Cerro Gordo, California

22 Lessons From 22 Months Rebuilding A Ghost Town

Just about four years ago, I sank my life savings into an abandoned ghost town.

The town is named Cerro Gordo, and along with my business partner Jon and a number of our friends as investors, we bought this deserted mining camp with a hope of bringing it back to life. Once the deal was done, we were the proud owners of a parcel that included 360 acres of land, 20 buildings, 30 miles of mines — and no running water.

When it was first established in 1865, the town was one of the largest producers of silver in the country, nearly $500 million worth of minerals out of these hills (adjusted for inflation). At its peak, 4,000 people called this patch of dirt home. There were hotels, butchershops, even brothels. But then, the ore ran out, World War II happened, and everyone left. The town fell into disrepair, forgotten as just another of many dead towns dotting the landscape of the American West.

One-hundred and 55 years later, in March of 2020, the American landscape changed, as it became clear that a pandemic would shift how we all lived and worked. Businesses, like my hostel in Austin, were shutting down, and people were quarantined and avoiding each other to stay safe.

That’s when I made the decision to decamp for Cerro Gordo. I couldn’t think of a better place to socially distance than this empty town full of history, on the top of a hill at the end of a road in the middle of nowhere that frequently becomes impassable in the winter time. If you’re going to ghost the world, I figured, what better place than a ghost town.

At the time, I thought I would be at Cerro Gordo for a few weeks, a month at the most. We’d all social distance, quarantine, flatten the curve, and then get on with our lives. Well, it’s now been almost two years, and I’m writing this from the same cabin I first came to. The view out the window is the same, but I feel like a completely different person. In my two years on the mountain, I’ve learned more about this town, about myself, about people, about life, and about pretty much everything I already thought I knew a lot about than I ever thought possible — no experience has ever taught or challenged me so much.

Here are just some of those hard-won lessons, the ones top of mind, that have had the greatest impact on me:

1) Comfort comes from commitment to a long term project

When I was younger, I “started” a new business every week. I’d get excited about things and then quit. My GoDaddy account is a graveyard of business ideas considered and abandoned. As soon as things got hard, I’d think of another business that would work out better “long term” and move my fleeting attention to it.

This is a great way to create anxiety and stress around everything you create. There is no comfort to be had, because no commitment has been made. There’s nothing for you to hold onto–a goal, a vision, a promise–when things get difficult.

In March 2020, I fully committed myself to Cerro Gordo. I moved out here full-time. Gave up a dozen side projects and the life I knew back in Austin. By fully committing myself to Cerro Gordo , I’ve found relief in not having to think about what’s “next.” And knowing that, I can clear everything out of my head and use my full bandwidth for one goal.

2. Don’t mistake thrift with value

Here’s a #GhostTownLiving secret: The main camera I use isn’t even mine. I borrowed it when I came up to the mountain in March 2020. My hope was to learn how to take long exposure shots of stars and maybe mess around making some videos.

Well, after a few of those initial videos took off, I started making more videos. And even though the videos started getting hundreds of thousands (and sometimes millions) of views, I still didn’t invest in a proper microphone or flashlights.

The thing is, audio quality and lighting quality are probably 80% of making a great video. Most phones even take good enough quality video to work if the audio and lighting are right. So I would do some absolutely spellbinding adventures, and I’d end up with a subpar video because of flickering camera light or because wind overwhelmed the audio. It didn’t matter if I captured magic — because the magic was distorted or inaudible.

I was being stubbornly frugal in an area where I needed to spend. I was mistaking savings for value. They are not the same things.

You may not make videos, but if you create anything and you’re totally honest with yourself, you know what your microphone and flashlight items are. You know where you’re being cheap instead of paying for value. In any venture, especially something that is important to you, you have to know where you can afford to be ruthlessly frugal, and where you should be extravagant in pursuit of value and quality.

3. You don’t need to be by yourself to be alone

When I first came to Cerro Gordo, I made the trek by myself. And for the first 6 months, I was pretty much the only person always in town. Friends would come and go, but the constant was me, alone, living among the abandoned buildings and stark scenery. I was separated from my family, my girlfriend, and any constants from my old life.

