To reach the ghost town, head south down Highway 69, listen closely, and take a left when you hear the soft rush of river rapids. Then, at White Bridge Road, turn left, cross the Boulder River and continue down the back road until you hit the loose gravel of Elkhorn Road. Keep to the road, weave through the valley and aim for the base of Elkhorn Peak.
There, about 20 miles from Boulder, you’ll find Elkhorn, riddled with collapsed homesteads and rusted relics from the bustling mining town it used to be. The sign to the right of the gravel road before entering the town states, “Elkhorn’s boom days ended in 1892 when the price of silver fell. Over time the population of Elkhorn fell to what you see here today.”
Elkhorn has 10 residents according to the 2010 Census, but today, John Bonan can think of only six full-time residents, and he is one of them. He lives in a cabin, an original homestead built in 1892 by his grandfather and great uncles who were hard rock miners at the time. Since then, it has been fixed and modified throughout the years as needed.
Bonan’s lifestyle is difficult and the trials and tribulations of a rugged lifestyle are weighing on him as he grows older.
“I can’t walk fast and far,” Bonan said, “and I have a lot of trouble getting all the firewood I need every year and it gets worse every year.”
The 75-year-old walks the narrow, ungroomed trails of his property with a limp. He said he has had a variety of injuries he has never fully healed from, the worst being when he suffered a broken back. So with months turning into years, Bonan is worried that his remaining days up in the isolated town of Elkhorn, are few.
Cluttered, weathered and standing only by sheer will, the homestead has three rusted pick-ups and hundreds of rocks displayed on stumps or plywood tables in front. Chipmunks scurry throughout the yard and ravens call out above your head. The cabin looks consumed by its surroundings, the only sign of a person (Bonan) living there is the pillar of smoke that billows out of a metal chimney atop the cabin continuously throughout the day.
“If you come again I’ll show you the inside of my place, but I’m embarrassed because it’s all full of crap,” Bonan said.
Bonan’s home sits between two collapsing, uninhabited homesteads and across from Fraternity Hall and Gillian Hall, two large-wooden buildings built around the 1890’s that account for Montana’s smallest state park and attract frequent tourists.
Often, Bonan greets tourists, following behind his plump, gray dog, “Hunter” or “Hunty-bunny.” Visitors are attracted to his home by the peculiar look and a wooden sign with the word “crystal” painted in neat white cursive letters. The sign sits next to the table, nearest to the road, from where he sells rocks. And an old pickle jar sits on the table, it’s where he accepts donations for the rocks he finds around Elkhorn and offers to visitors.
Devin and Jacob Lovett, 8 and 11 from San Francisco, were visiting Elkhorn last week with their parents, and grandparents from Bozeman. Both boys were encouraged by Bonan to pick out a rock from the table.
“Kids get a free rock,” Bonan said, as he often does.
Bonan elaborated on the specifics of each rock they picked up and let them both get a closer look through a jeweler loupe, a small magnifying glass, that Bonan carries in his pocket. The rocks are gray, brown and dull, some with protruding crystals and others with small cave-like holes called vugs, but ultimately, ordinary.
Contrary to the untrained eye, Bonan presents the rocks as he sees them, unique, certainly not ordinary. He told the boys what each type of rock is, what each feature on the rock is called and most importantly, what valuables could be trapped inside. Each of the boys’ imaginations ran with it.
Both kids deliberately tried to narrow down which rock to choose, until Bonan recalled the rocks he had at the side of the house. He invited both blonde-haired boys over, they chose their rock from the special collection of granite and left with a rock and a grin. Their mother, Margie Lovett, left a donation on her way back to their vehicle.
“They are so surprised,” Bonan said laughing, referring to visiting tourists, “‘what! free rocks?’ they say. You ought to see some of their reactions.”
This happens often, Bonan said about his rock charity. Parents either write him a note or come back and tell him that their kids were fascinated with the rock chosen from his home. Bonan said that parents have told him that after their kid got a rock from his table, their ride back to their house was the quietest it has ever been.
He collects the rocks, bits of rusted barbed wire and pieces of old stained glass, from around town to display in his rock garden. The rocks and relics are revealed to the surface by rain and run-off. Some of the rocks, according to Bonan, still have the same metals that hard rock miners came looking for more than 100 years ago.
Old mining practices only collected 45%-50% of the lead, silver and gold inside the rocks, he said. By 1900 the mine had produced 4 million pounds of lead, 8,902,000 ounces of silver and 8,500 ounces of gold, according to Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks. Today, hard rock miners can collect almost all of it. Consequently, he often looks in the tailing piles, leftover ore deemed invaluable by miners, for rocks to display.
He has what he would consider to be an eighth of an ounce of gold he separated from a rock, sitting in a gold pan in front of the house, soaking in rain water and glimmering in the sunlight.
Bonan has lived in Elkhorn year-round for about 20 years, longer than any current resident of the town, he said. He spends most of his time alone, without another person to communicate with. But he does have plenty of wildlife to keep him company. Often he will “caw” at his self-proclaimed pet ravens or talk to the chipmunks who linger at his feet, begging for the food Bonan spreads for them. Hidden in his lawn by uncut grass is a deer carcass he pulled from the side of Highway 69 to feed his pet ravens and one dog, if she so obliges.
“It’s just amazing how you can actually become a part of their family,” Bonan said of the animals, “I look at these guys as a part of my family. Everyday like clockwork, like saying prayers, I’m out there spreading bird food and peanuts and stuff like that for them or picking up roadkill wherever I can.”
Bonan moved to Elkhorn from Los Angeles about a month and a week before 9/11, as he tells it, with no intention of ever returning to California. He moved because LA had gotten too crazy for him, with shootings and other crimes, he said.
