There are any number of reasons why a city, town, or even an entire empire goes from thriving to nonexistent: climate change, urban development, and war are just a few of them. For Wade Davis – an ethnographer, writer, photographer, and filmmaker who has spent decades traveling the world and immersing himself in indigenous cultures to learn about everything from hallucinogenics to zombies – the answer is simpler than that: "You know the old expression, 'If you don't study history you're doomed to repeat it,'" says Davis. "Undoubtedly, when Pachacuti built Machu Picchu, he had no idea that within less than a century, the convulsion of the Conquest would flood upon him."
From the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu to a tumbleweed-ridden ghost town in Death Valley, the element of surprise is a recurring theme in the abandonment of a town-turned-tourist destination. And whether a place is taken out by enemy forces or Mother Nature, the lesson in visiting any abandoned city, according to Davis, is "to realize the ephemeral nature of power." Including our own.
"The Roman Empire lasted for five centuries," says Davis. "Five centuries ago, people hadn't even come to America. We look back and say, 'Well the Mayans weren't quite as big as they thought they were.' By the same token, the global civilization that we have – based on hydrocarbons, if you will – could be snuffed out just as the Incas, the Mayans, the Egyptians and every other empire." Consider yourself warned.
About 75 miles from Lake Tahoe, in Bodie, is where you'll find one of America's most perfectly preserved ghost towns. Established in 1876, the former mining town was one of the area's most heavily populated – and bibulous; as many as 65 saloons lined the streets of Bodie, offering its 10,000 residents an abundance of choices when it came to parking on a barstool. (Rumor even has it that there was a red light district.)
The frivolity came to a halt in 1932, when a fire destroyed most of Bodie's business district, forcing residents to relocate. There aren't many buildings left to speak of, but those that remain look exactly as they did 82 years ago – stocked shelves and everything. Just don't try and make off with an unauthorized souvenir; an alleged curse will follow anyone who disturbs the site.
Getting there: Bodie State Historic Park is open year-round to visitors, but winter hours can vary depending on weather conditions. Translation: May through October is the best time to plan a visit.
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