The more time I spent up here, the more I became lost in my own thoughts, feelings. Even as more and more people came to town, I felt more alone. It’s a loneliness that comes when you’re on a mission to fulfill a personal dream.

I’ve heard stories of chefs working so hard and obsessively focused that they always feel alone, even in a kitchen bustling with other chefs and assistants. Nobody else sees what they see, cares as much as they care, wants what they want as much as them. So there is an intense loneliness in the act itself, even if you’re surrounded by other humans.

Here’s my lesson from this: That intensity is great, but it’s a dish that’s better shared in the company of others. My happiest moments were those in which I had other people with me, and my advice is to bring others into your dreams and share them as much as you can. The myth of the “lone genius” is a dangerous one — it’s why there’s fairly well-documented evidence on the dangers of solitary confinement.

I was lucky: My investors are mostly from a close circle of friends. Volunteers who shared my passion started coming and staying in the town months after I arrived. Today, I’m lucky to be able to avoid that intense loneliness from the early days and to actually enjoy this place with many others.

4. Be afraid to have never lived

Death is all around you in the Inyo Mountains. It always has been, since the beginnings of Cerro Gordo. There have been stope collapses that entombed dozens of miners. There have been shootouts, and even the Spanish Flu. Walking around the town, I’m reminded of death in every building, at the entrance to every mine, at the junction of every road and path.

And all that macabre history has served as a powerful reminder to not put anything off. To do my job day in and day out. To not waste time on the trivial and the vain. To live my life to the fullest. A ghost town reminds you that you will one day be a ghost, too.

It’s a cliche, of course, that so many people are filled with regret on their deathbeds. They say, “I wish…”, “I wish….”, “I wish…” — a catalog of things they had hoped to do but now cannot. When it’s time for me to be added to the Cerro Gordo cemetery, I want to be able to say “I’m glad…”, “I did…”, “I’m good…” And the surest way to make that happen is to never put anything off.

5. Return to what excited you as a child

Every summer growing up, I’d go to my grandfather’s place on Lake Ontario. That’s where I learned to scuba dive, and it was the site of some of my favorite summertime memories. One time, we found a ship’s anchor from the War of 1812 wrapped up in some seaweed. It took a dozen motorboats at full throttle to drag the thing to shore. It ended up in a small museum where many more people can see and learn from it. It was epic — and especially so for a kid who thought hidden treasure was only hidden in fables and stories.

I hadn’t thought of that memory in a very long time, but as I spent my days finding old artifacts in the mines of Cerro Gordo and bringing them to the small museum we’re filling out, all those memories came flooding back.

As children, we did what brought us joy, without the fear of parental and peer judgment or the societal pressures of purpose or profit. But then, for some reason, we abandon those passions, as if they were trivial or childlike…simply because we found them when we were children.

They are anything but trivial. They are clues. The first crumbs on the path to a lifetime of contentment and fulfillment. Remember what those things were in your own life. Revisit them — no matter how silly they may seem. They can bring a lot to your life if you let them. They might even change your life completely, for the better.

6. Go To What You’re Most Afraid Of

A 900 ft drop down the main mineshaft…

I am afraid of heights. Terrified even. It runs in the family: My dad is so scared of heights that he pulls over and lets my mom drive over bridges. Yet, whenever I’m most stressed in town, I find myself throwing on a harness to dangle in a mineshaft with 300–900 ft of exposure below me.

Suddenly, the dozen anxieties in my mind go away. I’m not worried about an upcoming call, raising more money, or how I’m going to get 100,000 lbs of concrete up a dirt road. I’m only focused on not dying. I am immediately free of the overwhelming anxieties of that day. When I’m back above ground, those anxieties are in their place, with proper perspective. Everything looks less grim when viewed against the prospect of the thing I’m terrified of.

Obviously everyone doesn’t have an abandoned mine in their backyard, and everyone has something that fills them an unspeakable amount of fear. You don’t have to have a near-death experience every day, of course, but I’ve found immense personal, professional, and creative value in the past year in finding something that takes all of my focus. There’s a lot more philosophy found in hanging above an abandoned mineshaft than what’s available in a lot of books. Go to whatever that edge is for you.