Not to mention, he was being told his cabin in the Elkhorns was being broken into. His younger brother Donnie lived in the cabin for years before he passed away in 1996, leaving the house unoccupied and vulnerable.
Bonan moved around jobs in L. A., the most notable as a groundskeeper at a health ranch for celebrities, called the Ashram, in the hills near Calabasas, California. It was there he said he met Oprah Winfrey, and has a story or two he isn’t allowed to share with anyone, he promised.
But once he decided he was going to leave California, the century old cabin in the Elkhorns was the only place he could go, he said. Today, he lives off of the social security check he collects monthly paired with donations visitors place into his pickle jar for giving rocks away. Just recently, an elderly man visiting the state park took the short jaunt across the road to haggle with Bonan over a large rock the elderly man was set on taking home. In the end, Bonan traded the large crystal for $40 cash.
Bonan’s family has history in the area. His grandfather and great uncles mined in the hills of the Elkhorns. After the mine slowed, his grandfather lived his days out on a ranch near Boulder, he said. The ranch was passed to Bonan’s father, who then sold it to start a family and move to Los Angeles. But the cabin in Elkhorn remained in the family, eventually making its way from his grandfather, to his father, to Bonan, the eldest son.
But the remote living in his two-room cabin is far different from the LA lifestyle he left behind, and it comes with its own challenges. Aside from his trip once or twice, weekly, to town to wash his clothes at the Boulder Laundromat or get groceries at L&P Grocery, he lacks amenities many in town take for granted.
For example, he has no indoor plumbing. Instead, he has his choice of three wooden outhouses near his cabin that he can walk to. The closest one, though, is unfortunately full at the moment.
His water runs from a hose in his backyard, there are no indoor faucets. He bathes in an outdoor tub in the summer, heated to the right temperature after hours of sitting in the sun. And in the winter, he digs his car out of the snow and makes the drive down the gravel road to Boulder Hot Springs for a bath.
He has electricity, but his house is heated and his cooking is done primarily by his wood stove. The electricity is really only used for his radio and hot plates. He stays up late into the night listening to the news.
But winter poses the most challenges for Bonan living in Elkhorn. Mundane tasks like trying to make a trip to town or walking around his property to an outhouse become difficult. He said he has to dig out his car in the winter after it snows, which is a lot of work. And to make paths to be able to get around his property he has to put on snow shoes and walk them at least three times to pack down the snow.
“We’ve had snow four feet deep up here, five foot deep sometimes,” Bonan said.
Despite all inconveniences from living in Elkhorn year-round, Bonan’s biggest concern is getting enough wood to last the winter and into the summer, he said. He needs at least 15 cords, and one cord consists of chopped wood stacked four feet high, four feet wide, and eight feet long.
He used to be able to gather the wood when he first got here. He would make trips with his chainsaw and rusted truck into the mountains to do so. But nowadays, the physical labor is exhausting and painful. He said about six years ago he broke his back in a logging accident and his body has not been the same since.
“I tell you what, I replay that one almost everyday,” Bonan said, “and wish I could take that one back because that really (expletive) me up, it really did.”
If he is unable to gather the 15 cords of wood and perform the tasks necessary to survive a rugged lifestyle in the mountains, he will have no choice but to move into town, he said.
Bonan said occasionally his neighbors have helped him out with some of his tasks that are becoming increasingly difficult as years pass. He said that recently, after returning from a trip to town, somebody had placed 13 pieces of wood underneath one of his trucks. He said his neighbors must have heard that his days in Elkhorn were numbered without enough wood.
Tom and Carla Smith live up the gravel road and to the right about 100 feet from Bonan, they have for about 10 years. Tom has roots in the area, he worked on one of the last crews of the Elkhorn Mine when he was just 18 years old. When property became available in Elkhorn, him and his wife decided to build a house and retire in the mountains.
Tom said that Bonan is friendly and has always been a good neighbor. Throughout the years Tom has dropped wood at his house and also picked something up from town if Bonan needed it.
“Well it’s the neighborly thing to do,” Tom said, “We believe in helping our neighbors as Christians and John needs help at times.”
The last few years Tom has noticed that Bonan’s back has been bothering him though. He said that both he and his wife have been getting John a few loads of firewood whenever they go get some for themselves. Other neighbors, like “Dr. John” down the street, who primarily visits his Elkhorn house on the weekends, helps Bonan with firewood and other tasks as well.
“John’s back is pretty bad,” Tom said, “so he can’t do as much as he used to, so we all try to help him out.”
Bonan told his friends in Los Angeles when he moved to Elkhorn that he was going to live out the rest of his life there. That is still his plan and he does not want to deviate from it, despite the circumstances.
One curious reporter stood and asked him what I’m sure many have wondered.
“There’s a lot of work that goes into this place, more than people would realize, but why do you love living up here?”
“Well I’m a nature guy,” he said. “I’m really into communicating with animals and observing them, I’ve done that my whole life.”
He then ventured off into a story of L.A. the Los Angeles River was 200 yards from his house as a kid, there in the metropolis he found the beauty of the fruit trees he would pick from and the wildlife that surrounds them. Even today, he loves to look out of the one window his cabin has, his “nature observation window,” and just watch.
Bonan has a tendency to speak in stories that branch off from one to the next, one detail of a story reminding him of the detail of another. His stories keep the conversation unpredictable, but in the end, it’s Elhorn he returns to.
“Yeah, I’m right amongst it, it’s rawboned,” Bonan said, “I’m right amongst it living, basically, how my grandparents did.”
The same grandparents that built the cabin in the once bustling mining town of Elkhorn in 1892.