An enterprising young woman bought an entire ghost town in Northern California and turned it into a laid-back feminist paradise
BETSY ANN COWLEY was nearly 3,000 miles away from home, vacationing in the Caribbean with her family, when she got the news: Northern California was in flames. And Pulga, the town where she lived, sat in the fire’s path. The Camp Fire, which ignited November 8, 2018, in Butte County, had already practically destroyed two nearby towns, Paradise and Concow. But Cowley didn’t know Pulga’s fate, so she embarked on a long journey back. It wasn’t so much her house she was concerned about, but rather, the entire town. After all—she owned it.
It would take Cowley several days to fly as far as San Francisco. From there, she made the four-hour drive home to see the damage for herself. When she arrived, she was met with firefighters, highway patrol, roadblocks, and other obstacles. Officials didn’t want anyone entering Pulga, but Cowley was determined. She’d spent three years and put in the funds and sweat equity to restore the old mining town and rebuild its structures. And just weeks before, she’d helped pull off one of the biggest accomplishments there yet: a women’s-only retreat that turned the 64-acre town into a feminist utopia.
Now she faced losing it all. Ultimately, the Camp Fire, which is believed to have started near Pulga, incinerated nearly 19,000 structures and killed more than 80 people, marking it as the state’s deadliest, most destructive wildfire ever. The cause is still under investigation, but Pacific Gas & Electric, the utility company that serves most of California, has been at the center of a lawsuit attached to the blaze.
When Cowley finally made it home, she found that, although Pulga had been lucky, it wasn’t altogether spared. The flames had damaged her own cabin, as well as 12 of the 64 cabanas she had built for visitors, two historic buildings, and several thickets of trees. It was going to take a lot of work to restore, but Cowley couldn’t abandon Pulga. The town wasn’t just for her, she said; it was also for every friend and visitor who’d helped her to build it so far. “This is a community supporting a project,” says Cowley. “Pulga was built on a vast amount of love and support, and people believing in this project and wanting it to succeed.”
Pulga’s history is rooted in the indigenous Concow Maidu tribes that once lived on the land. The town proper was founded in 1885 by William King, whose family operated a sawmill. By 1906 it had a post office and was attracting residents who were mining for gold and “Pulga Jade,” an apple-green mineral also known as vesuvianite sought by the iconic jeweler Tiffany & Co.
The town was always small, home to only a few hundred people and a handful of structures at its peak in the 1930s and ’40s. It was also a popular view for passengers in vista-domed trains along the now-defunct Western Pacific Railroad line. Ernie Reynolds, who invented Reynolds Wrap, grew up in a nearby town and attended grammar school in Pulga.
By 1960, Pulga was no longer on an established train route, the mining industries dwindled, and it started its fade into a ghost town. First the post office closed and then the school. Eventually, the King family, which still had a claim on the unincorporated land, started using the town for its personal use, as well as for retreats that attracted an eclectic array of San Francisco’s beatniks, hippies, and artists.
In 1994, the King family sold the property to Lorraine Paloma who, with her friend Fred Leidecker, re-launched it as the Mystic Valley Retreat and School of Hypnotism, a destination for those interested in paranormal hypnotism and meditation. But, even as the town earned a reputation as a bohemian paradise, it started to fall into a state of disrepair. By the time Paloma and Leidecker decided to sell in 2015, they were in their mid-70s and no longer able to maintain the land and buildings, which were mostly uninhabitable.
That’s when Cowley stepped in. A friend had told her about a town up in the Plumas National Forest that was for sale—an entire town—that consisted of four purchasable lots. It may seem outlandish, but it’s not uncommon for unincorporated rural towns like Pulga—towns so small that they have no local government but are instead under the jurisdiction of a larger county—to go up for sale, and Cowley, 28 at the time, was intrigued. Living in Oakland, she wanted something new, and she saw in Pulga a place she could make not just her own, but also a place for friends. In addition, she recognized its potential for business ventures. Cowley had enough money saved to split the down payment with her stepdad, and could afford the monthly mortgage. Yes, the town was in shambles. But she fell in love with its story and saw real potential in its 12 buildings, which included four cabins, an old school house, and a dilapidated old structure that Cowley didn’t discover until three months into her stay and promptly nicknamed the “Hermit Shack.”