7. Hike the same trails twice

The first winter snow always reveals trails not visible in the summer. The light from a fall sunset will show an outline of a building in a place you’ve looked a thousand times. One of my most exciting discoveries — an old Mexican furnace, was found off a trail I had hiked a dozen times before, but had never noticed until one Spring afternoon when the sun was in a different part of the sky.

While ‘new’ is always exciting, don’t be afraid to hike the same trails twice. That’s a concept that’s been around for centuries. It was 2500 years ago that Heraclitus said “​​No man ever steps in the same river twice.”This is as true in hiking the backcountry of Cerro Gordo as it is in re-reading books, revisiting classic films or masterpiece artworks, or journaling every day asking yourself the same few questions. Return to the old — and you might find something new.

8. Check your oil

One day at Cerro Gordo, the motor on my dirtbike died because I didn’t check the oil after I bought it. It’s easy to think there is always one more day of oil in the tank. Since then, I don’t go more than a few days without checking the oil on all my vehicles. It’s something that’s easy to take for granted in the short term, but the long term consequences are severe. A ghost town doesn’t come equipped with “ghost gas stations.”

The same could be said for ourselves. Day to day, it’s easy to ignore signs that we’re getting burned out, running low on energy, enthusiasm, passion, purpose. It’s easy to just push forward. One more day. One more week. You can get pretty far that way, I won’t lie. But in the end, the engine will blow up. And it won’t be maintenance you need — it will be a total overhaul.

That is what burnout is like. It has happened to my dirtbike and to me, and recovering has taken weeks, whereas more periodic breaks would have only cost me hours. These days, I try to take a few days each month off the mountain, to go down to a nice hotel, have a shower, and recharge a bit.

Don’t blow up your engine. Check your oil.

9. A lot goes into everything we take for granted

Earlier this year, I rappelled 400 ft into an abandoned mine, drove over 300 miles, flew another 2,000 miles, and spent about $1,000 to make a silver ring that I wear each day. I had help from dozens of people along the way and not just the people who crafted the ring or refined the silver.

Through all that, I was reminded that a lot goes into the things around us we take for granted. Take the computer or phone you might be reading this on. Just the trackpad or screen — which can look, at first, just like glass and aluminum. But focus on just the glass for a second. It’s made of a complex mix of old glass, calcium carbonate, sodium carbonate, and a lot of heat. Someone had to mine that calcium carbonate. Meaning someone found the minerals. Another drives the loader to pick up the minerals. Another manages the logistics of shipping it to the glass factory. You see where I’m going…

Thinking through all the people that go into our everyday items gives me a greater sense of appreciation for the work they’ve done and greater motivation for the work I have to do–both the sublime and the mundane–to bring Cerro Gordo back to life.

10. It’s not what you find, it’s what you find out

My favorite thing to do at Cerro Gordo is explore the abandoned mines. Inside, it feels like a time capsule of the 1800s. Miners gloves still sitting on shelves, discarded dynamite instructions, last touched over a hundred years ago.

Each of these things tells a story. And together, they help piece together the full picture of Cerro Gordo’s past. It’s not what I find, it’s what I find out. And keeping that larger context in mind in everything that we do is so important.

11. “You can’t change what happened, but what happens from here is up to you”

As I stood looking at the remains of the American Hotel, the old owner of Cerro Gordo drove up, put his hand on my shoulder and told me those words.

At the time, he was the first and the last person in the world I wanted to see. As I tried to choke out through tears he hugged me and said “It was supposed to be. You can’t change what happened, but what happens from here is up to you.”

It was more than comforting words. It was a call to action. To responsibility.

I remember over the next few days sitting in bed repeating what he had said. At a time when I didn’t know what to do, it gave me a singular focus and a direction: rebuild the American Hotel exactly where it once stood.

Every day since, I’ve thought of not just his words, but his compassion in a time of crisis. Those are two things that I’ll never forget in my life. No matter what situation you’re in, probably the only way out is through. What happens from here is up to you.

