It’s quiet in Cerro Gordo, the 140-year-old silver-mining ghost town tucked away in the mountainous western edge of Death Valley.
There was a time when this small cluster of mine shafts, tin sheds and clapboard shacks was the largest producer of silver in the state of California: a bristling township of some 4,000 residents.
But now there’s only one.
“It’s definitely peaceful,” says Brent Underwood, the owner and sole resident of Cerro Gordo. “But it takes a bit of getting used to. When you hear something it suddenly becomes very clear that you’re hours from any help, or any other human being—and that takes a while to get comfortable with.”
Underwood, 32, bought Cerro Gordo on Friday the 13th of July, 2018. The $1.4 million property cost him all his life savings—“every penny from every account”—along with a loan and a conglomerate of small token donations from a handful of his friends.
It was supposed to be an investment property, a chance to cash in on the rich history and tourism opportunities of the area by turning the whole property into a giant, well-preserved museum: a time capsule of the late 1800s. But after two-and-a-half years and a series of unexpected events, Underwood has started calling the ghost town home.
“It took everything to make it happen,” he explains over the phone from inside one of the remaining buildings at Cerro Gordo. “I’d been looking at real estate listings for a while. I knew I was interested in hospitality projects, and I had never seen any property with such a rich history. So for me it almost seemed like if there was ever going to be a moment, then this was it.”
Underwood didn’t set out with the intention of buying an entire town. Initially, a friend had sent him the property listing as a joke.
“A buddy of mine sent me a link one night at 3 in the morning, on this really small Los Angeles real estate blog, and it said ‘Buy your own Ghost Town’ or something to that effect,” he recalls. “He said it as a joke—but I woke up and I remember reading about it and I was like ‘Wow. This is it. This is what I want to do’.”
He called the real estate to express his interest in the property, and was promptly told to get in line; the listing was a competitive one, and multiple offers had already been made. Another issue, he says, was pulling together the capital.
“So I just started calling up friends and I was like ‘Hey, you wanna buy a ghost town?’”
After receiving a few small investments from people who “wanted to be involved with something cool” and taking out a last-minute loan with a hard money lender, Underwood finally sealed the deal and was handed the keys to the 400-acre property. It’s a moment that he describes as “surreal”. But it was only the beginning.
Six months later, Underwood would find himself stuck at Cerro Gordo for good.
The coronavirus pandemic exploded across the United States in March 2020: emptying the streets, shuttering shopfronts and decimating small businesses. One of those businesses happened to be the hostel in Austin, Texas where Underwood was working.
Up until then, he’d been heading out to Cerro Gordo for a few days at a time, taking a week off every month to fly out to California, do some work on the property and restore some old buildings, then turn around and head home. But the arrival of COVID-19 threw a spanner in the works.
Robert, who had worked as the caretaker of Cerro Gordo for years, went home to be with his wife through the pandemic—and Underwood, whose professional ties to Austin had been severed, stepped in as his temporary replacement.
“I showed up in March, during a snowstorm—which, coming from Texas and growing up in Florida, I was horribly underprepared for,” he says. “So that ended in me getting stuck in the town for five or six weeks. I literally could not leave, because the final seven miles of road to get to the town is a dirt road that is very steep, and if you get five or six foot of snow on the road it’s staying there until it melts.
“I got stuck there, so that led me to sticking around for a month and a half.”
In those first few weeks Underwood says he missed the creature comforts of modern living: small things, like running water and social interaction. But as each day passed he realised he was warming to the lifestyle.
“I found myself getting used to many of the uncomfortable parts of it,” he says, “and I was really leaning into the beauty of it: this unique position that I was in during a pandemic.”
Turns out there are some perks to living alone in the middle of nowhere when a highly infectious virus is ravaging civilisations around the world.
“I don’t have to worry about some of the daily anxieties that people in the city do,” Underwood explains. “I don’t have to worry about like, wearing a mask, or a lot of the logistics that other people do.”
Since arriving in Cerro Gordo at the start of the pandemic, he has left only once—to have his appendix removed in a fly-in fly-out operation. His health insurance was based in Texas, meaning he couldn’t get the procedure covered by healthcare in California. Instead, he flew to Austin, touched down, got the organ removed, and two days later jumped back onto a plane bound for LA and his new home of Cerro Gordo.
