There might only be a few people on Planet Earth who can say they’ve been more socially-distant during the pandemic than Brent Underwood.”I thought, hey, you know, what better place to socially-distance than an abandoned town in the middle of nowhere?” he said.”And so, I packed up my truck, I drove out here.”
“Here,” perched on the edge of Death Valley, eight miles up a winding dirt road, is the abandoned mining town of Cerro Gordo, California.Population: Brent.
Correspondent Luke Burbank asked, “Do you ever start to feel sort of like Tom Hanks in ‘Cast Away’?”
“I do!” Underwood laughed.
“People think that it’s a really lonely place, and it can be.But I think to combat that, I remind myself that a lot of people are lonely in the past year.”
Underwood isn’t just Cerro Gordo’s sole resident; he also owns it, all 380 acres.Back in 2018, he and some business partners bought it to turn it into a tourist destination by restoring the town and its old hotel.
“It was $1.4 million; I didn’t have anywhere close to that much, but I had enough to put down the earnest money deposit,” Underwood said.”So it was, ‘Let’s secure this thing, and let’s figure out the rest later.'”
As it turns out, people have been taking a chance on Cerro Gordo ever since 1865, when silver was discovered here, high in the Inyo mountains.
“Things during the silver period were wild,” said Roger Vargo, an expert on Cerro Gordo.
He co-wrote a book about it, along with his wife, Cecile.”We talk about a wild west town right out of a Clint Eastwood movie.Various newspaper accounts had shootings once a week, stabbings, other kinds of violence.”
At its peak in 1872, Cerro Gordo generated roughly $150 million (adjusted for inflation) in silver and lead mining.But like all booms, things eventually went bust.By the 1930s, Cerro Gordo was all but abandoned.
Over the years, a series of different owners lived here and maintained the town before 34-year-old Brent Underwood bought it.
Burbank asked, “How long do you think you’re going to stay here?”
“A long time,” he replied.”During my time up here, my parents sold my childhood home, and so when people ask me what’s home now, it’s Cerro Gordo.
You know, this is my home.”
Underwood left his city life in Austin, Texas, where he ran a hostel, to live and work full-time at Cerro Gordo … and it is very much a full-time job.
Burbank asked, “Do you know how to build things? Like, do you have a background in that?”
“No.I do not.
And so, I’m learning on the job,” Underwood laughed.”On-the-job training, if you will.”
But of course, living in an abandoned mining town has its perks.Brent gets to explore the mines, which haven’t been touched in decades, and the stuff that he finds all goes into his museum.
“The most common type of bottle you find here is the Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce,” he said.”Because the meat was so bad, they needed to put a lot of sauce on all of the meat that was here.”
And when he finds cool things, Underwood is sure to put them on his YouTube channel, “Ghost Town Living.”
He shares both the highs and the lows of living in Cerro Gordo, as when a fire burned down the old hotel.
The videos have become so popular that fans often trek up the mountain to volunteer, or just tell Underwood they love the channel.
Visitor Al Hernandez said of Underwood, “Someone’s chasing a dream.
That’s what I see.I see somebody who’s able to do what the others would only think about in the back of their mind.And you got this guy, right here.And you’re doin’ it!”
Burbank asked Vargo, “Have you been pleasantly surprised at how he’s thrown himself into it?”
He’s gained an understanding of Cerro Gordo that you can only get when you actually live there and experience it for an extended amount of time.”
Of course, even Underwood’s biggest fans eventually head back down the mountain.For now, his cats, goats and alpacas will have to do for companionship.His priority, Underwood says, is to rebuild that town hotel that burned down so he can start hosting paying customers.
Who knows? Maybe Cerro Gordo has one last boom in it after all…
“It was here before I was here,” he said.”I just see myself as the current chaperone.And to do my best, I’m willing to give it my all, you know?”
For more info:
Cerro Gordo Mines , Cerro Gordo, Calif.Friends of Cerro Gordo (Facebook) “Ghost Town Living” (YouTube) “Cerro Gordo: Images of America” by Cecile Page Vargo and Roger W.
Vargo (Arcadia Publishing), in Trade Paperback, available via Amazon and Indiebound
Story produced by Young Kim.Editor: George Pozderec.
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