I've been sitting on a bench outside the post office in Hornitos for about ten minutes when I finally realize that there is no white noise.
The town is quiet in the way of truly remote places, but I do not feel lonely even though I hear and see no signs of human life. I am thoroughly alone, or at least I think I am, and I am content.
A few blackbirds caw. A eucalyptus tree rustles in the breeze. The only public building open is the post office, where residents can access their P.O. boxes, but no one is in there.
Though I am not a resident of Hornitos, it seems natural to me to just sit on the bench and enjoy the afternoon. Eventually, a skinny man of indeterminate age wanders by, his dog following behind — sort of — and I nod hello. He does not seem surprised to see a stranger sitting by the post office in the middle of a weekday afternoon. His dog sidles up, sniffs me, and then lets me scratch behind his ears.
"What is he?" I ask the skinny man. "Border collie?"
"Just a mutt," he answers.
We chat about his nice dog, and then they disappear into an overgrown garden around the corner.
Hornitos, about thirty miles northeast of Merced, is often referred to as a ghost town, though this isn't entirely accurate. In fact, Hornitos is home to about 70 people, most over the age of forty-five, but within that population are a few families with school-age children.
There are many stories about Hornitos, most of them conjuring an Old West of suspense and drama, some of them more difficult to believe than others: Joaquin Murieta was once almost captured here, ghosts of prostitutes and bandits still haunt the streets at night, so many men died in gunfights that undertakers could not keep up with the bodies and dumped them into a pit outside of town.
There is proof, however, that Hornitos was once a thriving boomtown, the kind of place where some lucky people could become wealthy overnight.
It was founded in 1848, before the Gold Rush, and largely built of adobe and rock in the style of Mexican villages. Soon, miners began to settle there, and by 1850 about 6,000 people called Hornitos home.
The first Mariposa County Wells Fargo Express office was located in Hornitos, and every day for a few years, $40,000 in gold was loaded onto stagecoaches in town and hauled off to the U.S. mint in San Francisco.
At the pinnacle of its success, Hornitos had a population of 15,000. Domenico Ghiradelli had a store here before moving on to San Francisco, and remnants of the brick building are still in evidence. Other buildings, some made of adobe, others of brick or rock, are in various stages of decay.
The Masonic Lodge, however, where Freemasons have been meeting since 1875, is intact. It is the smallest, oldest single-story Masonic hall in California, and a plaque by its entrance bears witness to the modern-day Freemasons who continue to maintain the building.
Besides the post office, the most important buildings in town today are the Plaza Bar and Saint Catherine's Church. On the Plaza's facade, a sign advertises on and off-sale alcohol and features a hand holding a martini glass. On weekdays, the iron shutters on the window and doors are locked. Saint Catherine's stands on a hill overlooking the main street of town. Built in 1862, it's a wood building, painted white, with rock buttresses and a steeple.
The cemetery behind the church tells another history not found on the plaques and memorials in town. It is crowded with the graves of infants and children, of teenagers, of those who did not quite make it to their thirtieth birthday. Saint Catherine's buttresses, made for durability, speak of a people who yearned for something permanent in a time and place where the transitory nature of life, and hope, was always close.
The tales of Murieta, of miners and shootouts, are not the most compelling reason to visit Hornitos. Go there instead for solitude, and for the stories told up on the hill, behind Saint Catherine's.
Brigitte Bowers is a lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program at UC Merced.