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By Jim Byous
It is legend. This stretch of Route 66 runs like a thread, winding through the hot desert hills, twisting, rising and dropping in the dry, rocky, near-depleted-gold-bearing mountains between Kingman and Oatman, Arizona. I have not seen it in the six decades of my life. I’ve always wanted to. Now I am.
My wife, Becky, aka “The Beckster,” rides shotgun as we leave our motel in Needles, California. It is just before the morning sun creeps over the horizon. Across the Colorado River we can see Boundary Cone on the opposite side of the Arizona state line. It is already getting hot. Thank God for air-conditioned pickups. Our time is short, appointments in the Phoenix area dictate a “flyby” view of the town and route without a scheduled stop. Now that we live in the Southeast – on the other side of the continent – it is compulsory that we see the legend… the road and the town.
I remember the stories told by my parents and grandparents of traveling to California in the years before I was born. “I don’t like threading the needle’s eye,” my grandfather, Mark Covey, would joke while telling of this road. “Don’t want to go back.” He didn’t.
In the 1940s he had crossed the snaking stretch of Route 66 in a cut-down 1931 Hupmobile. A makeshift “dog house” replaced the back seat and trunk, an alteration designed to carry and cover bored, sleeping kids and grandkids during the long, sun-baked and dangerous trip from Eastern Oklahoma. Over the previous two decades he and others, who are now called “Steinbeck’s Okies,” journeyed to join my parents who were working in the bean fields of California’s Central Valley.
But, the gateway to the promised land lay along the twisted, narrow highway through the minaret-shaped rhyolite plugs of the Needles region and the near-abandoned gold town of Oatman, a town that was saved from extinction by supplying the needs of the traffic on Route 66. As in my grandfather’s time, today the town survives by selling food, drink, and trinkets to travelers and tourists who follow their dreams. In times before they searched for a new life. Today they search for the past… just as we are.
Every year in my childhood our summer vacation was in Eastern Oklahoma the place our family called “home.” We rolled through the Needles area in the warm season, in the pre-auto-air-conditioner days. On those occasions my brother and I could be seen passing by, holding wet washcloths out of the car window in an attempt to grab a fleeting ration of cool for our faces. One of our primitive swipes at cooling took place in Needles during an 11 P.M. passing in 1960. The outside temperature measured 109 degrees Fahrenheit. Somewhere along the route the cloth slipped from my brother’s hand and swirled off into the desert sticking to a distant, dry tumbleweed. Mom was not amused. Neither was I. I had to share my cloth.
Route 66 had changed by that time, bypassing Oatman and diving straight into the Mojave Desert on the way to Kingman. Each year, passing the turnoff to the “needle’s eye” my mother would laugh and quote her father’s rebuke of the area. It was an annual ritual in oral tradition.
Now, as we approach Oatman the first rays of sunlight touch the surrounding hilltops. It slowly creeps downward, crawling across the rocks, rooftops, and road as the town fills our windshield. The hamlet is quiet, the kind of quiet that seeps into your head the way heat soaks into a Mojave rock formation – slowly and intensely. The sound of our motor reminds us that we have not lost our hearing.
Nothing stirs; not bird nor dog nor human. It’s eerie, but oddly inviting. It feels lonely like the loneliness heard in the howl of a wolf on a dark wilderness night. The smell of dust and sage hangs in the air as the temperature rises. The occasional scents of burro dung and automobile oil waft upward from the roadway through the truck’s ventilation system.
The Beckster and I grab our cameras and click away, some from the truck, but other shots require stopping to compose and capture. Time is short. We must hurry. I hate it. I love this place. I can feel the history soaking up out the ground and from the wooden framed buildings that surround us. This place is filled with hidden stories, hidden secrets.
This tiny mining town gained its name from a nearby 1860s mine that honored Olive Oatman, a member of a Mormon pioneer family who died in an Indian raid in 1851. Her story of capture, enslavement and eventual adoption by the Mojave tribe was well known when the town was settled. Ironically gold fever exploded the population of the town shortly after Oatman’s death in 1903 when new veins were discovered. The short-lived boost helped the town survive during the early years of the century.
Her likeness, which includes Mojave-face-tattoo highlights, is displayed on the façade of Olive Oatman Restaurant and Saloon on the eastern edge of the main street. The eatery serves sodas, chili and ice cream to sun-parched tourists during the season. A long banner above the porch boasts, “Air Conditioned.” Next to it is another sign that reads, “Open.” But, the eatery is not ready for the day, the business doors are locked. They are in fact, closed.
Across the street is the eight-room, Oatman Hotel. It was the honeymoon spot for actors Clark Gable and Carol Lombard when, in 1939, they eloped to Kingman 30 miles across the Black Mountains to the northeast. Stories are told of the couple’s secretive escape out of Hollywood in an effort to avoid the press of the day.
Old timers told of card games with Gable into the late hours and his enjoyment of the townspeople that drew the couple back to the inn on numerous other occasions. Apparently he and Lombard didn’t mind the ghost who is said to haunt the place. The old establishment that they enjoyed has survived several disasters in the town’s history. But in 1921 the hotel and many of the surrounding buildings weren’t as lucky and were destroyed by fire. It was rebuilt in 1924. Some reports say that the adobe walls remained intact and were reused for the current structure.
As we pass through, the famous burros of Oatman are nowhere to be seen. We will find them later trotting between the rocks and clumps of sagebrush a short distance down the road. These locals were introduced to the region in the 1860s when gold was discovered. Some are descended from pack animals used by The California Volunteers, troopers who moved from the nearby post, Fort Mohave, to search for gold.
Over time other “booms” of gold-hungry immigrants would lose or release animals. Today there are several hundred wild burros in the area that are protected by the Bureau of Land Management. Some are offered for adoption each year in the Bureaus’ Wild Horse and Burro Program.
Onward we drive, competing with the clock. The hairpin road seems to spiral as we climb. To the left, just before the summit, is the Gold Road Mine. It is currently under study for reopening, giving hope to the owners that they might soon take advantage of the rising price of gold. A few more turns and switchbacks we are on top of 3,550-foot-high Sitgreaves Pass. Stopping is a necessity to take in the view toward the northwest.
Three-hundred yards below us is a short, loop road. We had missed the dirt turnoff to a panorama site with views of the Mojave Valley, the Colorado River and California beyond. The site is covered with small crosses and monuments to the dead. The ground is too rocky for graves yet crosses and memorials dot hillside below the overlook. A local custom is to scatter ashes of loved ones at the site, usually due to a last request by those who passed and had loved the area.
I would love to study this Sitgreaves site, but we can’t turn around. Time on this leg of the trip is dominating our plans. A short photo op and again we are rolling past the sage, rocks, and sand. Thinking back, I had seen a similar cross-covered site a few weeks earlier above Cripple Creek, Colorado. There the cross-on-the-hill placement started on the prominent point after cars plunged over. Families would place memorials to those who died. Later, as on Sitgreaves, loved ones would scatter ashes because of the beautiful vista from the point. Both places pique one’s interests and suggest a need for learning more. Both bring on sadness.
On we drive – the clock commands us. Another visit will be planned and we will return to this place and to the town and the ice cream in Olive’s Oatman’s Restaurant. The history and the legends demand it of us. Plus, there are the burros.
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