Look at me now, not a care, ignorant as Adam, speeding down the Mojave Valley Highway in our traditional garb.
My head is bare. I am stripped to the waist. I have on a pair of dirty Wranglers with a little, tiny knife hole in the left thigh; a big, brass belt buckle that proclaims “Colt Revolvers” to be “The World’s Right Arm;” and a pair of-what is the right word-distressed, very distressed cowboy boots.
I think the belt buckle might be an antique. I don’t know. It don’t matter. I might be an antique myself. Or, a fabulous fake-a lifelike reproduction of somebody I used to be. I cannot tell anymore. On days like this I am not sure myself if I am now or I am history or if I am just another story that happened to live me; or even which of those choices the world better deserves; or even if there is ever a choice to be made at all.
Oh, no! Here it comes. My thinking problem. I got to cut that out. Twist that throttle. Take a little risk. Feel a little thrill. Shove all that thinking back down into my neck where it belongs.
There, that is better. It is hot. I am sober. I am in the wind. That is about as thoughtful right now as I am inclined to get. “Bathe me Brother Wind.”
Past my throttle hand is the Colorado River, green and wet, running the same direction I am running. Beyond that, peeking through a sprawl of mercantiles and motels and portable bike shops and trees is Laughlin’s Casino Row. That is El Dorado right over there, the answer to every white trash prayer: Liquor; drugs; poorly-prepared, high calorie food; long odds-so you know when you finally do win you are going to win a lot; women of low self esteem; all the money in the world and from this side of the river I can see it but I cannot quite grasp it.
I am speeding because the traffic seems light. There must be another five hundred motorcycles on this road but for some reason I keep passing most of them. I cannot figure why they are all going so slow. What do they know that I do not?
Why are they all wearing helmets over here in helmet free Arizona? How come nobody is stripped to the waist but me? Not even the other men. Then, mindless though I prefer to be, I cannot help but to realize that except for the music I have been hearing everywhere for days, this is not even remotely like 1989.
I succumb to social cowardice and to the silent pressure of these, my motorcycling peers. At least to the best of my ability I do. I put myself on a leash and I find a spot in this sedate parade of contemporary motorcyclists. We are all going to the same place, anyway.
We are all going to Oatman and it is already too late in the day to bother to hurry. There will hardly be any place left to park the bike when I get there no matter how fast I go.
I always like to see Oatman even though I know it is all a pack of lies. There is hardly anything real left here. I do not know how much here was ever real in the first place.
I park the bike in the dust at the far end of town. I pull on a tee shirt and do not tuck it in so it covers up my belt buckle. I am a stranger here, in this place, and I do not want to offend anybody.
I wade back into town through crowds of easy-looking women in Jack Daniels’ tank tops and unattached men. None of the men dares to carry any of these women off into the hills.
I should talk. I haven’t broken a law all day.
The trouble with growing old is the perspective you gain. It becomes harder and harder to end all your exploring by arriving where you started and seeing it for the first time-to steal a line. The trouble with all that perspective is that it gets harder and harder every year to shove all that thinking back down into my neck. Everywhere I look I see ironic history.
What Am I Looking At
While I wait for a dozen bikes to pass I glance up at a rock that used to be called The Elephant’s Tooth. The old miners called it that because it used to be white. From a distance, it now has the same desert patina as all the other rocks. But if you ever actually walk up there you can tell it is a big white rock covered with a thin coat of brown. Most people don’t bother.
A Spanish padre named Francisco Tomas Garcia came through here in 1775. A Spaniard might have come through here as early as 1540 but Garcia is the first for which there is proof. And, Father Garcia was so impressed with this piece of desert that another white man never bothered to come back until the Mexican War. A couple of years after that a bracero out looking for a lost burro discovered gold, just sitting there, in a place that was soon named Gold Roads. The road that ran past it was called the Gold Road. And then a lot of white men showed up and the Gold Road eventually became a stretch of Route 66.
In 1902, a Mojave Indian was out riding one day and he saw gold just lying there a few hundred yards from where I am standing now. “Gold ore freely speckled with free gold.” Doesn’t that phrase have a nice ring to it? “Free gold.”
