Book review: Ghost Town Living: Mining for Purpose and Chasing Dreams at the Edge of Death Valley, by Brent Underwood

posted: April 13, 2024

tl;dr: Fans of the YouTube channel will enjoy the stories, revelations, and confessions in this book...

My wife and I started watching the Ghost Town Living YouTube channel during the pandemic. The first episode takes place at the very beginning of the lockdowns, when Brent travels from Texas to his newly purchased ghost town, Cerro Gordo, in the mountains above Death Valley. While we were huddled inside staring at screens, here was this intriguing guy on a mission to do the seemingly impossible: resurrect a remote ghost town without running water. Brent was documenting his struggles on video and sharing them with the world. It’s reality television, but literally of the constructive rather than destructive variety (with one major exception).

Brent is a skilled videographer. He knows how to hold the camera steady, take panoramic shots of the incredible scenery around Cerro Gordo, use a drone in follow-me mode, do time-accelerated videos of the stars at night, and edit it all into a compelling enough result to attract well over one million subscribers to his channel. But how is he as a writer?

I am happy to report that Brent is a fine writer. His skills in storytelling are more obvious in the book, but they also are a component of his success with his YouTube channel. He placed himself in a challenging physical setting that is far beyond the daily experience of most Americans, and then has the skills to tell stories, both on video and on paper, that this viewer and reader finds compelling.

A book cover, listing the title, subtitle, and author's name, with a picture of a man in jeans, a jacket, and a baseball cap, with his hands in his jacket pockets, standing amongst some dried out brush and dirt in front of a few dilapidated wooden structures beneath a partly cloudy sky

The Ghost Town Living book is not chronological nor comprehensive. Brent is not attempting to document in writing the entire process of resurrecting Cerro Gordo. Rather the book is sixteen stories and chapters, organized into four major themes. Some of them cover territory that Brent has covered on his channel, such as his ill-fated solo hike from Cerro Gordo into Death Valley on a hot day. That story isn’t fully documented on video because Brent has to stop filming at one point. In the book, Brent not only explains why, but also tells more about what was going on inside his head on that hike. He also opens up in the book about his burnout. I appreciate that Brent is willing to share so much about himself with his audience, although we all still have questions about his love life.

The stories in the Ghost Town Living book provide example-filled lessons about independence, perseverance, and community. Brent is one Millennial who does not spend his days staring at a screen. Brent is an active participant in life, and isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. If I had to classify the Ghost Town Living book, I’d put it in the “motivational” category.

I pre-ordered the book when Brent announced it on his channel, which gave me access to a bonus chapter that Brent’s editors dropped from the final volume. The subject of the bonus chapter is the animals that Brent has acquired. Certainly this is an appealing topic to many in Brent’s audience: I bought my wife a Tofu the goat shirt from the Cerro Gordo online store. But I have to say I agree with Brent’s editors: this chapter doesn’t quite measure up to the sixteen others in the volume. Including it also would have ruined the numerical symmetry of the book, which is divided up into four sections of four chapters. Maybe that is the real reason the editors dropped it.

Fans of the Ghost Town Living YouTube channel will definitely enjoy this book. It should earn Brent some new followers.