Ghost Towns by Ryan Schmidt

The warm May sun was pouring in through the windshield of Karen’s Acura as they sped down the back roads of Skull Valley, Utah.
“I’m kind of nervous,” Karen said and popped a veggie chip into her mouth.
“I don’t know how you can eat those.”
“What? They’re good for you.”
“I doubt it,” Sam said with a grin.
She crunched another one loudly, with her mouth open, leaning in close to his ear and making yummy sounds.
“Mmm, oh my God! It is so good.”
“Don’t distract the driver!” Sam said in mocked anger and swerved the car back and forth.
They both laughed and Karen kissed his cheek with greasy veggie-chip lips. Her yellow hair back-lit by the bluer-than-blue sky and warm yellow sunlight outside. The road stretched out in front of them, narrowing to a point on the horizon.

Salt Lake Tribune, Dated August 12th, 1977, Page 12:
The search for Holly and Mike Tomlinson was called off today in the west desert near Delta, Utah. Experts say the two may have fallen into an open mine shaft or succumbed to the heat without water. Record high temperatures are expected…

The dusty, yellow grasses that lined both sides of the road danced in waves as their car passed, spreading out the rush of the wind in wave after wave of undulation behind them. The road looked flat all the way to the skyline but would dip dramatically, unexpectedly, and Sam and Karen would zip through the hollow of cool air in a river bottom and then rise again to the flat land raising their arms above their heads like they were riding a roller coaster.
“I’m kinda nervous,” she said again when they reached another plateau.
“Nothing to worry about. It’s just a little spooky.”
The road dipped again into another unseen river bottom.

Paranormal Investigators YouTube: Utah Desert Episode 4, minute 1:32.
Randy: “…love Utah’s west desert for the sheer amount of action out here. We set up infrared cameras and voice recorders last night. Here’s what we got.

(The scene cuts to grainy green footage of Randy looking scared and turning in multiple directions, while we hear the following scratchy voice track.)

Male voice: Got in, can’t get out.
Female Voice: Gotta try. Gotta get out.
Male Voice: Too high to climb.

(Here the audio is too scratchy to distinguish words, strange scratching sounds followed by gentle weeping.)

Randy: “Oh man! Those voices are so clear coming right from the grave! It’s no wonder so many hikers go “Missing” out here! These old ghosts are exacting their revenge on the living.”


“Cows,” Karen said, tucking a foot underneath her, sitting up straighter.
Black and red cows were grazing on the roadside, mindless of the human traffic. Sam leaned hard on the breaks and swerved around the first cow. It lifted its head and mooed as they passed. Another cow was sleeping on the road.
“Shit! That was close,” Sam said, laughing a little as he maneuvered slowly around the cows. “Don’t wreck my car please.”
(Got in, can’t get out)
The grass was tall and lush in these river bottoms, these hollows. Just as the road arched back upwards, Karen saw a black mass in the grass off to the side of the road. “What the hell is that?”
“A cow,” Sam said with a cursory glance.
“It isn’t moving.” As they passed, Karen kept her eyes on the black mass. She could barely see it through the grass until it was directly beside the car. Black hooves stood upright at odd angles, and the belly of the dead cow was swollen and ready to pop. She couldn’t see the head, but she saw enough to know the cow was long dead. “Gross,” she said crinkling her nose against the smell. “It’s hooves.”
“Gross. Why was it like that?”
“It was dead.”
“I know, but what are the odds it would land directly on its back like that?”
“It probably didn’t. It probably got hit and died on its side, then got all bloated, and that bloating forced the legs open like that.”
Karen looked at her veggie chips disdainfully. She rolled up the bag and stuffed it into the cooler. “How much longer, baby?”
“Not sure. No signal out here. But probably not much farther.”
She fiddled with the radio and fidgeted in her seat.
“We’re almost there,” Sam said again smiling at her.
(Gotta try, Gotta get out)

Deseret News Blurb Dated August 3rd, 1981
Police still searching for the owners of the abandoned vehicle found in Utah’s west desert last Friday. The keys were in the ignition, but all the tires were flat. Food and soda pop were found inside a cooler of melted ice. Any information would be…


Karen dug into the glove box and pulled out a lighter and an oblong wooden box. She turned the lid of the box on one end, revealing its two small compartments. One held her “One Hit Wonder” hash pipe, painted to look like a cigarette. The other had a small pile of loose shredded pot buds. The smell of weed filled the car. Karen took the metal cigarette and rammed the white end of it into the shredded buds, filling the tip. Then holding the lighter flame to it, she inhaled sharply and offered the lit “cigarette” to Sam. He took it and inhaled deeply, feeling the heat of the smoke fill his lungs. They rolled down all the windows and exhaled huge plumes of smoke, smiling. Karen could feel her lungs stick together with each exhale. She could feel them slowly separate with each inhale. The world around her hummed and vibrated and everything now was nice. She relaxed back into her seat, an easy smile across her lips; Sam focused all his attention on the road, following the rhythm of the yellow lines and feeling the vibration of tires on asphalt.