That Mojave Indian could not keep quiet about his discovery so soon after that the town of Oatman was born. Although, at first it was not called Oatman. It was called Vivien, after the Vivien Mine. The mine was named for the daughter of one of the mine’s wealthy investors. That Mojave Indian, by the way, eventually owned the mine after it was mostly played out. And, he had an interesting name.
The whole history of Arizona can be distilled into about five or six different stories and you can see three of them riding from Laughlin to Oatman: The stories of water, gold and Indians-good Indians and bad Indians. I just rode past the main water supply for the whole southwest. The gold and the Indians are right here.
Canada Del Oro
The only reason why white men ever came out into this god-forsaken desert in the first place was that they were looking Canada del Oro, the lost Canyon of Gold. Either the lost Canyon of Gold or one of its many children, the Lost Dutchman Mine, the Lost Mine With the Iron Door and the dozens of other fountains of fortune that preceded the modern casino.
Today there is actually a real, live geographical feature called Canada del Oro north of Tucson but it is not the real Canada del Oro.
From right after Columbus, the idea always was that the Aztec’s great horde of gold must have come from somewhere. The early conquistadors latched onto the notion that the gold must have come from the north.
And, the idea is not as far-fetched as it once seemed. In the last 30 years new scientific techniques have shown that most of the turquoise jewelry in southern Mexico after about 900 AD was made with stones that came from New Mexico and Arizona and in some cases from Nevada. So, if the jewels came from mines in the American southwest, why not the gold? Why not Canada del Oro?
Lost And Found
One of Francisco Vasquez de Coronado’s many exploring parties first stumbled into the Canyon of Gold late in 1540. Or, so the story goes. They immediately reported this astounding find to their boss but due to a series of hilarious mix-ups Coronado took his 4,000 man expedition the wrong way and they all wound up in Kansas. Coronado eventually understood his mistake, however. And, he is supposed to have written a note to himself that went something like: “To find the Canyon of Gold, go west into the desert not east into the prairie.”
Coronado died in Mexico City in 1554 and when he died most of his personal papers were lost.
Then, 130 years later, Coronado’s note to himself about how to find the Canyon of Gold reportedly turned up. A Jesuit named Eusebio Kino found Coronado’s directions and decided to go have a look for himself. Sure enough. It was there. Right where Coronado said it was. Out in the Arizona desert.
But Padre Kino was too busy saving souls and founding missions to collect any of the shiny, yellow metal for himself. This life is so brief and full of pain that Padre Kino decided his effort would be more wisely invested in building up riches for the next world. So, he discarded Coronado’s original note.
Kino did leave his own note, however, that explained that he had been to the Canyon of Gold. He had seen it with his own eyes and he just wanted everybody to know that there really wasn’t much to it except for hundreds and hundreds of tons of gold. You could decide for yourself if you wanted to seek the canyon or not. But, if you were one of those little men, if you were one of those men who worshipped mere worldly riches, Father Kino wanted you to know that you could both lose your soul and find all the gold you wanted out there in that desert.
And, then Padre Kino’s note disappeared. But, people remembered what he had said. “The gold was out there. Don’t bother to hunt for it. Hunt for something else.”
So, of course, then for about another 250 years little men who worshipped mere earthly riches looked for all that gold. That is how we wound up with the hundreds of abandoned mining camps that dot the west today: Places like Rhyolite and Pioche and Oatman and Tombstone. Most of them are gone now. Or, mostly gone. The towns that survive, like Tombstone, make their living off their pasts-their real and invented pasts.
That is the story about the gold. The story about the Indians is also about two sisters named the Oatman Girls.
The Oatman Girls
The Oatman Girls’ tale begins when their foolish father, Royce Oatman, decided to leave Iowa with his family in 1850 to seek his fortune in California. There was a gold rush in California that year.
Maybe that was where Montezuma got his gold from? Maybe all that Aztec gold came from California? Many worldly men went to have a look.
