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Momento mori: Ghost Towns of the American West
The history of the West is written not in lofty cathedrals, noble estates or heraldry, it’s in the sweat-soaked mattock and pick, the stained hatband, the crumpled boots inside the entry door and the old stove waiting to cook the evening meal. Its mining towns had a lifespan shorter than a man’s; when ore dropped in price, a mine closed and the town was hastily abandoned by everyone except for a few old timers who had made their last move, a lost cat or two, and a snaggle-toothed graveyard left to be sandblasted to oblivion.
But they were lusty while they lasted, these towns. A well-bred lady remarked of Bannack, “Many deaths have occurred this winter, but that there have not been twice as many is entirely owing to the fact that drunken men do not shoot well. There are times when it is really unsafe to go through the main street, the bullets whiz round so, and no one thinks of punishing a man for shooting another” (1863).
An arid wind and powdery snow help preserve these ghost towns –we step into a house and wonder if we’re intruding upon a family meal. We can hear the lilt of children on the wind, playing as only children can, if we hush, while their weary mothers call them in. In the saloon, the piano still tinkles through raucous voices and the clink of bottles. The tug of these artifacts is such that this page of history seems poised in mid-swipe, not turned irrevocably – the footfalls barely faded into silence.
But nothing lasts forever – time or the developer’s earthmovers await– so now and then we must take inventory of our heritage.