Today, after four years of building and rebuilding, Pulga stands as a testament to the work Cowley and her friends have put into it, restoring its structures and creating new ones, including dozens of open-air cabanas, some hidden by trees, each furnished with comfortable beds and cozy quilts. It all makes for a forest wonderland, with each detail chosen or created by Cowley, who is as comfortable with a hammer and nails as she is cooking up a multi-course dinner for friends in Pulga’s gleaming industrial-sized kitchen.
Cowley’s talents were shaped by a sense of adventure. Born and raised in Minnesota, she’s lived in Europe and across the United States. After high school, Cowley moved to France, where she painted and learned to cook, visiting local markets to discover what was in season. After a brief return to the U.S., she moved to the south of France where she worked in a bed and breakfast as a sous chef. From there, wanderlust took her to New York, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, and Somerset, California—a small town an hour east of Sacramento. There, she rented a house, fixed up the property, and farmed the land. But when a fire destroyed that plot in 2014, she needed a fresh start.
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It was her stepdad, Charles “Bucky” Zimmerman, who urged Cowley to not just buy and fix up Pulga but also to rent it out for events and retreats. “Bucky helped in shaping me, along with the other amazing women role models in my life,” Cowley says. “He always pushed me to do more, work harder, take on more, and never tell myself I can’t.”
Cowley followed his advice and spent months working on the original rebuild. At night, she slept in a teardrop trailer gifted to her by a friend. Herds of goats and pigs roamed the land, mingling with the artists and architects she brought in to help plan and design the town’s rebirth. And in 2017, she launched Pulga with a “coming out party” in the form of a three-day “Glitter Ranch” festival.
Little did she know, that in just a year’s time, she would be reviving the town all over again.
When I visit Pulga a year after the Camp Fire, much of the town has been restored, but scars still remain. I can see the charred skeletons of trees high on the hillside. Cowley, now 32, points out where flames destroyed her home before jumping the creek that runs through town. While Pulga sustained hundreds of thousands of dollars-worth of damage, Cowley bears other wounds, too. Earlier this year, she lost Zimmerman to pancreatic cancer.
Despite the lingering damage and sadness, though, Cowley’s world still feels idyllic. A narrow, paved road—one of only two in Pulga—winds through the remote hillside town. Walk it day or night, swallowed by the shadows of trees that still tower, and you might feel like the only person left on the planet.
In the morning, when it’s quiet except for the pre-dawn call of a wandering rooster, you can hear the rush of an icy river down below, just a short, rocky hike from the town’s office. After the sun sets, the soundtrack builds with the rumble of a freight train racing along Pulga’s edge, and the swooping sounds of bats searching for food.
Day or night, this town nestled along the Western ridge of the Feather River Canyon feels peaceful, magical even—not just a sanctuary for mind, body, and soul, but also a place to build friendships. Its magic is built into its bones, Cowley says, but it’s also intentional, forged from goodwill and a sense of togetherness. And while there are men who’ve helped create Pulga, arguably, this is a woman’s place built with a sisterly can-do spirit.
When darkness settles in, the sparkling lights strung between cabins make it look like something out of a fairy tale. There are peach trees and fig trees and blackberry brambles. Up the hill is the old school house, now a charming event venue complete with a stage and a bar. In town, other playful touches abound, such as the giant wooden boat, perched aground. There’s the babbling creek, crossed by a wooden bridge that boasts a built-in chair Cowley likes to sit in every morning. There are also several cabins, all decorated by Cowley with various artifacts such as an antique Wedgewood stove or a vintage camera, overstuffed pillows or bookshelves teeming with novels and old board games. Cowley’s named them all—Pink House, Hill House, etc.—giving the whole place a sense of thoughtful whimsy.