The Oatmans made it as far as Tucson in the winter of 1851 but they never got to Fort Yuma. Royce Oatman, his wife and his six children were visited by a party of evil Apache one evening who butchered the parents and three of the children. Mary Ann, seven, and Olivia, thirteen, were carried off as trophies and managed to survive a six-month-long ordeal among these very bad Indians. The girls’ brother Lorenzo was scalped and left for dead. But, miraculously, as is often the case in stories, he survived.
The next summer, the story continues, the evil Apache sold the girls to a band of kindly Mojave. That is the official Arizona version of the story but the next time you hear it you should probably remember this footnote as well.
All of these redskins were what intellectuals call “Yumans,” after the Yuman family of languages. They call themselves N’de, which means “the people.” They only call themselves Apache for the tourists and the government. Apache is actually the Spanish pronunciation of a Zuni slur, apachu! And, I am not even going to get into why some N’de are called Mojave.
I only bring it up now because in the usual telling of the tale of the Oatman Girls the “Apaches” were the bad Indians and the “Mojave” were the good Indians. The fate of the Oatman Girls was a traditional explanation for why the Arizona Territory had to be “tamed.” So it was a good story to tell over and over in Arizona over the course of about 70 years.
Anyway, the kindly and gentle Mojave bought the Oatman girls for some pinto beans, or whatever it was they paid, and adopted them into their kind and gentle tribe. As was their custom they tattooed the two girls’ chins and arms with their traditional tattoos, which seemed to have meant something like “Property of the Mojave,” and then they told the two girls that they were free to leave at anytime.
But, the Oatman Girls found living in the stone age in the desert subsisting on bugs and snakes with the simple but good-hearted Mojave to be such an idyllic existence that they chose to stay anyway. The facial tattoos had absolutely nothing to do with it.
Alas, despite the best efforts of the best Mojave medicine men, Mary Ann grew sick and died. But, Olivia managed to survive.
After five years, Lorenzo, the brother who had been scalped but had not died, hired an Indian bounty hunter named Francisco to go out into the desert and find his sisters. Francisco, as it turned out, was also N’de. White men called him a Yuma. The Yuma were even better Indians than the Mojave. Not like the bad Apache. The Yuma were such good Indians that most early settlers called them “Yuma Mexicans.”
Well, as it turned out, Francisco was such a good Yuma Mexican that he found Olivia Oatman in no time. It was almost as if he knew where she was and did not have to look. The story Francisco told Lorenzo Oatman was that he could have his surviving sister, Olivia, back for the negligible consideration of a mere six pounds of white beads, four blankets, two horses and a handful of bells. Then she would be free to go. N’de women used to just love bells. So, Lorenzo paid and three weeks later he had his sister back.
Happily Ever After
In 1860, Olivia married a man named John Fairchild who apparently did not mind the tattoos. Maybe he just did not know what they meant. Most accounts of the Oatman Girls’ captivity explain that all during her time with the kind and gentle Mojave, Olivia remained chaste as a nun. There was also an impolite rumor that when she left her Indian friends Olivia left two children behind.
If that was so John Fairchild seemed not to care. Maybe Olivia Oatman had learned something interesting during her sojourn in the Stone Age. Maybe she had learned how to do things more proper Victorian women would not. Maybe the two of them were just in love.
The couple cleared out of Arizona and never came back. It is hard to be a legend, I suppose.
They moved to Sherman, Texas. Olivia died in 1903. And, during all her life and for years afterward the story of her ordeal was one of the most popular in the Arizona Territory.
How Vivien Became Oatman
Coincidentally, the Mojave Indian who discovered the rich earth that was to become the Vivien Mine was named John Oatman. He said his name was John Oatman, anyway. His grandmother, he claimed, was Olivia Oatman. His father, he said, was one of the two Mojave children Olivia left behind when she was freed. In many versions, John Oatman is also described as a “Mojave Chief.”
The Vivien Mine closed just about the time John Oatman got control of it in 1907. As the town began to dwindle local boosters decided something must be done to put Vivien back on the map. In 1909, the “wealthy mine operator” and “Mojave Chief” led a popular movement to rename the town. That is when it became Oatman. The town was renamed Oatman because it was a name everybody in the Arizona Territory knew.