Underwood insists he has no plans of returning to civilization any time soon. But he also admits that life in a ghost town can be lonely at times. Underwood and his girlfriend separated shortly after he moved out there—“no girlfriend wants to date a person who lives in the middle of nowhere”, as he puts it—and he hasn’t seen his family since the coronavirus outbreak.
When it comes to his friends, he’s occasionally struck by the feeling that he’s missing out on the action. But then he remembers that in this sense, everyone’s more or less in the same boat.
“I think being up here during the pandemic eases that, because my friends shouldn’t be hanging out with each other anyway right now,” he explains. “So I try to think about that sometimes when I get lonely; if I ever think ‘man, it’d be great to hang out with a bunch of friends’, I try to remind myself that most people aren’t doing that anyway.”
And in any case, Cerro Gordo does receive the occasional visitor. Most of the time they’re “random people”: avid adventurers and strangers who have heard Underwood’s story and reached out to him online. But there’s also been a small handful of A, B and C-grade celebrities who have come driving up the hill, drawn to the strange allure of Cerro Gordo.
A few weeks ago Cole Sprouse, an actor from the television series Riverdale, swung by the town; before that, G-Eazy had ventured out. And in May 2020, just eight weeks after Underwood became the sole proprietor of the ghost town, the legendary Jeff Goldblum floated in to pay him a visit.
“He came to film an episode of his TV show The World According to Jeff Goldblum,” Underwood explains. “The episode was about denim and the history of denim—blue jeans were invented by Levi Strauss for California silver miners in 1871, so a lot of miners at Cerro Gordo wore the original blue jeans.”
He says Goldblum was “super kind”, and sat with him for a long time off-camera discussing the history of Cerro Gordo and the mining there—taking a real interest in the town.
“It’s always cool when visitors come, but it’s a bit strange because suddenly the pandemic—which I don’t ever think about, day to day—is at my front door,” Underwood says. “So there’s a balancing act there, and I basically just have to have everybody tested before they come up. But yeah, some really cool people have reached out: actors; rappers; musicians. All sorts of weird people.”
Underwood’s day-to-day life typically plays out like this: he wakes up early, goes for a hike and watches the sun rise. Then he heads back into town and does “whatever I need to do online”. His day job involves helping authors with their books—the concept, the marketing—and he proudly proclaims that he can “do it from anywhere”; there’s electricity at Cerro Gordo, and a phone tower near enough to the property that Underwood can pick up some hotspot signal. When he’s finished answering emails and taking care of business, he goes to work on the property for a few hours, restoring the old buildings to some semblance of their former glory.
About 20 of Cerro Gordo’s 400 original buildings are still standing—including the old brothel, a bunkhouse and a general store—most of them sieved with bullet holes. And since it’s almost impossible to get building supplies shipped up to the mountaintop, Underwood’s started taking timber out of the mines in the area that have collapsed.
“Back in the mines the wood is perfectly preserved from the elements,” he explains. “It’s not moist; the mines are dry but not too dry, and they’re removed from the sun, the snow and the rain. So I’ve been rebuilding all of the buildings using 150-year-old wood from the mines.”
It’s these same mines that fill up the rest of his days: some 30 miles of them, burrowing down into the mountain, “mines on top of mines on top of mines, as far as you can possibly explore”. And exploring has become Underwood’s favourite hobby.
Deep beneath the town he’s found all kinds of trinkets and treasures, from old bullets and a hidden pistol to newspaper clippings, dynamite and a 103-year-old jacket. At one point he found an old briefcase loaded to the brim with “every part of this one specific miner’s life”: love letters, divorce settlements, mining claims, lawsuits and unpaid cheques. All the turbulent highs and lows of a man named Chet Reynolds.
“He lived here for what seemed to be about 20 years and just really had a difficult life, from what I can tell,” Underwood says. “That was probably my favorite thing that I found around the property.”
Every small scrap of Cerro Gordo’s history ends up in the general store, which Underwood has converted into a museum of sorts. But what he really wants to find is a pair of Levi jeans: the first blue jeans for California silver miners, made in 1873. The old Levi’s are so coveted by denim collectors that it’s not unheard of for a seller to scoop up almos $100,000 from a single pair. They’ve been spotted around Cerro Gordo before, Underwood says: he just needs to find them.
