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I bought a California ghost town for $1.4 million. Living here gets lonely — but I’ve found my purpose.

  • When he was 30, Brent Underwood left Austin and moved to an abandoned mining town.
  • While restoring the town he’s realized that people approach finding a purpose the wrong way.

This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Brent Underwood about his experience moving to a Californian ghost town. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

In 2018, my friend sent me a listing for Cerro Gordo, an abandoned mining town in California. “This might be your next project,” he joked.

The idea of a remote town in the American West was very alluring to me. It reminded me of the old TV westerns my grandfather watched every day.

I was running a pretty popular bed and breakfast in Austin, but it felt like I was just searching for something to shake me up from the routine monotony.

Buying this ghost town has done that. It cost $1.4 million — more than half was a loan from a hard money lender. The rest was mostly split between my friend and me, but a few other friends also chipped in.

Life in the middle of nowhere

On the surface, you understand it’s going to be difficult when a place doesn’t have running water and is at the end of an eight-mile dirt road an hour from the nearest store.

In the late 1800s, Cerro Gordo was a prosperous mining town. Brent Underwood

But I don’t think you truly appreciate the logistical challenges until you’re actually in it — until all your pipes freeze, or you’re trudging through snow up to your waist to get to the outhouse.

It can be very lonely and isolating living in the middle of nowhere. Yesterday all my friends probably went to lunch together in Austin. But right now, I’m sitting 900 feet under a ghost town that’s miles away from them.

As I’ve become more comfortable with the town, either the ghosts have become more comfortable with me, or I’ve become more comfortable with the sounds I thought were ghosts. But I did once see a shadowy figure in one of the bunkhouse windows and I’ve since avoided that building.

It takes perseverance to stay here though.

Since I arrived, Cerro Gordo has been hit with storms, fire, a flood, an earthquake, and a blizzard. It would be very easy to just throw in the towel and say, “This is too much. I got my taste of it.”

I’ve had to develop a lot of skills — both practical and mental — to make it easier to exist every day.

Finding purpose

The trade-off is I get to do something I truly believe is important — I’m working to preserve the history of this town.

Brent is restoring a hotel in the town so that visitors can stay overnight. Brent Underwood

A lot of people talk about finding purpose. They jump from job to job hoping that one of them delivers what they’re looking for.

But I think you define your purpose. You get to choose what’s purposeful and meaningful to you.

It’s not going to be an abandoned mining town for everybody else, but think of the interests that made you excited as a kid and find a way to combine them.

People also forget that there’s comfort in long-term goals. Even those who start businesses these days do it with the goal of selling in a few years. I think that’s insane.

There’s longevity to what I’m doing here. I could work on this project for the rest of my life. That helps ease some of those anxieties when things don’t happen exactly to plan. It’s a little bit like, well, if you look at this at a project in the course of decades instead of months, then it gives you a little bit more comfort.

How I make a living

Life here is slow compared to living in a city. Your days don’t just evaporate into 100 small tasks like running to get gas.

But there are a dozen meaningful projects going on at any one time, so in some ways, I’m busier.

I fund my life through my day job at a company called Brass Check. We have a platform called the Daily Stoic, and make podcasts and newsletters.

Then there’s the full-time job of trying to rebuild an abandoned town and creating content about that for my YouTube.

I’ve never made any money from the town. But I’m hoping one day soon to reopen the hotel, and eventually, a campsite and cabins, for visitors to stay in overnight. We’ll always welcome visitors for free to see the town.

Right now I have to put in a lot of money for my day job to keep things running, which is stressful, but I hope eventually it can stabilize and take care of itself.

Preserving history

In its heyday Cerro Gordo was a silver and lead mine, so there are also 30 miles of shafts underneath the town that I’m exploring.

It’s 20-25°F warmer beneath ground level during February’s snowstorms.Brent Underwood

The scale of operations that existed down here is crazy — there are the shafts, break rooms, changing rooms, dynamite storage, and even animal pens.

We’ve rebuilt the old elevator, but it still takes 45 minutes to get down to the 40-foot by 20-foot area where I’m staying while I wait out a snowstorm. It’s warmer and quieter down here, and I can record my audiobook.

900 feet underground Brent was sheltering from a snowstorm and recording his audiobook.Brent Underwood

I’ve mined about 100 lbs of this mineral called galena that’s still down here. You reduce it down to make batches of pure silver, which I then make into rings, pendants, and some silver coins that I might sell to fundraise for our museum.

If I hadn’t made this life change, Cerro Gordo would’ve otherwise just been forgotten, like the hundreds of other towns that were set up in the American West. My hope is that this one has the chance to live on a little bit longer so people can draw inspiration from it like I have.

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