For twenty-first century visitors, ghost towns are exciting because of this sanitized fantasy—of an unknown or unguarded territory, a frontier all of one’s own. The thrill of the “undiscovered” finds new life in the aesthetics of abandonment and the illusion (or reality, depending on the price point) of exclusivity that attractions like Cerro Gordo and Nipton court. Ultimately, authenticity is less important than the mere suggestion of it. To take just one example, what looks like an aged, decrepit church in Cerro Gordo is actually a structure built in the 1990s, designed to blend in with its surroundings.
However ahistorical the visions of these new prospectors might be, it’s true that the Gold and Silver Rushes made California’s economy what it is today, enabling a deepening wealth disparity centered on land ownership where real estate moguls prioritize luxury developments while hundreds of thousands remain homeless or downwardly mobile. The new Gold Rush might not be about precious metals, but in the end it’s more of the same. Rather than natural resources, today’s desert moguls extract images, for the benefit of a clientele seeking a distinctly modern kind of fortune: social cachet, free swag, and an increased follower count. Rebranding a ghost town won’t vacate its ghosts, but if you’re an off-season Burner seeking Spirit in a sound bath lead by a dude in a man bun—well, you’ve come to the right place.