12. Make time for sunsets or sunrises.

There are two things I try to never miss at Cerro Gordo: the sunrise and the sunset.

Almost every morning and night for the past 22 months, I trek up to the same rock at the top of the property, above the town, above the highest mine entrance, above everything, to witness the day’s beginning and its end. It’s truly awe-inspiring. It commands respect. It also produces a healthy bit of fear, because there is a disorienting duality to the land out here that you can easily overlook.

That’s the true power of the sun as I watch it rise and set everyday. It warmed the world while it was up high in the sky, and as it descends behind Mt. Whitney to the west, it leaves me draped in gratitude for the simple fact of being alive and able enough to try something as crazy as bring Cerro Gordo back to life.

The awesomeness of a nature-guided life also reminds me of our place in the world — all of us. We’re all connected. Not just to each other, but to our past as well. It sounds hokey, but it’s way less hokey in the middle of a ghost town.

13. Nobody is coming to save you in the desert

There is a learned helplessness that comes with living a normal urban or suburban life. You can TaskRabbit anything or drive to a Home Depot within 15 minutes. You can call a plumber and have them fix your broken toilet the same day — sometimes in the same hour.

In the desert, nobody is coming to save you. Literally and metaphorically. If something breaks, you better learn how to fix it or it’ll stay broken. Dozens of people die every year hiking in Death Valley National Park. A broken ankle out here can be deadly.

As you learn to fix more and more things, you learn to rely more upon yourself. There is a deep confidence that comes from self-reliance. Knowing that no matter what happens, you’ll be just fine.

Next time something breaks, try to fix it yourself. Even if it takes you a bit longer, you’ll get a lot more satisfaction out of it, and in the end you’ll have a new skill for your trouble.

14. Even alone you can belong

I’ve spent the majority of my adult life living in big cities. I lived in New York City, Austin, and spent time in Los Angeles. All towns with millions of inhabitants — many of whom feel painfully and deeply alone.

Moving to Cerro Gordo put me further from other humans than I had ever lived before. It’s a bit like living on an abandoned island. But then I met the owner of another abandoned town. And then the guy who has a store in Death Valley. They knew the struggles of living in remote areas and were always quick with advice or tools or supplies to borrow.

These folks didn’t just offer me machinery to use or old wood to have. They took hours out of their day to show me what they were working on. The things they were excited about and the pride they had in them.

They also gave me any advice they could think of. They probably knew what I was getting into better than I knew myself. These guys have been building and operating establishments in the desert for decades. And in experiencing their generosity, witnessing their warnings come true, and benefiting directly from their advice, I felt like a true member of a community for the first time in my life. We were not alone. Our islands were a desert archipelago.

No matter where you are, you can find your people. Don’t be afraid if that means ignoring the masses that live around you.

15. Use ritual to track the subtle changes around you

In the nearly two years I’ve been living up here, possibly the biggest difference from my time in the city is appreciating the subtle changes around me. And noticing how those changes can affect your day, and in turn, your life.

My secret ritual: dirtbike rides.

I’ve been riding these same trails for over a year now. But every ride is a little different. The season is different, the time of day is different, and my comfort level on the bike is different. So instead of thinking about how it’s the same trail, I remind myself of all those differences. I try to seek them out and appreciate them. How the trail feels a little looser around a specific turn. How the light is filtering through the pinyon pines. A flock of birds that seems so out of place in the desert. Or the first bit of snow that has just landed on the mountains across the valley. And how I’m able to take slightly harder routes on the same path.

It forces me to be more mindful and present. A certain routine and rhythm — like an evening dirtbike ride — can turn the mundane into the profound.

16. Don’t isolate for too long

Being committed to your task is one thing. Losing yourself completely in it is something else.

For the first 22 months up at Cerro Gordo, my longest trip away from town was 4 days, when I had to fly to Austin to get my appendix removed (a whole nother story there). Other than that, I was here, working, living, creating. I realized a while into it that I was so in the weeds with the projects and daily occurrences here, that I wasn’t getting the larger perspective I needed on the place.

