When I worked at the Oatman Hotel in about 1980, the dining room was pleasant if humble. The large windows let in just enough sunlight, and the green patterned tablecloths gave kind of a down home feeling. The food was average middle American. You could get a steak dinner or grilled cheese sandwich and potato salad. I served people their morning coffee for a quarter and they would leave me a 50 cent tip.
On New Year's Eve or when there was a band, there was room to dance, and dance we did! Sometimes my Sicilian friend would play "Lady of Spain" on his accordion. I would dance to anything in those days!
Back then, the closest you could come to staying at the hotel was to peer into the room where Clark Gable and Carole Lombard were said to have spent their wedding night, after being married in Kingman. Since I left Oatman, a whole bevy of ghosts seem to have moved into the hotel, so I guess you could say the rooms are occupied once again.
When I visited Oatman in March, I could hardly find the Hotel door. The windows and doors were plastered with dollar bills, blocking the light, and there was no sign. People were going in, though, so I followed them--and was hit with the smell of fried grease! Unhuh, no way I wanted to eat there! It was dark inside, and crowded. It did not feel healthy! The only daylight I could see was in back, where the wall had apparently been removed--or had fallen away--to show the wall of gray dirt behind the restaurant. I suppose this is where "Oatie", the ghost of an Irish miner, is supposed to hang out. I only remember the aging septic system being there.
I backed out quickly and we headed down to Bullhead City for lunch.
Nothing was open yet when we arrived in Oatman, but the door to the Olive Oatman Restaurant was open, so we went in. A man with a salt and pepper pony tail and beard was sitting at one of the tables, with his dog Bun sitting in a chair beside him. He turned out to be Lee Kent, who said he owns the restaurant. I introduced myself and we got to talking.
I used to live here, I told him. I came with Boone and Shorty and had two little red haired boys. "Oh yes!" he said, "I remember the boys! Cutest things, running around town. My wife and I got such a kick out of them!" (I found out later he came to Oatman after I left; must have been some other boys--either that or he was messing with me. I left in 1982 or '83. And I never let my boys run around town anyway.)
"What do you hear from Boone?" Lee asked. "I bought fire agate from him sometimes."
Boone, Shorty's brother, was the very picture of an old time prospector. He would get a grubsteak together--that is he would persuade someone to loan him money for food--and walk up into the hills to the fire agate claim. He would be gone about a week, and come back down with as much fire agate as he could carry in his backpack. He'd sell enough to pay off his debts and get roaring drunk with the rest. After a few days or weeks, he'd get enough money scraped together for another trip up to the claim.
He stayed with us between trips to the claim, but he never ate with us. I guess he was able to keep himself fed, anyway.
Lee hadn't heard that Boone died a few years ago.
To Oatman, we took old route 66 out of Kingman AZ. Route 66 is the "Mother Road", the road that brought hundreds of thousands of people from Illinois to settle in California in the 1800's and early 1900's. It fed the gold rush and brought people escaping the dust bowl.
We crossed some of the most barren land I have ever seen.
Route 66 goes over Sitgreaves Pass, through some of the richest gold mining country in the U.S. Oh, that lovely windy road with steep buttes and deep washes on the right--and few guard rails! Rich was very glad we didn’t attempt this last night in the dark (we took hwy 68 down to the Colorado River and had dinner in Bullhead City instead).
Gold Road, once a thriving town with post office, hotel, restaurant, bar, etc, has entirely disappeared! Even remnants of stone walls with gaping door and window holes are gone. Nothing there now but mining equipment and piles of dirt. Even the mining equipment is silent, waiting for the price of gold to go up.
We arrived in Oatman in time for breakfast, but nothing was open yet. The air was cool and the streets deserted except for about a dozen wild burros and few shop keepers, both getting ready for tourists. We were greeted by a baby burro with a sticker on his head that said, "don't feed me", and signs saying "don't feed the babies; they are still nursing."
Burros came to Oatman with the prospectors before off road vehicles could manage the terrain and the mines were still operating. Tough little guys, they can subsist on almost nothing, so when the prospectors abandoned them, they stayed on and flourished. Now a good many of them come into Oatman to beg from tourists, who love to feed them! I didn't ask if they still rob garbage cans and gardens; when I lived here, I lost an entire crop of corn the night before I planned to harvest it!
I had to chuckle; every empty lot I knew then is now filled with a new shop built of rusty tin and weathered wood--built to look old. Reminds me of the Patchwork House. And a shop called the Gold Burro!--really?
In just 8 days I'll be in Oatman!
I haven't been back to Oatman, Arizona since....since my youngest son, now a father himself, was a toddler.
I'm told it has changed and not for the better. The patchwork house we lived in is long gone. The Brown Jug, where we danced on the old wood floor, burned down years ago. Judy's Pottery Shop, where I spent many an afternoon chatting with friends, is now a bar.
I wonder if any of those old miner's shacks are still there?
I called Judy yesterday. She and Willa, who owns the Glory Hole Antique Shop, are the only old timers left, she said. Judy wondered why I would even want to come to Oatman now; it's just a tourist town, she told me. I told her, the cliffs will still be there; there's no way they could get rid of Elephant's Tooth! I've a hankering to walk up to Elephant's Tooth. Walking in the hills above town was my joy and my solace when I lived in Oatman.
It is said that at one time these slopes were covered with gold seekers tents!
Apparently the wild burros still come into town for handouts from the tourists. I bet you can still see a "gunfight" staged in the street. Not that the gunfights ever interested me, and the burros got ALL my corn the night before I planned to harvest it one year, so I'm not overly fond of them!
And the hills are still there! I wonder if they've fenced or covered the mining shafts? Some of them were pretty darn deep! Once I dropped a stone down one, and counted to 12 before I heard it hit bottom.
We lived in a patchwork house, built on the bones of a miner's cabin left from the days Oatman was a bustling gold mining town. He was searching for gem stones; I was searching for love. We were both betrayed.
For years I didn't want to think about it, let alone talk about it, but time has shed a more forgiving light on many of the people I knew then--and I am better able to forgive myself.
I found my journal from those days; it is with some trepidation that I invite you to read it over my shoulder. I did some things I'm not proud of, and perhaps you will think less of me. Perhaps you will find some entries