Unlike other former ghost towns, Pulga can support electricity, running water, and working toilets. There’s no cell reception, however, and if you want to log onto Cowley’s lone Wi-Fi network, she’ll probably give you the password, but you’ll need to trudge up to the town’s northwestern tip to connect to its signal.
That’s no accident. Over the years, Cowley, aided by a team of friends, labored to restore the town while creating a space for arts, craftsmanship, and meditating in nature. So far, that’s meant everything from throwing large family-style dinners for her friends to hosting a huge women’s retreat called the Chairman Mom Flee (the name is a play on “flea,” which in Spanish is “pulga”). Sarah Lacy, founder of Chairman Mom—a San Francisco-based social media platform for working women—first heard of Pulga after a friend sent her pictures. Immediately, she says, she knew it would be the perfect place to hold a retreat for her site’s subscribers. “I loved the idea that the town was owned by a woman and that women had largely rebuilt it,” says Lacy. “There’s something very magical about it. It feels like you’re trapped in another time.”
To prepare for the first Chairman Mom Flee, Cowley built cabanas and outfitted them with handpicked artwork and beds—many of which she lugged across town by herself.
That event was the culmination of everything she’d been trying to create in Pulga. “I loved the idea of it—we were going to bring 100 women here and allow them this safe space,” she says. “It was about trying to tear down the patriarchy and its structures. And Sarah coming in and believing in me,” she says of Lacy, “she really took a leap of faith for me.”
After the Camp Fire, however, Cowley didn’t know if another retreat was possible. A number of structures had to be rebuilt, once again, this time from literal ashes. But she needed the revenue, as well as the sense of purpose and kinship that it gave her. She got to work, sometimes aided by friends, often by herself. Sun up to sun down she moved about town, rebuilding cabanas, dragging fallen trees out of the roadway and clearing debris. The workdays were so long she’d often fall asleep in the middle of a project only to wake up in the morning, unsure of how she got there. Complicating things even more was the lack of electricity and water after the fire.
Eventually, utilities were restored, and the second-annual Chairman Mom Flee returned to Pulga this past September. Lacy, who helped launch a GoFundMe to aid Pulga after the fire, said she never considered not coming back. “I couldn’t pull up stakes, it didn’t feel right,” she says. “This is a community where people pull together and support each other in crisis.”
While the crowdfunding and the retreat played an invaluable role in Pulga’s rebuilding, ultimately, it’s Cowley’s work ethic and skills that brought it back, her friends say. “Betsy can fix a busted water main and rebuild a roof and then go paint something,” says April Glaser, who’s been coming out to Pulga with Cowley since she bought the town. “She can do 700 things in one day that would take me a week and $500.”
The workload is intense. But Cowley says being at her stepfather’s side when he died changed her outlook on everything, including Pulga. These days, she tries to remember to put down her tools and take in important moments, like just floating in the river with friends. “It’s about relationships and showing up for life events,” she says.
When Cowley’s not hosting visitors, she’s often alone with her dog Konkow. She’s not lonely, though. There’s too much to do, and friends are always dropping by. They’ll come and stay in a cabin for a weekend or even a few months, helping with projects around town. Sometimes Cowley passes out coffee and homemade burritos to the Union Pacific workers who keep the freight train line operating. “They’re like my big brothers and always have my back,” she says. “They help me when the power goes out. They look out for me and after this place when I’ve been away.”
As a single woman living alone in a remote mountain town, Cowley says she’s not afraid—in fact, she’s built something of a reputation as a frontier Annie Oakley. When Cowley first moved to Pulga, someone started a rumor that she’d shoot out your tires if you drove too fast through her town—a notion she didn’t exactly discourage.
Now, a year after the devastating fire, Cowley remains deeply invested in Pulga. There are plans to build a solar microgrid and open a general store. One day, she hopes, there will even be businesses here that can provide folks with meaningful jobs. “We’re sharing a space that’s magical and putting the magic back into it,” she says. “I’m only the keeper of the land.”
By Rachel Leibrock
Photography Molly Choma & Anne-Claire Brun
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2020 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
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