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If you really want to escape traffic and crowds this year, why not vacation in a place where the population has disappeared? Ghost towns have long attracted visitors, fascinated by a chance to touch a piece of the past, says Philip Varney, co-author of Ghost Towns of the West (Quarto, $24.99), his 10th book on the topic. But don’t go expecting theme-park perfection, he says. “If you need the barroom salon door creaking in the wind, you need a movie set. If you’re willing to project yourself in the past a bit, you’re going to like these sites.” He shares some favorites with Larry Bleiberg for USA TODAY.

Bodie, Calif.

This former gold mining camp, preserved as a state park, is a national treasure, Varney says. “Bodie is the real thing. It’s the best ghost town that I’ve seen, and I’ve seen over 600.” The town is kept in a state of arrested decay, meaning rangers don’t let buildings collapse, but don’t restore them either. And parking is kept out of sight. “When you’re walking around Bodie, you’re not looking at the 21st century.”

Bannack, Mont.

With more than four dozen well-preserved structures, this former copper town is both scenic and accessible. “Just turn the handle. You can go into virtually every building, but they ask you to shut the door,” Varney says. He suggests looking for architectural surprises like the two-story building with a public school on the ground floor and a Masonic lodge above.

St. Elmo, Colo.

With dirt streets, wooden boardwalks and…