hungry ghost is?” He asked, and when we shook our heads, he continued. “They are driven by anger or want and a constant, unfillable ache in their bellies. These were poor men, so they are poor ghosts, too, unable to purchase any relief in the afterlife. They are always looking for a way to ease their pain. They can take other forms, like a beautiful woman or a cat, and they’ll try to lure you outside, where some will hurt you if they can, and others will try to possess you.”
The hair on the back of my neck rose slightly when he mentioned cats and I was reminded of the one we’d almost hit on our way in. Marissa wasn’t the least bit bothered and continued to pepper Henry with questions about the town, which he answered more often than not. He remained gruff and busy, but it was also fairly obvious that he enjoyed passing on his knowledge of what had happened there.
By the time any of realized how late it had gotten, the sun was starting to slip behind the mountains, leaving a bright red streak across the sky overhead.
“We should get going,” Marissa said at last, but Henry shook his head. His glance out the window beside us was an anxious one and I followed his gaze to the black cat perched on the railing just outside. It stared back, unblinking.
“No, if we leave now, they will come for us,” Henry said. “We should have been gone already! I shouldn’t have let you distract me so much!”
“Come on, you don’t really believe in all that stuff, do you?” Marissa cocked her head to one side and snorted.
They went back and forth, each insisting they were right, and all the while, darkness crept over the town.
Marissa was mid sentence when the crying started. It was soft and sad and coming from just outside the door. It sounded like a man. My breath caught in my chest and I looked to Marissa, whose face had lost all color. Henry motioned for us to be quiet and to follow him quickly behind the bar, where we all ducked down and huddled together. All of Marissa’s bravado had vanished.
The crying faded into a heavy silence until the only thing we could hear was our own breathing.
“Can they get in?” I squeaked the words out.
“There are seals on all of these buildings that should keep them out if the door is closed,” Henry said, “but they are very old now.”
Something scratched the door lightly, as if testing it, and a cat meowed from the other side. When it remained unopened, the scratching became more fervent, more desperate, and the meows turned to a piercing, howling screech that shook me down to my bones. The crying began again, and then a chorus of voices joined in, all speaking rapidly and crawling over one another in their effort to be heard, and it felt as if they were all pressing against the door.
Marissa and I clung to one another and Henry told us more than once to stay still and silent.
When the noises faded again, he dared to lift himself just enough to peer over the top of the bar.
“Shit,” he whispered.
A terrified curiosity took hold then and Marissa and I couldn’t help but look at whatever had caused him to swear.
Faces were pressed against every window, held up on impossibly thin, needlelike necks. Some had tiny mouths that opened and closed wildly, the swollen tongues within lapping at the air, others had bright flames burning in the back of their throats. Their bellies were swollen and distended and the flesh sloughed away as they writhed and contorted.
Their eyes, bulging and alight with feverish want, were all fixed on us.
“What do we do, Henry?” I asked, unable to look away from the swarm at the windows.
“We wait until dawn,” he said quietly. “And we hope the seals hold.”
“We can’t make a run for it? Our car isn’t that far,” Marissa said.
“It won’t work. Lights, cars, phones. When they’re gathered like this, none of it works.”
“We can’t just sit here all night!” A sob escaped Marissa and she sank back behind the bar.
“We can’t leave,” Henry said. “You step outside, that’s it.”
The heavy groan of stressed wood accompanied his words. We all popped up again to see the door starting to bow inwards, pushed by the frenzied, clawing, hungry ghosts.
“Upstairs,” Henry was already moving, “there’s another sealed door. Come on!”
As we scurried beneath the windows, those outside wailed and pushed and thrashed.
We had only managed to kick the upstairs door shut behind us when the one below splintered and gave way. There were no footsteps on the stairs to tell us of the spirits’ ascent, no telltale creaking of the floorboards, only a cold darkness that filled the entire space beneath the door. Hushed whispers filled the small room and I could feel their despair and desperation twisting its way around us, clogging the air until it was almost hard to breathe.
While Marissa and I embraced each other against the opposite wall, Henry sat cross legged in the middle of the room, pressed his hands together, and began to murmur in what I assumed was prayer. The whispers from the other side of the door continued, and they scratched and banged against the wood, still trying to get in.
None of us slept at all that night; the ghosts wouldn’t let us. At some points, we each had to take turns to keep one of us from giving in to the cloud of hopelessness that the ghosts cast over the room and running out. Henry remained the most composed and, if it hadn’t been for him, I wasn’t sure my sister or I would have made it.
At the first light of dawn, all of their cries suddenly ceased and we were immediately able to shake off anguish that had plagued us for so many hours.
We waited for a bit, until the sun was streaming brightly through every window, and then we hurried down the steps and out of the saloon.
“Thank you,” Marissa stopped long enough to say to Henry. “For…keeping us safe even though I was rude to you.”
He just nodded.
We wasted no time in leaving after that and, even though he was exhausted and eager to be on his own way, Henry remained in the middle of the street, watching us go.
We put that ghost town and its groundskeeper in our rear view mirror as fast as we could and, although we did not say it aloud, both of us instinctively knew that it would be the last one we’d ever visit.