People often joke with me about selling my book’s film rights, and if they aren’t making a joke – I turn it into one. Film deals are few and far between for writers, unless your last name is Brown, Grisham or King. But then I add, “I don’t really need to see the movie, because I’ve already watched it,” and I tap the side of my head. Because, as I’m writing, that’s what it feels like. The characters talking to each other in dialogue, the setting and I confess, I’ve even put a certain piece of music on while writing because it evokes the mood.
So, with imaginary characters and a made-up place, I always thought it was the best I could do.
But – I was wrong.
On a recent trip to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, I stopped at the Visitor’s Center in Jackson and asked the nice gentleman at the counter if he could recommend any ghost towns in the area. He pulled out his map, consulted with his wife and pointed to a place not far off the main road we’d be taking back to Seattle.
“Bannack” he whispered, nodding. “It’s like the folks just picked up and walked off. They keep it as natural as possible.”
So, on the final leg of our journey, we headed out of Wyoming, through Idaho and into Montana. Following the signs for the State park, we finally arrived at the ghost town around noon.
I stood on the main street, with the Meade Hotel to my right, and realized I was standing in my imaginary town of Willow Creek, Montana. It was all there, the mining, the creek, the rather grand brick hotel. I could almost see my heroine, the Widow Wainwright, sweeping into the hotel in her black crepe mourning clothes. The hero’s sawmill would be down at the edge of town, and peeking into the windows of Bannack, I could easily imagine the various characters in my book coming to life.
My husband and I both had cameras, and we happily clicked away. I knew I’d have the perfect shots for my “book trailer” so my interest was part historical time traveler and part mercenary opportunist. I don’t think it really matters to the town.
Bannack had the first brick courthouse in Montana, and served as the chambers for the First Territorial Legislature. The first Governor of Montana lived in a house that was little more than a shack, (forget about a mansion) and it’s clear that mining gold took precedence over architecture as the town grew. There’s the tale of the sheriff who was really the head of an outlaw gang, stories of “hurdy-gurdy” joints and soiled doves along with the respectable folks creating a Methodist church, building a Masonic Lodge and organizing school.
There are enough images and snippets of information in the guide book to fuel story ideas for many years to come.
I think what makes Bannack so intriguing though, is that it grew from just 400 people to over 3,000 in just a few months when gold was discovered in Grasshopper Creek. And like so many towns in the West, when the gold played out, the people of town eventually moved away. But the town didn’t disappear.
The fact that the State of Montana was wise enough to preserve this jewel is noteworthy. There are other more popular “ghost towns” scattered around Montana, and I’ve visited a few. The number of buildings preserved in such wonderful condition makes Bannack a stand-out place for me.
Have you ever visited a ghost town? What was that experience like for you?
Deborah Schneider, RWA Librarian of the Year 2009
Promise Me – January 2010