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Return to Aurora

by Margaret Cullison

My sons and I chose the weekend of the summer solstice for our trip to the ghost town of Aurora, Nevada, in the high desert east of the Sierra Mountains. We had long talked of making the pilgrimage, and perfect weather favored our venture. Late June in California offers the traveler an ideal mix of long days, mild temperatures, and lush vegetation still tinged with the green of winter rains.

We set out on a Friday evening, glad to leave the congested Bay Area behind as we drove through the small towns of the Sacramento valley farmland. The setting sun cast a golden tone over the landscape, making the foothills that lay before us glow.

The purpose of our trip was both historical and personal. Throughout my childhood I had heard stories about an ancestor, Nathaniel Gebhart, from my mother's maternal line who came to California during the Gold Rush, leaving wife and five children in Ottumwa, Iowa. From my mother's view, all that remained of his endeavor were three gold spoons and the enmity of her forebears, all women who lived their entire lives in Iowa. They couldn't forgive a quest for adventure and fortune above duty to family.

Among his male descendants, Nathaniel enjoyed a more favorable reputation. His youngest son and grandson admired the prospector's adventuresome spirit and in 1882 attempted to recover his silver mine and the money they believed had been owed to him. Instead of gold spoons, they had inherited letters and journals written during the ten years Nathaniel prospected in the west. The daughter of the youngest son, born after the adventurer's only visit back to his wife in Iowa, grew up thinking him a hero and wrote a history of his life after visiting Aurora in 1962. Her account was the only guide we had as we began our own search.

Nathaniel Gebhart left by wagon train to join the gold rush in April of 1852. First he searched for gold around Placerville, California, but that area had become over crowded and rumor suggested that the gold was already mined out. He heard talk of larger gold and silver lodes to the east. By 1860, he decided to move on to Bodie and Aurora, nascent boomtowns along the California and Nevada border. Near Aurora, he staked a claim on a mine in a vein of silver believed to be fabulously rich. Claim jumpers shot him in the stomach as he defended his mine, stubbornly refusing to be bullied by them. He lingered for a few days before dying around April 15, 1862, at the age of fifty-two.

We could only imagine the ordeal of his journey on foot with a pack mule. Our comparable trip took about five hours in the insulated comfort of a four-wheel drive vehicle but we felt anticipation as the dark road crested the Sierras, and we began the long, winding descent into Bridgeport, CA. We arrived around midnight, tired but assured that the adventure we'd talked about lay just ahead.

Saturday morning dawned sunny, cool, but with a promise of warmth. After breakfast we stopped to buy water, food, and ice for our cooler. Signs at the road entrance to Bodie warned that no grocery stores and gas stations could be found in the interior. We went back to fill the car with gas before heading into the sagebrush-covered hills. The last three miles of the road are unpaved to give tourists an idea of how formidable the frontier trek used to be.

The town of Bodie lies three miles from the Nevada border, a ghost town preserved in a fragile state of decay by the State of California. Nothing has been done to restore the town to its 1880s prime, but the walls of the five percent of buildings which are still standing have been discreetly shored up and their windows and roofs reinforced against the severe high desert weather. We went to Bodie first because both Nathaniel and his granddaughter took that route to reach Aurora. The park rangers did not encourage us to continue. One said the road was nearly impassable and another said she'd never been able to find Aurora.

Bodie gave us a good idea what Nathaniel saw as he passed through town. The people who had the fortitude to settle there faced isolation from civilization in the midst of frenzied activity, below zero winters and blistering hot summers, the joy of sudden wealth and the sorrow of early death. It was a tough life for a hardy but vulnerable people. We completed our tour at a museum housed in the old miners' union hall. In a corner of the museum was a small bookstore featuring books about frontier life. I noticed one about Mark Twain's experiences as a prospector but decided not to take the time to look at it. We were about to leave when something drew me back to that book, "Mark Twain, His Adventures at Aurora and Mono Lake" by George Williams III. I picked it up and started to skim through the pages.

Almost immediately my eye caught the sentence, "Man named Gebhart was shot here yesterday trying to defend a claim on Last Chance Hill. Expect he will die." Twain had dreams of striking it rich too, and he had come to Aurora in April of 1862. He wrote frequent letters to his brother, Orion, whose money supported Twain's venture. I could hardly believe the coincidence of Mark Twain arriving in Aurora just in time to write about my ancestor's sad fate and my chance discovery of that fact over a century later.

Williams' book served us in a more practical way, because it described clearly how to find Aurora and included both old and present day pictures of the site. We left Bodie with increased enthusiasm for our quest and seventeen miles left to travel.

The Bodie Canyon road resembles a dried up creek bed strewn with boulders and scarred by deep ruts. We left behind all signs of modern day as we made our way through the dry and barren canyon. Our book identified a crumbling brick structure we passed as the old toll station that marked the border between California and Nevada. Nearby we stopped in a grove of quaking aspens and made lunch from the provisions in our cooler. A gentle breeze stirred the aspen leaves, the only sound except for the tapping of a woodpecker further up the canyon slope.

Once out of the canyon we turned onto a graded dirt road that skirted the hills and looked out onto a wide plain. The Williams book said we had only four miles to go. We passed the remains of a mill pictured in the book, and I wondered if the bricks of the mill's foundation had been made in Nathaniel's kiln. Arriving in Aurora in 1860, the year the town began, he knew that bricks would be needed for the new buildings and so he started a kiln. This kiln provided income for him while he searched for more elusive wealth. In the late 1940s, scavengers carried off the bricks from the deserted buildings in Aurora and sold them to profit from the postwar building boom and the public's passion for old brick.

The road narrowed and wound deeper into the hills, up and down the steep slopes. On our right we saw a sign pointing to the Aurora cemetery but decided to make that stop on the way out. We kept our eyes on the landscape ahead of us, alert for clues that would lead us in our search. The road opened to a valley surrounded by rolling hills, dense with sagebrush. Below us lay the remains of Aurora. The valley has reverted almost completely to the wilderness those first settlers must have seen and we understood why they called their little town "City of the Dawn."

Aurora has deteriorated far beyond Bodie's managed state of decay. Scattered piles of wood where buildings had stood and a single concrete wall, the last remnant of the Esmeralda Hotel, are all that remain. What hasn't been looted, vandalized, or rotted away will be gone in a few more years. Over six thousand people once lived in Aurora, and now only crumbling concrete and aging wood mark their efforts.

We turned away without going down into the town. Better not to tread on the remnants of that lost dream. We got back into the car and took the cemetery trail into a forest of pine nut trees. The processions of mourners bearing coffins up the steep road from Aurora to that quiet place must have been numerous and frequent.

The cemetery has survived in better condition than the town and recent attempts to restore it made our walk easier among the headstones of Aurora's former inhabitants. Nathaniel's granddaughter thought she found his grave, marked by a faded wooden cross when she was there in 1962. We felt certain the marker had disappeared entirely by the time we paid our visit. Identifying his grave seemed unimportant to us for we knew that his bones rested somewhere in that ground, far from the rich Iowa soil of his family's home.

Returning to our car, we sat on the tailgate and watched the late afternoon sun glimmering through the pinyon trees. Even though Nathaniel's life was long over, he had caught the imagination of his descendants, giving him an immortality of remembrance. We had gained a sense of knowing him and the brief life he led six generations before us, hoping that learning about his life would help us understand the purpose of our own lives.

We felt content that we had succeeded in tracing his footsteps with our own.

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