There’s an adage, “The journey is more important than the destination.” It’s often quoted, but seldom attributed to anyone in particular.
Where Hannah McKelson is concerned, a quote from Oliver Goldsmith, an 18th-century novelist and playwright, “Life is a journey that must be traveled no matter how bad the roads and accommodations,” might be more appropriate.
When McKelson, a 22-year-old burgeoning writer for Sunset Magazine, pitched the idea of writing a series of stories about ghost towns to her friend JD Simkins, who writes for the Wildlands section, she thought her first article would highlight the abandoned mercury mine and town of New Idria.
Initially, she may have had romantic visions of an adventure in exploring the past in the remnants of a town where saloons were frequented by overworked miners and cowboys rode pell-mell down dusty streets. What she wasn’t contemplating, though, was how difficult it would be to drive from her home in Pacifica to the depths of southern San Benito County.
She said if not for the pandemic she would be going into the office where she worked full-time in marketing, but since she’s been working remotely she has had the flexibility to search out other writing adventures. She has long been curious about California ghost towns and was already familiar with the more famous ones, such as Bodie and Calico.
“Wildland, as a subset of Sunset Magazine, is also very interested in environmentalism and conservation, and a friend of mine asked me if I had heard of New Idria,” she said. “I hadn’t, so I did a bunch of research and I talked to some of my colleagues at the University of California Berkeley in the geology department and asked them how New Idria and the Clear Creek Management area came to be a Superfund site.”
Part of her research involved talks with local rancher John Eade, reading some books he recommended, journals written by early explorers, and talking to geology friends about the mercury mining town.
The New Idria Mercury Mine site is located in the New Idria Mining District, which includes over a dozen smaller mercury mines. The New Idria mining claim was declared in 1854 by prospectors and investors. In 1857, the first brick furnace to roast cinnabar ore was built at the site.
“I did the research to understand what happened with New Idria and how it fit in the ecosystem of that area,” McKelson said.
McKelson said Simkins loved the idea of telling the story of New Idria. Depending on her being able to get to New Idria and the other ghost towns, she said it could be a two-part story or possibly the first in a series.
“The first part would be about the absolutely ridiculous measures I had to take just to get out to New Idria,” she said. “It’s very challenging because the closure of New Idria Road makes it entirely impassable, and then passage through the Clear Creek Management area on to the county road after you pass the R14 gate you have to have an off-road vehicle to navigate safely through the area. The road is practically undriveable.”
She first attempted to get there in her car on Feb. 20, driving three hours from her home into San Benito County and eventually to New Idria Road. Because of all the potholes she said it took another hour to get to the point where she was literally stopped in her tracks.
“We made it all the way through the flatlands to the washout, about eight miles from New Idria,” she said.
The second time, McKelson came up through the Clear Creek area and if not for another friend who is an experienced off-road driver and grew up in the area, she would not have been able to get to the town.
“It was another three-hour trip, then at least two hours if not three of off-roading,” she said. “There were multiple water crossings and thick mud before we were off BLM [Bureau of Land Management] land and getting on to New Idria Road [on the west side of the town].”
She said part of her research involved talking to the BLM.
“They were incredibly helpful,” she said. “It was eerily quiet, which was surprising because the area is fairly well known. I was also surprised by the sheer amount of clutter inside the buildings. One image, in particular, struck me. It was a child’s toy laying in a sea of trash and a bottle of ranch dressing in what looked like a convenience store. It was a peculiar show of former humanity that I was not expecting to see.”
McKelson’s story, One of California’s Lost Ghost Towns is Lost for Good Reason, can now be read at Sunset Magazine.
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