to wit, a middle-aged peripatetic shrink undertakes the Great American Cross-Country Road Trip with help from little leaguers, German bikers, the King of Rock ‘n Roll, porn stars and an abandoned brothel, a flock of domesticated ducks, the Department of Homeland Security and the West Memphis police, a decommissioned atomic warhead, some dodgy motels… and a strange rider in the back of a 2013 Ford Fusion.
Realizing that we wouldn’t have time to ‘do’ the Strip on this visit, there was no point in staying in one of the A-list casino hotels for what amounted to a quick overnight. Instead, we checked into Sunset Station, an off-Strip complex that is frequented by the locals more than the conventioneers. Though the parking lot is well-lit and safe enough, I didn’t want to lose my back seat relic to a random break-in, so I packed him in a large pool supply box (the only one I had available) and brought him with me upstairs to our room.
You’d be surprised how helpful are strangers when you’re checking into a hotel carrying a large pool supply box. Everyone wants to assist with doors and, several times, hold your box while you enter.
“Bringing your pool supplies to the room, are you?”
[if you only knew]
The next morning, we had to get an early start. There’s so much to see in Vegas – the International Pinball Hall of Fame, the Burlesque Museum, the Liberace Exhibit – but we had a schedule to maintain. Thus, my calcified friend and I fueled up and sailed down Rt 95 past Searchlight NV to the Laughlin Hwy, at which point we veered east toward Bullhead City AZ. After crossing the state line, we took the Mohave Valley Hwy due south through Fort Mohave to the intersection with Rt 153. Again heading east, we snaked our way into the Black Mountains and before long came upon the (mostly) abandoned town of Oatman.
In 1915, two old prospectors struck what later became a $10M gold vein at almost 3000 feet elevation in these mountains. Soon, a tent city sprang up next to the few pre-existing buildings, and shortly it had all coalesced into a larger permanent settlement. Oatman was born, its name in honor of a 19th century local girl who had been kidnapped by the Yavapai Indians, so goes the tale.
Within a year of those first tents, the population of Oatman had soared to almost 4000. The Oatman Hotel (which predates the tent city, having been built in 1902) later became famous as the site where Clark Gable and Carole Lombard spent their 1939 wedding night after a ceremony in Kingman; they were just too tired to make it all the way back to Los Angeles by car, so they stopped. It’s a rather ramshackle dive, but Gable liked the hotel, and Oatman, so much that he frequently returned to play poker with the miners in the lobby bar when he wasn’t filming. After Lombard’s tragic 1942 death, however, Gable stopped frequenting Oatman as the memories were too painful.
[sidebar: the Oatman Hotel is said to be haunted by the ghost of an Irishman who got drunk and died after falling down the stairs. He’s friendly, the locals say, but Boney-M appeared non-plussed]
Oatman’s significance back in the day is reflected by the fact that the Mother Road was routed through it back in the ‘20s. But when the miners packed up and left during WWII, the town began its slide toward a dusty wide spot on a glorified goat path. The decommissioning of that segment of Rt 66 in 1953 seemed to be the final nail in the settlement’s coffin – by 2000, the census revealed a permanent population in Oatman of only 128.
That is, not counting the burros.
You see, the miners had pack animals in abundance when Oatman was at its height. But it was too much effort to take them along when the mines closed. So they were turned loose, and because of the mild climate and presence of scrub grasses, the creatures thrived. Now they are everywhere in town and the surrounding hills. They stroll down the tiny main street, stopping to rest on the asphalt and gravel. They walk onto the porches of the scattered shops that exist, appearing to window shop. They are hand-fed ‘burro chow,’ available to the tourists, though caution is advised around testy mothers and their young. The burros do whatever they want to do as they are protected by the U.S. Dept of the Interior and cannot be hunted, killed, or harmed in any way.
Shopkeepers, the few who are there, have only one effective way by which to deal with ornery burros – squirt bottles. I witnessed a burro stick its head into a shop’s front door, only to get blasted with water, bray, retreat, and then return five minutes later return to, er, relieve itself on the very same spot. “Take that, jerk shopkeeper!” And we call them dumb animals.
For a so-called ghost town, the place is pretty lively. Though the population hasn’t increased much, Oatman has experienced a renaissance of sorts in recent years, thanks to worldwide interest in Rt 66 (remember those German bikers?) and proximity to gaming in nearby Nevada. Now on any given weekend, one can find motorcycle rallies, old car shows, faux-Wild West shootouts, drinking at the bar of the Oatman Hotel, and of course burros eating burro chow.
Along with the rest of Arizona’s Rt 66 towns, Oatman is fiercely proud of its heritage – the village knows on which side its bread is buttered – and replicas of the Rt 66 black-on-white US highway shield are everywhere, lest you forget. Rt 66 souvenirs also abound. Plus, visitors have taken to pasting autographed-and-dated $1 bills on the walls and ceiling of the hotel’s bar, wedged in-between the Rt 66 memorabilia and pictures of Gable. Estimates of the number of bills run into the thousands.
When in the area, I always enjoy making a pit stop in Oatman and soaking in the ambience. But the dead hombre and I needed to make haste in our journey, as we still had to connect with I-40 at Kingman and reach further points before nightfall.
[to be continued…]
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