Salt Lake Tribune, April 14, 2014
Cheryl and Waynard Blaylock were reported missing by their children after the two failed to return home from a long weekend. “They love ghost towns. It was their thing. They probably just ran out of gas somewhere in the desert. I’m sure they’re fine, ” the oldest daughter Whitney said to investi…


“Aloha Iosepa” the sign read with an arrow pointing to the west. Sam took the turn and steered the car over the berm and onto the dirt road.
“Ooo, I’m so excited,” Karen said, clapping her hands.
“Me too,” Sam said.
The dirt road opened to a cement basketball court and small graveyard encased by a waist-high chain link fence. The graves were clean and well maintained. The basketball court immaculate.
“Bummer,” Sam said as they parked.
“I kind of wish we were alone here,” Karen said, pointing to a rusty beat-up Suburban that was haphazardly parked next to the basketball court.
“Yeah me too,” Sam said. Instinctively his hand felt along his belt line for his service weapon. It wasn’t there. Hadn’t been there for more than a decade. “Fuck,” he thought. “No gun.”
They both climbed out of Karen’s Acura and walked around the graveyard keeping one eye on the Suburban. Sam committed the license plate to memory just in case. Something about being this far out of civilization just felt dangerous.
The Ghost town tour book said that Iosepa was beautiful. He now saw they meant maintained. It was too clean for the dark secret it hid. The people of Polynesia moved into Utah at the end of the 1880s. They were faithful converts moving into their holy land. Only they weren’t met with open arms by their brothers in the church. Instead, they were allowed to settle way out here in the west desert, in the Valley of Skulls. They only occupied the land here for twenty-eight years or so, but their blood and sweat still stained the ground.
“It’s not as scary as I hoped,” Karen said as they looked at the polished headstones.
Sam stood in front of the historical monument and read the plaque. “It’s total bullshit,” he said. “Whitewashed.”
“Yea. It doesn’t say anything about leprosy or them being asked to move more than a day’s ride away from the white folk.”
“Some cock-sucker made the excuse that the islanders had leprosy and that’s why they shouldn’t be allowed to settle in Salt Lake.”
“Let’s move onto the next one,” Sam said.
The sound of a car engine firing up made them both jump. The Suburban roared to life and backed out from its spot. The tires slid and skidded over the dirt as it roared and sped away. In the windows of the passing van, Sam and Karen saw dark faces watching them, emotionless, empty.
“Time to go,” Sam said, and Karen didn’t argue.


Fearless Daves UFO Guide Published 2012:
The west desert of Utah is home to one of the largest alien populations on the planet. Coatlicue and her minions are out there. They are tiny, snake-shaped evil bastards that eat human flesh. Just look at how many “hikers” go missing, but they never find the bodies…


Skull Valley Road south, far south. Somewhere near Delta the tarmac ended and the little map on Sam’s GPS just spun aimlessly in circles. Amber, Utah, was supposed to be a fully formed and long since abandoned mining town, complete with open mine shafts, rotten warehouses, and abandoned homes. Sam found it on Google Earth and it wasn’t in the ghost town book, which was both weird and more exciting, the roads and buildings perfectly outlined by ribbons of desert chaparral and nothing else around for miles. Skull Valley Road came to “T” and Sam slowed the car. “Which way do you think?” he asked.
“I thought you knew.”
“I thought I did, too. But I don’t remember this on the map.”
“Shit.” She smacked his arm.
He laughed. “Ow! It’s fine. We’ll just go right. If there’s nothing there…”
“Why right?”
“Right is never wrong.” Sam smiled and Karen rolled her eyes gratuitously.
It was slow going with nothing around but sheep and sheep dogs that would chase the car for a few paces then lose interest. Karen and Sam hit the “One Hit Wonder” again to relieve the boredom and got to feeling mighty fine by the time they turned a corner between two large hills and saw the open settlement spread out before them. A small wooden sign had fallen over in the wind, but lay face up peeling in the sun. It read: Topaz, Utah.
(Got in, can’t get out)
It was not a ghost town at all. White houses lined the hillsides. Horse corrals, and training pens dotted the open areas. This was just some remote town that didn’t quite look abandoned. It felt too new, too clean. Sam slowed down even further. There were no cars in the little town. Houses and pastures, but no cars. Sam had the distinct feeling of being watched. An eerie quiet blanketed everything, turning the murmur of tires on the gravel into a roar. As they got closer to the center of town and closer to the houses, they saw peeling paint on the houses with dry, sun bleached, wood showing through.
“I thought it was a ghost town,” Karen said.
“It should be.”
A single horse stood in its pen watching the car slowly drive past. They stopped at the only intersection and got out. Next to them, the hulking abandoned warehouse Sam had seen online loomed over them. Across the street was a small brick house with a faded and rotten white porch. As Sam glanced over at the curtained windows, one of the pale curtains pulled back. Inside the gloom of the house, Sam saw the face of someone standing just far enough from the glass that only the dull reflection of white skin in the sunlight shone through. Sam lifted his hand to wave, and the reflection took a step backward, melting into the darkness inside the house. “Uh, that was…” Sam said.
“Yeah, I think we should…” Karen began but didn’t finish.
They were definitely being watched, and it made Sam’s skin crawl. Again his hand felt along his belt for his service pistol, then fell impotently to his side.
(Gotta get out)
“It’s probably nothing,” he said aloud to himself. “Let’s just act normal, take some pictures, and then leave.”
“Let’s just leave, right now; we’re too far away from civilization as it is.”
Sam pulled the phone from his pocket, checked for service, and then snapped a pic of the abandoned building. He turned his back on the watcher but kept his ears pointed that way, listening intently for any movement. Sam had seen this in movies. Dozens of movies, just like this, where two kids go out wandering around and fall into some sort of trap. Then they get murdered, raped and tortured, although never in that order, and then fed to the locals as sausages or something. “Ok. Let’s go,” Sam said and slid into the car.