John Oatman stayed in town for at least another 13 years. He may have owned the Oatman Hotel which opened in 1902 and still stands. He was sued for divorce by his wife Estelle Oatman in 1922. Then he disappeared from history.
After 1909 Oatman catered to dreamers. It became a place where lone prospectors could come for supplies. A couple of those prospectors actually found a workable claim in 1915. Dreamers poured in from around the world and the population soared to 3,500. Most of them lived in shacks. Few of them got rich and Oatman was called “the most moral camp in the history of gold mining.” No shootouts. Little gambling. Few whores. Most of the money that was made in Oatman was made by selling overpriced mining supplies. A corporation called United Eastern Mines made the rest.
The great, long-lived dream of finding Canada del Oro died around the end of the First World War. And, it was quickly replaced by another dream, the dream of the wild, wild west.
Wild, Wild West
A New York newspaper man named Robert S. Doman drove into Oatman in 1922 and found the last surviving island of the old, wild west. “In 1922!”
Doman told readers of the New York Times that Oatman was the “lineal gold spoon descendant of Virginia City, Cripple Creek, Dawson, Goldfield and Tonopah.” He described Oatman as a wonderful zoo inhabited by an assortment of colorful characters with swell names like Rattlesnake Charlie, Short and Dirty O’Connor, Cactus Johnson, Gold Tooth Nellie, Silver Tongue Sam, Plug Hat Shank, Dry Wash Doolin, “Powder Monkey Morgan and a raft of others.”
Doman also described tourists “dressed in the latest Los Angeles styles and with glistening automobiles.” Doman was a writer who would have bragged that his stories were all lies that could sell. He was very good at what he did. He sold Oatman. He would culminate his career by being the very first head of public relations for Twentieth Century Fox Studios.
The end of the old west coincided seamlessly with the invention of the automobile and the birth of the western tourist. When you look back at the history of Oatman what astounds you about the place was its blatant eagerness to be whatever you wanted to see. It was the long, lost Canyon of Gold! It was the last living link to the Oatman Girls! It was the last of the boomtown of the old, wild west! Of all the places in the world it was where Clark Gable and Carole Lombard chose to have their honeymoon!
Well, Gable and Lombard came later. First came Route 66.
The Oatman Grade
One of the nastiest stretches of old Route 66 passes through the Sitgreaves Pass along the old Gold Road. They used to call it “bloody 66.” It was the steepest stretch of old Route 66 and tourists used to hire locals to drive that stretch for them. For parts of two decades Oatman became the town of “professional automobilists.” Many of the stubborn tourists who refused to hire a driver found they had to climb the swooping curves and nasty switch backs in reverse to keep gas flowing to their carburetors.
Today, you will find an absolutely modern road if you happen to be driving a state of the art Model T at no more than twenty miles an hour. Every year during the Laughlin River Run some motorcyclist wrecks here.
But the road long pre-dates motorcycle touring. It was designed for automobile tourists and, after the mining company pulled out in 1924, Oatman became what the road wanted it to be. Oatman was gas, food and lodging. At an elevation of a half a mile it was the last cool stop before entering the Mojave. Dustbowl emigrants lingered out of fear. Tourists were enticed to stay to hunt for fire agates. Visitors had only to pay a small fee for permission to dig. The disposed Okies and Arkies who passed through during the depression did not care for old west nostalgia.
Real estate in Oatman suffered the same fate in the depression as real estate every where else. Banks repossessed mortgaged buildings. Then when banks couldn’t resell them they tore the buildings down so they wouldn’t have to pay the county taxes on them.
Gable And Lombard
The history of Oatman during the depression is mostly a blank except for the Gable-Lombard honeymoon in the Oatman Hotel. The story Oatman boosters tell is that the two once famous movie stars Clark Gable and Carole Lombard spent their honeymoon night there, in a room you can still see that is called something like “The Honeymoon Suite.” It is a dismal room, but the story goes, Gable enjoyed the place so much that he left his movie star wife upstairs and went down to the bar to play cards with the old prospectors. This would have been the evening of March 18th, 1939. Like that story? Romantic, ain’t it?
