Ghost Town Living
Pick Your Spot and Swing
It started as a pretty straightforward task.
William “Burro” Schmidt, a prospector, was tired of bringing his gold ore around a mountain, so he decided to go through it. In the spring of 1900, in the El Paso Mountains of the Mojave Desert, Schmidt began to chip away every day at solid granite using a pick, a shovel, and a four-pound hammer. When enough broken rock accumulated by his feet, he’d carry it out, first on his back in a canvas sack, and later in a wheelbarrow.
He’d come to the desert of California to save his life. Six of his siblings had died of tuberculosis back home in Rhode Island. Doctors, in their primitive ways then, had prescribed a hotter climate to avoid the same fate. Never one for half measures, Schmidt picked the hottest, driest desert in all of North America to stake his claim.
He reimagined himself as a prospector, a frugal one at that. He reinforced the toes of his boots with discarded tin cans and patched his tattered, greasy trousers with old flour sacks.
If you visit the tunnel, as I have, you begin to get a sense of the man, the compromises he was willing to make, and the ones he refused to. The first thing you notice about Schmidt’s tunnel is that the farther back you walk, the lower the ceilings become. At 6’2” I stand comfortably at the beginning of the tunnel. A few hundred yards in, I have to bend down to avoid hitting my head on the jagged, dust-covered rock all around me. I wondered if Schmidt, appearing in photos to be a bit shorter than myself, had done the math on how much time he could save by reducing the ceiling height a few inches. As I continued forward stooped over, like Alice in the shrinking room, I realized that a few hundred yards was actually three or four years of hard work. Maybe Schmidt had shrunk so much from hauling out tons of broken rock that he didn’t need the higher ceilings anymore.
It was dirty and dangerous work. From time to time, pieces of the mountain would fall on top of him. He’d dig himself out, and on more than one occasion, he’d limp toward a neighbor’s house to beg a ride to the nearest hospital to get patched up so he could return to digging.
On a good day he might make a foot of progress. On a bad day, maybe only an inch. He added dynamite and ore carts to the mix, but still progress was slow and imperceptible. Day in and day out Burro Schmidt woke up, grabbed his pick, and attacked the mountain. He knew what he had to do, every single day, for decades. There must have been comfort in that.
A photo of him from back then shows a man with a crooked back, pants filthy with grease, and a T-shirt ripped and full of holes. Still, evident even in a faded black and white photo, is the start of a smile. A look of pride in his sunken eyes.
In 1920, two decades into Schmidt’s digging of the tunnel, a road was built over the mountain, making his tunnel useless. He didn’t stop digging.
Maybe he thought he was close to finishing. Maybe he had come to love the rhythm and the purpose of the task so much that he could not bear to stop. In any case, he would spend another eighteen years digging the rest of the tunnel. Day in and day out, committed to finishing what he started.
As I go farther back in the mine, the light at the entrance reduces down to the size of a flashlight in the distance. I guessed that I’m halfway back. Halfway was nineteen years in Schmidt time. With nineteen more years ahead.
Then, on some otherwise uneventful day in 1938, having worked through the invention of the car and the television, through a world war, the Great Influenza, Prohibition, and the Great Depression, nearly four decades after he began, he saw sunlight at the other end of his tunnel.
His pickaxe, dulled and battered after nearly forty years of hammering away at the rock inside the mountain, clattered to stillness at his feet. A spark, a puff of dust. Newfound silence. He had chipped his way through a half mile of solid granite.
The exit was on the side of a steep cliff. There was a wash a few hundred feet below, but no practical place where the ore could have been transported from. Had he taken a wrong turn?
Had the whole thing been doomed from the start?
Schmidt was not the kind of man prone to existential questions. Soon after breaking through to the other side, he went back to the cabin he’d called home for forty years, packed up his few belongings, harnessed his two mules, Jack and Jenny, and left the place forever. No ore was ever sent through his tunnel.
But one man literally moved a mountain.
In my time at Cerro Gordo, I’ve come to view Burro Schmidt as the patron saint of the area and of my own undertaking. The tunnel that he dug, inch by inch through unyielding rock is not a shortcut to nowhere as the cynics would have it. It is, for me, the most direct path through all the doubts and fears that have haunted me since I took on the task of rebuilding and restoring this decaying ghost town in the middle of the desert. Burro Schmidt’s tunnel is a monument to what a person can achieve when they put all other considerations aside and simply, relentlessly, push on toward a single goal, heedless of the obstacles that stand in their way, taking on a seemingly impossible task, not for profit or glory, but for its own sake.
I know this because I am standing in the testament to it. Many less foolish things, things that serious people took seriously, where are they now? So much has happened in the century since he finished, but the work, a bewildering but undeniable demonstration of human will, is still there.
Call it projection, call it wishful thinking, call it my own need to justify the seemingly insane decisions I made that led me to Cerro Gordo, but I believe Burro Schmidt died a happy man.
“The struggle itself . . . is enough to fill a man’s heart,” Camus wrote in The Myth of Sisyphus. I choose to imagine Schmidt as Camus’s “happy Sisyphus.” I choose to believe that Schmidt found joy and purpose in a task that others would find to be useless drudgery.
I had no idea such a powerful sense of purpose could be wrung from rock.
I do now. My road to that epiphany had cut through a few mountains, too. It led me to Cerro Gordo, a town with over thirty miles of mines burrowed underneath.
It was two a.m. when my friend, half-jokingly, sent me a message that said, “This might be your next project, lol.” Included in the text was a link to an article: “Buy Your Own Town for Under a Million Dollars.”
I clicked on the link, as I’d clicked hundreds of real estate links in my past, but this one wormed deep inside my soul.
The article included an aerial shot of a collection of sun-bleached buildings against a desert sky, as if Georgia O’Keeffe had freelanced a real estate brochure. In the distance, behind the shacks and sand, magnificent mountains loomed, the sort of things that excite the heart of a guy who grew up in the relentlessly flat suburban swamps of Florida. The town in question covered over three hundred acres, nestled in the mountains between the Sierra Nevada and Death Valley National Park.
It had a name that, while a bit clumsy in English, sounded beautiful in Spanish: Cerro Gordo-Fat Hill. It had been an almost legendary boomtown, a mecca for silver and lead mining in the 1800s, and some of the vestiges of its storied past still survived: a church, a few cabins, a hotel named the American, which had once been considered fairly luxurious for the location and the era, and a nine-hundred-feet-deep shaft into the old silver, lead, and zinc mines.
And then, there was plenty the town didn’t have. No running water. No residents. No major stores for hours in any direction.
Despite the lyrical tone of the copy and the arresting beauty of photographs, it was clear that as fixer-uppers go, Cerro Gordo was in a league of its own, that it was the kind of impossible place that could break a man’s heart, his will, and his bank account.
In other words, it was perfect.
It was precisely the kind of challenge that I had been looking for.
My life at that point had devolved into a kind of numbing, comfortable, sameness. At the time that my friend sent me that listing, I was sprawled out on a worn and cozy couch on the front porch of a lovely, 150-year-old Victorian mansion in Austin, Texas, that I had turned into a profitable and successful hostel, hosting travelers from around the world.
History and hospitality were, at that point in my life, my stock and trade.
But I was ready for a change, for a new challenge.
I suppose, if I’m being honest, I’ve always been looking for the next thing to grab my attention.
But if I’m to be really honest, what I’ve been looking for is the one thing that will hold my attention, that will grab me and not let go, the way that tunnel through the mountains grabbed Burro Schmidt. I just didn’t know it at the time.