Karen was already inside. She locked the doors and smiled at him nervously. “Can we go now, please?” she said. “It’s the wrong kind of creepy here. It’s a human creepy. Aliens and ghosts and all that are a fun kind of spooky, but what humans are willing to do to each other is downright terrifying. Let’s go.”
Sam spun the car around, and they headed back the way they’d come.
“What the hell is that?” Karen said suddenly, pointing to a huge fence enclosure up the hill, maybe half a mile from the road. They hadn’t seen it on the way in because of its location, tucked up behind the hill like that.
Sam’s heart thudded as he stopped the car. The fence was at least fifteen feet tall around the outer perimeter. Then there was a space of bare earth, well worn by tire tracks, and then another fence enclosing a patch of grass with boulders. Both fences, the outer and the inner, were tall. Taller than fifteen feet, they had to have been.
“Why would you need two fences like that?” Karen asked.
“For the sheep…?” Sam offered but couldn’t convince himself that was the purpose of it. He’d seen fences like this before. In the Philippines, on Guam, and even here in the US. The outer fence was tall and difficult to climb. The path between the two fences would be the right size for a patrol vehicle to circle the inner compound and keep an eye on the “inhabitants.” That inner compound was a prison. Not a pen for sheep, but a prison for people. “It’s a human fence,” he said aloud.

It was oppressively quiet now. Sam slid the car into park and stepped out, not able to take his eyes from the fence. From where he was he could see the sun-bleached edges and splitting dryness that marked the majority of the fence posts. The chain was rusted and old. “What the hell is this place?” he thought.
“Let’s go, baby. I’m getting nervous,” Karen said from within the car.
(Too high to climb.)
“There is something here,” Sam almost whispered. The silence of the place bore down on him. He closed his eyes against the heat of the sun and for a moment, as his eyes were closing, he saw them. He saw the people that had been kept here. Their skin burned to a dark umber from the sun, skin tight against their bones, faces gaunt from hunger. “Christ,” he whispered.
“Baby…?” she said from inside the car.
Sam put his shoes onto the ground and closed the car door. The wind rushed through him, cutting through his shirt and pants with cold fingers, making him shiver. There was something here. The ghosts of those people called to him. He closed his eyes again, catching a glimpse of them as he shut the bright May sun from his eyes. Boney hands reached out through the fence. Eyes dry of tears. He felt suddenly cold, despite the sweat dripping down his spine. He didn’t know who or why they had been kept here, but their ghosts remained. Out here where nothing could survive long, the silence of their secret death survived on the breeze. There was something here that could not be seen; it could only be felt.

The truth of it would come later, at home; after his dinner, Sam googled Topaz, Utah, and wept.

Salt Lake Tribune, October 31st, 1945
Today the National Guard disbanded the Topaz Japanese concentration camp in the west desert near Delta, Utah. Topaz was opened September 11, 1942, following the attack on Pearl Harbor. It quickly became the fifth-largest city in Utah, with over 9,000 Japanese internees and white staff. It covered approximately 31 square miles. Most of the Japanese have now been relocated to their former homes in the San Francisco area of Northern California. A spokesman for the National Guard said: “Those that wanted a ride, boarded busses today bound for California. The rest chose to make their own way home, or remain in Utah.”

Deseret News, Police Blotter, December 12, 1945
Residents of Delta reported strange lights near the western desert. Police Chief Ernie Chapman refused to investigate, saying, “It’s probably just some leftover Japs with no place to go. I wouldn’t pay it no mind. They’ll survive or they’ll…”

Ryan Schmidt
Ryan Schmidt

As a third generation writer, Ryan Schmidt is a firm believer in living a life worth writing about. He has been to nearly every continent. He has drunk whiskey with Andalusian nomads and knows what the Sahara smells like when it rains. He has spearfished at the mouth of Mariana’s trench and eaten Alpaca in the Peruvian highlands. Currently Ryan is living and writing with the ghosts of the old west in Utah.

 Check out the photographs that inspired this story: Ghost Town Photographs by Ryan Schmidt in Issue 2.2.