It was only when I purposefully made myself go visit my parents in Florida that I saw all sorts of things I was missing when living on the mountain. You have to occasionally leave your location to get perspective on whatever you are doing.

I’ve since made a rule to leave for at least a week every 2 months. No matter what your work situation, getting a bit of perspective on it goes a long way.

17. Don’t wear headphones on hikes

Don’t wear headphones on hikes. You’re there to be in nature. To be fully immersed. Allow that to happen. The podcast can wait.

18. Always bring rope when hiking

I almost died on a hike in August of this year. You’d think there would be other near-death experiences — squeezing through rocks in an abandoned mine, blowing up dynamite, or smelting lead.

But no, it was a hike. And it was all because I didn’t bring a rope. I committed to a number of steep dry waterfalls, which were too steep to climb back up. After doing that a dozen or so times, I was at a point where I couldn’t go back, but couldn’t go down a super long waterfall.

It was a dumb mistake and one that I luckily figured my way out of by climbing up a treacherrous side hill and finding my way down. But it taught me an important lesson — always bring rope when hiking. Which is another way to say: Don’t forget that one keystone object that can make the difference in whatever adventure you’re undertaking.

19. Don’t make up tasks to keep you from sitting with your thoughts

When I lived in Austin, I always had something I had to do. 4pm with some time to spare? Suddenly I had to have a specific ingredient for dinner that night. Saturday afternoon with no plans? Have to go to Home Depot right now to get that one specific hook for the wall.

What I was actually doing was avoiding my own thoughts. To create tasks that would give the feel of being productive, but were anything but.

At the mountain, I can’t run to the store for an ingredient. There is no Home Depot for hours either way. So instead I’m left to explore those thoughts, feelings that I would have otherwise not.

What tasks are you making up and what thoughts are you trying to avoid?

20. Build something with your own hands.

The most satisfying thing I’ve learned up here is how to build things myself. When I came here, I had no idea how to frame a wall, swap out a door, or support basic structures. Now, I spend most of my days fixing something around the town. And by doing so, I better understand all the structures here. I feel more connected to them. I feel more connected to this place in total.

Fixing things creates more confidence and agency. It might not be the most practical to do everything myself, but it’s satisfying in a way I’ve never found before.

A year ago, I was at the whims of whatever a contractor would say. I was on their timeline, and dependent on someone else. Not anymore. Now, I know how long it takes and how much it costs to fix a door or change out a pipe. I’m not the patsy at the table anymore. I’m becoming more autonomous.

21. Connect to something larger

When I graduated from college, I took a job at an investment bank.

Today, I laugh at that decision. It was utterly disconnected from larger goals.

Today, most of my goals feel yoked to something bigger. All of Cerro Gordo does. Each one, no matter how small, is connected to history.

I think people are grounded in all sorts of histories. Cerro Gordo just happens to be the one I’ve found myself in. There’s something powerful about being grounded in a history like this. In trying to build a future out of exploring the past. There is comfort in that connection to something bigger, because it gives a bit of greater meaning to each day. It allows you to take a small idea, a basic chore, and turn it into a goal, a mission. One with purpose.

I’m not just “fixing a door”; I’m “investing in the town’s future.”

Who decides what gives things purpose? Easy: You do. Meaning is a feeling we can all experience, but it’s also something we can choose. And when you decide something’s meaningful and you set a goal to pursue that thing, it makes your life better, because it turns even hammering a nail into something significant.

22. Make sure they’re your goals

For too long I took goals that other people deemed important and accepted them as important to me. I think this year is one of the first years that I’ve been able to shake that and make goals that are important to me. And execute on those goals.

I remember when I worked in an investment bank, I was making a ton of money. Achieving a goal a lot of people accept as the default goal everyone has. But it wasn’t important to me. And I wasn’t happy. Because you can always be richer. It’s a fake goal. If there’s nothing behind it, it means nothing.

When you start defining your own goals and working towards those, it brings a level of satisfaction you’ll never find from more money or status or titles.

If you’re interested from more around Cerro Gordo, check out my videos on YouTube under ‘GhostTownLiving



Hospitality http://brentunderwood.com/

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