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The Adventures of Indiana Joe – Issue 23: Oatman

People ask me all the time “what’s the neatest place you’ve ever found while you’ve been out traveling around the country?” And, without a doubt, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to come up with “one” definitive answer to that one. The list seems to grow all the time .. and as my memory fades, it’s always a pleasant surprise to come across souvenirs or articles of memorabilia that I’ve managed to collect along the way. Friends know that I have several boxes full of brochures, town maps, event flyers and postcards from practically everywhere I’ve ridden. And, of course .. my vest is the visual diary that speaks volumes .. not counting the bag full of more pins, patches and event wristbands that hangs on my office door.. ‘cause there’s just no more room on the vest. I think I did mention that I do have several on the “inside” of the vest, too .. so maybe I should start layering them .. who knows.

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Since I’ve always been a “shutterbug” .. my preferred method of capturing the “memories” are photos .. and now there’s 61,993 on my laptop. As soon as I download what’s on the camera now, it’ll be well over 62k .. and you already know about my boxes of cd’s with stored “memories”. You may think I’m a bit obsessive .. but with the advent of digital pics .. I shoot everything and throw the bad ones away. Yeah .. now my problem is deciding which ones to delete.

I remember ten years ago, when I flew out to visit a friend in San Diego, I shot 37 rolls of 35mm film in just ten days. All of them were 24 & 36 exposures and it cost me $145 just to get them all developed! It took me months to sort through them and select the ones I wanted to blow up and send out as Christmas gifts. The upside of that for the recipients, however, was that so many months had gone bye that by the time they got a “surprise’ package in the mail they were literally thrilled when the now-forgotten moments suddenly re-appeared. And for me, I still have the many photo albums completely filled with the old “prints” .. and any time I want to dig some out and re-live my kids childhood years .. that nostalgic “happy place” I mentioned in last month’s adventure comes alive once again. There is no separation of “time” where the emotions are concerned. “Then” becomes “now”.

And that’s what happens as I wander .. as I “contemplate” .. and straddle my time machine to re-live days of old. As every now and then, an entire town envelops me and I submerse myself in it’s history. The excitement and fascination consumes my very being, and I just want the world to see through my eyes at that moment .. to “appreciate” life as it was .. yet understand, after hundreds of years, how some things just never change. Wood rots and paint fades .. energy transforms .. people exist in new and different realms. Yet, what our eyes transmit to our brains in the “here and now” is still processed and analyzed as each individual accepts or rejects, appreciates or dismisses, anything and everything that is an integral part of our life. Some of us are in awe, and appreciate “life” as it was .. and are somewhat disgusted at how it now “is”. Maybe that’s why I prefer to bathe in the history of somewhat dilapidated western towns or European villages .. they speak to me without words .. and I hear them loud and clear.

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Route 66 is one of my “paths to the past”. And with each trip, there are new “treasures” to be found, yet some old “finds” worth experiencing over and over again. One such place that ranks right up there with Cody, Wyoming .. is Oatman, Arizona. As you venture southwest from Kingman, Arizona toward Topock, California, just south of Needles, you will experience some of the most scenic and breathtaking sights Historic Route 66 has to offer. The 15 miles of twisties experienced just before you make that last left dogleg, and spot an old covered wagon with “Oatman” on the canvas, are among the absolute best in the country. Especially with that desert heat .. the cactus .. the dry-cracked old blacktop .. and the remnants of dwellings and old gold mines, it draws you deeper and deeper into another life.

Oatman is a former mining town in the Black Mountains of Mohave County, Arizona. It was named in the posthumous honor of Olive Oatman, a young Illinois girl who was kidnapped by Yavapai Indians and forced to work as a slave. She was later traded to Mohave Indians who adopted her as a daughter and had her face tattooed in the custom of the tribe. She was released in 1855 near the current site of the town.

Oatman is at an elevation of 2,710 feet, and began as a tent camp soon after two prospectors struck a $10 million gold find in 1915, though the area had already been settled for a number of years. Oatman’s population grew to more than 3,500 in the course of a year. Today, it’s only 128.

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In 1921, a fire burned down many of Oatman’s smaller buildings, but spared the Oatman Hotel. Built in 1902, the Oatman Hotel is now the oldest two-story adobe structure in Mohave County. It’s an historical landmark, and is especially famous as the honeymoon stop of Clark Gable and Carole Lombard after their wedding in Kingman, AZ on March 18, 1939. Gable fell in love with the area and often returned to play poker with the miners. The Gable/Lombard honeymoon suite is one of the hotel’s major attractions. The other is “Oatie the Ghost”, who is actively promoted by the hotel’s current owners as a friendly poltergeist whose identity is believed to be that of William Ray Flour, an Irish miner who died behind the hotel, presumably from excessive alcohol consumption. Flour’s body wasn’t found until two days after his death and it was hastily buried in a shallow grave near where he was found.

