Dusk was settling by the time I started my trip. But the impending darkness seemed appropriate, for my destination was a ghost town -- one that some swear is inhabited by real ghosts.
Calico, the site of one of California's richest silver strikes in the 1880s, is now a year-round tourist attraction. This summer, I traveled about three hours south from Las Vegas to see for myself if some long-dead prospector would make a supernatural appearance. My friend John Grant -- equally fascinated by rumors of unexplained phenomena in Calico -- accompanied me on the journey.
The tales of spirits spending the afterlife in Calico are widespread enough that the ghost town has been featured on paranormal television. Ghost hunters have included the old mining town on their lists of supposedly haunted places. And Calico's location, off Interstate 15 just 10 miles north of Barstow, Calif., makes the old town a convenient stop for anyone motoring between Las Vegas and Southern California.
Calico hosts a Halloween Haunt in October. Visitors are sure to see ghouls and spirits. We made our trip in July, however, with no such promises of unearthly guest appearances.
This was not my first trip to Calico, having made the trek last year during the winter months. Still, summer is the busiest time of year for the ghost town, in spite of temperatures that may reach 125 degrees. Now known as a "living" ghost town because of its active restaurants and shops, this desert mining camp was abandoned about 100 years ago. A decrease in silver prices, and the lure of higher-grade silver ore in Nevada, were the chief reasons cited for Calico's demise.
In 1887, 1,200 people called Calico home. But by the mid-1890s, silver dropped from $1.31 an ounce to 63 cents. Then borax deposits began running out, and by 1907, the town was pretty much abandoned. Only a handful of people live there today.
Of course, that number doesn't include those departed souls said to roam Calico's old streets, especially at night.
Darkness has taken hold as we drive down I-15. At Whiskey Pete's in Primm, we stock up on caffeine-laden products and more than enough snacks to survive until we reach Barstow. Tonight, we'll bypass Peggy Sue's '50s Diner at Yermo and the Mad Greek at Baker, but both of these roadside restaurants are landmarks.
Motels can be relatively cheap in Barstow. For about $43, we get a basic room at the Astro Budget Motel. The Astro, a classic '60s-style motel, is rumored on blogs to be named after the cartoon dog Astro of "The Jetsons" TV series aired in that same era. However, the operators don't say very much, so that question will go unsolved for now.
The next morning, we grab a brief breakfast at the Barstow Station's McDonald's. The McDonald's dining room consists of old railroad passenger cars and is bustling with travelers. Besides several varieties of fast food, Barstow Station sells liquor and souvenirs. You can get a watch that shoots flames and doubles as a cigarette lighter. You can also get a California Lottery ticket, so I try my luck.
Calico sits at the foot of the Calico Mountains, believed to have been named for their multi-colored appearance, suggesting the inexpensive printed cloth widely used for clothing in the 19th century. The town is open every day, but some attractions, such as the Mystery Shack and do-it-yourself gold panning, are only offered on weekends.
Walter Knott, the founder of Knott's Berry Farm, restored the ghost town in the 1950s. He donated Calico to San Bernardino County in 1966. Fires have destroyed much of the original ghost town. The last fire occurred in 2001, gutting the front of the town and original Mystery Shack. The first blaze was about a century before.
Among the remaining original structures are the now-reopened Lane's General Store and Lucy Lane's home. Lane was a longtime Calico resident who assisted Knott in gathering information on Calico's history.
Knott studied old photos to replicate buildings. He rebuilt the Calico schoolhouse, where some report seeing the long-deceased school mistress from time to time. And he added many signature Calico attractions, including the Calico Bottle House and the Mystery Shack. The latter is built slanted and appears to defy gravity.
Our date of arrival is a scorcher.
"It's 121 outside!" Curtis "Okie" Robinson warns us as we enter the Indian Trading Post, where he is seeking refuge from the extreme heat. Fall and winter provide for a much more comfortable exploration of Calico, we learn.
The white-bearded Robinson is decked out in cowboy gear. The 60ish man says his gun is real. Okie, as everyone calls him, is the official tourist greeter and doubles as the town's unofficial security. His ties to Calico stretch back to 1959. His son helped fight the 2001 fire, and his wife and daughters have all worked in Calico.
Okie won't say for certain if he's seen any dead folk who aren't so dearly departed.
"I'm a good Christian, so don't believe in ghosts," he says.
However, Okie's daughter has reported hearing unexplained noises on the empty street at night. And others say they've heard the door of the old Hank's Hotel open and shut mysteriously. Finally, the hotel's residing artist told the mischievous spirits to knock it off. They did, Okie said.
Not every alleged ghost has been dead very long. One died less than two decades ago. He had been building a dome house near Calico, and never got to finish it, Okie recounts.
"People say they hear noise, like he still working on it," the cowboy says in a matter-of-fact tone. You get the feeling Okie might believe the tales a little more than he'll admit for publication.
Our daytime trip to Calico hasn't rendered otherworldly sightings yet. But in Lil's Beer Garden, portraits of famous old gunslingers stare from the walls -- Pat Garrett, Billy the Kid and others.
The proprietor, John "Hardrock" Ransom, used to be one of Calico's gunfight re-enactors. Ransom and Okie said the county stopped the faux fights a few years ago for insurance considerations, but one of the highlights of the upcoming Calico Days Celebration, Oct. 8-10, is supposed to be their noisy, smoky return.
Ransom is also a preacher, licensed to marry. "I have ruined 42 lives," he says, with straight face.
And Ransom's eyes light up when asked about ghosts. "Oh yeah, Calico is haunted. There are ghosts. I did a video for YouTube," he says.
It seems modern technology may be crimping the style of those old spirits. But modern conveniences, such as air conditioning, likewise allow refuge from the heat. Ice cream shops, restaurants and specialty stores are generally cooled.
Being a sucker for souvenirs, I visit a few stores. Pirate- and skull-designed merchandise catch John's eye.
Some folks venture to the ghost town just to buy saddles at Gooding Leather Works or handcrafted gifts from Calico Woodworks. Scented candles draw repeat customers to the Calico Candle Co., explains storekeeper Karen Keeney.
"Smell one," she says. "We have different flavors -- crystal bath salts and potpourri. People come in to buy our candles that burn for 40 hours, too."
The money is made in the town's shops these days. Calico once had more than 500 mining sites, but none yields ore any longer.
Visitors can still wander through Maggie's Mine. And they get a chance to pan for gold (iron pyrite in this case). I like to think I filled up my pan a little quicker than those other novices.
A nice scenic view of the town can be had by riding the Calico & Odessa Railroad.
The train ride is under 15 minutes and allows visitors to see the entrance to the famous Silver King Mine. The site still contains $6 million worth of silver, according to our tour guide. The problem is, it would cost $10 million to extract it.
Okie invites me to come back for the Halloween Haunt in October, but says he won't be trying out the event's coffin motion ride.
"When I go, I want it to be it," the old cowboy says.
Soon, the sun is setting and rare storm clouds are closing in. We have found no actual ghosts. But we are bringing home a few pocket-sized skulls -- probably made in China -- and some fond memories of the way things used to be.
Contact Valerie Miller at email@example.com or 702-387-5286.