At night he goes back to his home cabin to post photos and videos of his adventures to his increasingly popular social media pages—Underwood has a YouTube, Instagram and even a TikTok channel to document his strange new life—and phones his friends and family before calling it a day. The next morning he does it all over again.
It is, judging by Underwood’s accounts, a romantic way of life. But it hasn’t been without its share of difficulties, worries and setbacks.
For one, there’s the small grain difficulties of daily life, like relying on visitors to bring crates of drinking water and food, or having to travel out to the nearest market every two weeks to stock up on a not-so-fresh supply of wilted fruit and vegetables. And then there’s the many less appealing aspects of being alone.
“I was not a big believer in ghosts prior to buying Cerro Gordo,” says Underwood. “It was a part of the town’s history that I had heard about, but I just didn’t want to think about it. Then one night I was here and I was walking to this sunset spot I like to go to—and I know I saw somebody look out the window of the bunkhouse, and the light was on. They looked out the window, then closed the curtain.”
Underwood didn’t think much of it at the time, assuming it was one of the contractors who had been doing some work on the property a couple of weeks earlier. But when he spoke to Robert the caretaker about it the next day, Robert pointed out that the contractors hadn’t been there for weeks.
“It’s fucking weird to me—I didn’t like it that it happened, and so my solution to that is just to not go into the bunkhouse,” Underwood says. “I don’t go into the bunkhouse at night, it’s just a rule. I figure there’s 20 buildings, so no reason to put myself in situations like that. I generally avoid the bunkhouse during the day even.”
But that isn’t the most traumatising thing that’s happened to him since he came into Cerro Gordo. Not long after the property became his, a devastating fire swept over the hill and into the town, incinerating some of its oldest buildings.
“I woke up to what I thought was gunshots, looked out and the whole hill was glowing orange, and then I thought somebody shot off flares,” Underwood recalls. “When I got out, I realized that one of the buildings was on fire, and it was the building in between my cabin and where Robert was at that point … he was moving his truck because its taillights were melting, and if that had blown up then there’s dynamite and a lot of explosives around, and it could’ve been a really bad situation.”
Underwood called the fire department, but they couldn’t get there for another two hours. In lieu of running water, he was forced to pour what water he had onto the hillside and then simply sit back, hopelessly, and watch his dreams burn to the ground.
“It was just like a slow motion nightmare: to see your hopes, your dreams, your life savings, this irreplaceable history, all going up in flames before you while you’re waiting for the fire trucks to come,” he says. “We lost two buildings and a cabin, and although the fire department did get here and were able to contain it, it was still a pretty devastating loss.
“That was probably the worst day—not just up here, but maybe of my life.”
Even without the snowstorms, the firestorms, the supernatural encounters and brushes with Jeff Goldblum, though, Underwood is upfront in saying that moving out to Cerro Gordo has changed his life. More precisely, it’s changed his outlook.
When he lived in Austin, he says, he was compulsively busy—always finding something that he had to be doing and generally filling his days with errands and activities as a way to distract himself from the bigger picture. Now, utterly alone and in the middle of nowhere, he’s been forced to sit with himself and listen to his own thoughts.
“I think the result is that what’s important to me has become more clear since getting rid of all the noise of just existing in a city,” he says. “Not just filling my days with random stuff, but doing things I find important. Like renovating Cerro Gordo.”
Underwood seems cognisant of the fact that, in a strange way, he owes his newfound sense of self and contentment and to the coronavirus. He admits he wouldn’t be the person he is today had the pandemic not seriously rocked the boat. But he’s also optimistic for the future.
“In the summer of 2021, if the pandemic is in a controlled place, I hope to start having guests up here overnight,” he says. “From the beginning, my hope for the town was to preserve its historic nature—but at the same time, I want to make it comfortable enough for more people to come up and stay.”
Underwood goes on to stress that Cerro Gordo will never be “done”: once the town’s restored and open to visitors, he wants to expand by building more cabins and campsites throughout the remainder of the 400-acre property.
It’s a project that he suspects will take a lifetime to complete. But he’s committed himself wholeheartedly to the cause.
“When people ask me what the ‘exit plan’ is [for this investment], the exit plan for me is dying,” he says, bluntly. “I think a situation like this only works if you’re really willing to dedicate your life to it.”