United Eastern Mines, the town’s main employer, permanently shut down operations in 1924. By 1941, the remainder of the town’s gold mining operations was ordered shut down by the US Government as part of the country’s war effort, since metals other than gold were needed. Oatman was fortunate insofar as it was located on busy US Route 66 and was able to cater to travelers driving between Kingman and Needles. Even that advantage was short-lived as the town was completely bypassed in 1953 when a new route between Kingman and Needles was built. By the 1960’s, Oatman was all but abandoned.

In recent years, Oatman has undergone a renaissance of sorts thanks to burgeoning worldwide interest in Route 66 and the explosive growth of the nearby gaming town of Laughlin, Nevada, which promotes visits to the town. Wild burros roam freely in the town and can be hand-fed carrots and “burro chow”, both readily available in practically every store in town. Though normally gentle, the burros are wild and signs posted throughout town advise visitors to exercise caution. The Burros are descended from pack animals turned loose by early prospectors, and are protected by the US Department of Interior.

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Weekends in Oatman can see anything from classic car rallies to mock “Wild West” shootouts right down the middle of Old 66. Independence Day celebrations include a contest where participants attempt to cook an egg on the sidewalk with the aid of solar devices. Along with the rest of Arizona’s US 66 towns, Oatman is fiercely proud of it’s Route 66 heritage and replicas of 66’s black-on-white US highway shield are posted all over town. Route 66 souvenirs are sold everywhere and many tourists have pasted autographed one-dollar bills on the walls and ceiling of the Oatman Hotel’s bar and restaurant. Estimates of the number of bills now run into the thousands.

From Vegas, Laughlin, Needles or Bullhead City, Oatman is a short drive, and the original Old Route 66 is now called the “Oatman Highway”. Every time I’ve ridden anywhere close, such as to the Laughlin River Run event, Vegas Bike Fest, Arizona Bike Week (hosted in and around Phoenix), Flagstaff, Bullhead City, Hoover Dam or the Grand Canyon, Oatman is a MUST. Often times while I was there, the town was packed with motorcycles, classic cars, or just tourists wanting to experience the “real” west .. and on other occasions, there was hardly a car. It didn’t matter .. the “feeling” I craved was always there .. like a blanket, gently keeping the Spirits of the old miners warm with the love of life .. as hard as that must have been to endure.

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It’s one of those places where I’ve shot hundreds of photos and occasionally still find myself cracking a smile as I reminisce and scan through the files. Or laugh with my nephew, Brian, as we recall spending a day in Death Valley; the night in Vegas to ride our bikes up and down the strip at midnight; cross Hoover Dam the next day to tip cold ones at Judy’s Saloon & Pool Hall in Oatman; then on to Tombstone (opposite corner of Arizona) that same afternoon before running up to Phoenix that night. That’s just the kind of random riding I’ve grown accustomed to, and apparently it’s rubbed off on my nephew as well. He’ll get a wild hair and two days later he’s up in North Dakota. He’s done well over 60,000 miles in six years just travelling all over the US .. calling me at times for suggestions when he’s in a particular area or just sharing a new destination that immediately found it’s spot on my “bucket list”, thanks to him.

Why do we ride? There’s never “one” specific reason .. but always a combination of many, compounded with new ones, each and every time we saddle up. I’ve always said “the decisions you make in an instant are the ones that define your true character” .. and when a biker instinctively follows a “direction” and not a map .. that’s his true adventurous, courageous, inquisitive and independent character setting sail on a new course. And another friend’s emails always end with the quote “we can’t change the winds .. but we can adjust our sails …” How appropriate for the rider who sets out on an “adventure” not knowing what perils he may face .. yet anxious to experience the joy that comes from within as he enters that “zone” between his two ears, where all the known senses and our “sixth sense” are processed.

Oatman is one of those places that allows you to “connect” to another life .. to afford yourself the luxury of imagination and experience their hardships .. to feel the “real” pain of that existence. It’s been said that “the strength of the human heart is fueled by tears” .. and, as we’ve all struggled with our own demons in that “world of our own”, astride our Iron Horse, the tears occasionally stream down our cheeks only to be blown away by the oncoming wind.

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Dale Carnegie wrote, “Remember, happiness doesn’t depend on who you are or what you have .. it depends solely upon what you think.” So when I find a place like Oatman, I can’t help but wonder “how content .. how happy were those people?” It’s quite humbling when you see it and “feel” the energy that surrounds you there. And I’m drawn to these places like a moth to a flame .. where immersing oneself in “realism” transcends us beyond the norm .. where “feelings” are exposed with every breath.

Even though these places erupt with feelings of pain and anguish, hardship and heartbreak .. it’s certainly not a deterrent to seeking them out or going back. It’s just like when you love something or someone so much .. you just never give up. Because when you put yourself in that “place” .. it’s like you never left .. and the world is right. And to truly “live” is to do battle with fiends in the vaults of heart and mind.

Until next time .. ride smart .. ride safe

“Indiana Joe”
and the Adventure continues …

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