In March, 1939 Clark Gable was making a movie called Gone With The Wind and he was involved in a nasty divorce with his second wife. She divorced him in Las Vegas on March 7th after he agreed to pay her $286,000 which was, in 1939, a more significant sum than it has become. Mr. and Mrs. Gable split up because he was having an affair with Lombard who had a reputation in old Hollywood for both emotional instability and eroticism.
Eleven days after the divorce, on Saturday March 18th, Gable and Lombard took Route 66 as far out of Hollywood as they could get. When Gable was exhausted, they stopped and got a room in Oatman and Lombard was so delighted with the place that Gable wound up spending the night downstairs playing cards. Even if they had wanted to get married there was no Marriage License Bureau in Oatman and even if there had been it would have been closed on Saturdays. The love birds drove back to Hollywood the next day and went back to work on Monday.
But they worked out their differences. Maybe Clark Gable promised Carole Lombard that she would never, ever have to spend another night in the Oatman Hotel again. The next week they got an earlier start on their elopement and made it all the way to Kingman. They bought a license, got married in an Episcopal church and then drove to Boulder City for their honeymoon. Just like Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee.
But their honeymoon suite has never been in Boulder City. It is in Oatman because Oatman has been telling you what it thinks you want to hear for at least a century.
Gable and Lombard remained happily married for 22 months, by the way. Then she died in an airplane crash.
Oatman’s population dwindled to about 400 during World War II. The last of the old Gold Roads Mine burned in 1949. Old Route 66 finally bypassed the Oatman Grade in 1953. After that the mother road followed the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad line from the Colorado River to Kingman.
Oatman mouldered for 30 years. Termites ate some of it. The desert sun saved some of the rest. It was a cheap place to squat so old people remained. Sometime around Vietnam the hippie scourge showed up. Most of the gold was gone but the hills still held enough pretty rocks to polish into jewels. Hippies love to make jewelry.
The bustle that once filled these street retreated into memory. Coyotes came down out of the hills to hunt the streets for burros. The burros started coming into town to keep from getting ambushed by coyotes up in the hills. The burros still come into Oatman looking for handouts. Only burros, though.
The horses were too valuable to let roam and so they all got rounded up. The last of the camels disappeared in 1896. When last seen, the camels were heading south.
The way it was, was in 1852 a Lieutenant, who would later make General, named Edward F. Beale was stationed south of here in Yuma, on the Colorado River, and he could not help but notice that it was hot. Very, very hot. And, all that heat was tough on horses. So Lieutenant Beale thought on the matter for a spell and then he said to himself, “Why horses? Why not camels?” Well, nobody in Yuma could answer him so Beale wrote a letter to the Secretary of War, a fellow named Jefferson Davis, and asked him.
And, Jeff Davis liked that idea. “Camels! Of course! Why horses? Why not camels?”
So then, to make a very long story short a couple of Army officers named Porter and Wayne were eventually sent to the London Zoo, which as it turned out only had a few camels, and then on to Egypt and eventually Lebanon. After many interesting adventures in the middle east the two officers learned that the price of a good camel ranged anywhere from $40 to $1,000 depending on who you were buying it from, depending how good the camel merchant said the camel was. Well, it was not their money so Porter and Wayne bought the best camels they could and then in February, 1857 they shipped two ship loads of the beasts back to the port of Indianola, Texas and then drove them west to Arizona.
Well, again, to make another very long story as brief as possible the camels did not work out. The Civil War came along. Jeff Davis became president of his own country and the camels all escaped. They ranged from the Texas panhandle to the California side of the Colorado. Most of them disappeared by the 1880s but a few survived for at least another twenty years after that.
An old news account reports that two of them were seen just up the road in 1896. And, then the old article goes on to explain that the “Indians there said they had seen several similar in their country for years and had feasted on a few of them on tribal fete days.”
The biggest problem with camels it turned out, was that they were just too delicious to survive in old Arizona so that is why you never see camels in the streets of Oatman today. Just jackasses. And bikers, of course.
Bikers Save Oatman
Bikers saved Oatman in 1983. The whole point of the first River Run was to ride from Laughlin to Oatman, maybe take the infamous Oatman Grade and go on to Kingman, then ride back and have a party. Legend has it that 400 bikers, that first year, did just that.
The first eleven years of the run were the good, old days. The party got longer and better each time. You might see some nudity in Laughlin. You knew you were going to see some topless women in Oatman. There were always Vegas Metro cops in Laughlin but every year they seemed to be outnumbered and surprised. There were always Mojave County Deputies in Oatman but they never seemed bothered by what they saw going on.
If Oatman, Arizona was ever the wild, wild west it was in the years from 1983 to 1994.
In 1994, there were a couple of bad motorcycle accidents on the Oatman Grade. Over that weekend four people died and seven people were injured. About 40,000 bikers rode to Laughlin that year and about 20,000 of them made the traditional run to Oatman. But now that Oatman had been saved, local residents began to think of their promising tourist destination as the town of Wrightsville in The Wild One.
The road blocks outside town started in 1995 and the run to Oatman began to feature circling helicopters and a zero tolerance for naked breasts. Laughlin still grew. Bikers still kept coming to Oatman. The Mongols Motorcycle Club and the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club had a big, bloody, brief battle in 2002 and Laughlin still grew and bikers still kept riding out to Oatman.
Me, too. Every year I run out here the way a chicken keeps running after his head is cut off. “Look at all the bikers,” I hear someone say behind me. I bite my tongue. I don’t even turn around.
A Bath of Blood
About a hundred years ago the American philosopher William James called history “a bath of blood.” Oatman celebrates the history it has invented for itself with theatrical gunfights on Main Street.
Young men with Colt revolvers hanging low on their hips call each other out before an eager audience and pretend to fight for their lives. Someone wins and lives. Someone loses and dies. No one bleeds. The most polite contemporary motorcyclists pretend to care about this charade and applaud when it is done.
I snap a photo of a cop. “Say good times,” I tell him.
All he says is, “Yeah.”
I pet a jackass. A woman joins me. Women love jackasses. She is not a beauty. Neither am I. I want to tell her a story about camels but I don’t want to ruin whatever little chance I might have so all I say is, “Good boy.”
“She’s a girl,” the woman laughs.
I grunt, walk away and the jackass follows me. The jackass has me marked for easy. She wants me to buy her some carrots. They sell carrots in all the stores. Not today.
I want to tell the jackass, “Why don’t you go out there in them hills and fight them coyotes for your meals.” I want to say that but of course I don’t because if I did then even I would have to admit that I have become officially crazy.
So, instead I hang around, take some shots and drift away. I pass an accident on the way out of town. I pull over to the side as soon as I can. I walk back. I can’t help anybody. I don’t stop to help. I am just an old fire horse. I want to see the story. A fine gentleman named Thomas Dourdy, it turns out, has fallen off his motorcycle and suffered road rash. There were three more accidents that day and another the day after.
There was a bad crash on the Oatman Grade earlier in the week. Justin Goodman, 37 and Anthony Clark, 42 collided head-on. I think they both lived but I do not know either man and I am not surprised when people die.
I expect that next year this rash of motorcycle accidents will be dragged out to justify something-some public policy with which I do not agree and with which I do not want to live.
“It was not thus in ancient times,” William James wrote in 1906. “The earlier men were hunting men, and to hunt a neighboring tribe, kill the males, loot the village and possess the females, was the most profitable, as well as the most exciting, way of living.”
The biker life has always been a recollection of that simpler, bloodier time. The Motor Company may not want to admit it but blood is what their customers long for. It certainly works for me. I want to ride my bike to Wall Street and burn the stock market, kill all the soulless traders and carry off the most beautiful secretaries. There I said it out loud.
I may have been born too damn late. Maybe many of us were. Maybe that is what that make-believe gun fight I just saw in Oatman was all about.
That gunfight in Oatman was a good gun fight. That gunfight in Laughlin seven years ago was a bad gunfight. Do you understand that? I try. I try to understand.
Oh, no! There I go again! My thinking problem. I have to pass some guys. I have to open this throttle up. I have to go someplace where I can stop and get this tee shirt off.