IT WAS HIGH NOON and scorching when I rode into Oatman.
“Feed and water him,” I told the boy who came running to take the reins. “Curry him down with the saddle on.”
“Not planning on staying long then?”
“Long as it takes to whet my whistle in this god-darned town!”
Tossing the boy a coin for his trouble, I stuck a toothpick in my mouth and started up the hill to Sweet Sally’s.
I was parched. Ol’ Mojave, the driest, meanest sonofabitch this side of the planet, has that effect on man and beast.
A feller I will call Sixties Boy, owing to his white moustache and lost-in-the-ages look, was playing some rock-and-roll crap at his corner stall, next to Making Memories Old Time Photos, which advertised Shotgun Weddings. Next to it had sprung up another establishment selling NAVAJO — ZUNI — HOPI — JEWELRY.
Sixties Boy looked up and said “Howdy”. I said “Howdy” and kept on walking; I was eager to see around town.
Oatman of now is as different from Oatman of old as whiskey and tea. When young Johnny Moss came prospectin’ way back in the 1860s to this Arizonan stretch, there was nothing but the mountains.
But after Moss struck gold in 1863, and went around saying it was a shitload more than it was, the place had seen wagon loads of city-slickers arriving. In 1912 when two greenhorns hit pay dirt (with a $10-million find, can you imagine?) Oatman quickly grew into a town of 3,500, and then, helped by the commissioning of Route 66, America’s ‘Mother Road’, to more than 10,000, and everyone had a hog-killin’ time into the 1930s and 40s.
In 1953, by when the mines had petered out, they built a brand new highway bypassing the town completely.
Route 66 died.
So did Oatman.
In recent years, though, Oatman has had a rebirth. As more and more people began travelling Route 66 just for the heck of it, Oatman revived itself as a ‘living ghost town’, selling nostalgia to tourists from all over the world. It had the allure of Route 66 and the excitement of the Old West going for it, and by jingo, did it bring the crowds back!
There were tourists everywhere today, wandering around like burros. When I got closer, I saw they were actually wandering after burros. That’s the other thing you will notice about Oatman today — the town is taken over by burros. And there’s a story behind that.
These burros (for ye city-slickers, burros are desert donkeys of Spanish blood) are the offsprings of the burros that played a critical role to the mining success of the town. Small but extremely strong and sure-footed, they carried everything that was needed up and down the mountains in the old days — equipment, food, water, steel cables, gold ore, the prospector’s lazy ass, his whore, you name it.
But the burros were more than just pack animals to their owners. As prospectors used to go months without seeing a soul, they treated the burros much like how we cowboys treat our mustangs — family.
This was why when the mines closed, and the townsfolk left, they turned the burros loose, to roam free. Later, when Oatman revived itself, the burros returned, to wander the town and become a tourist attraction in their own rights. Now many shops in Oatman sell burro chow, and feeding burros — and then taking photos while petting them — have become a favoured tourist activity.
A woman in a black t-shirt with Route 66 written on the back was kneeling by a baby burro at the main junction as I walked past. Two girls beat a hasty retreat in front of New Digg’ns Gift Shop as another animal, irritated by unwanted attention, jumped up.
Oatman has plenty of signs warning tourists that the burros are wild, and tickling them under the chin might not be healthy — unlike wild horses which flee, burros are known to protect their territory — but I could see beef-heads chasing after burros all over the place. It was becoming difficult to distinguish one bunch from the other.
Spitting in disgust, I went in search of Sweet Sally’s. I knew the saloon was somewhere on the Main Street, but for the life of me, I couldn’t remember where. In fact, I couldn’t even remember which side it was. That’s the trouble with riding into so many dusty one-street towns with so many Sweet Sallies all over the ol’ Mojave. One’s memory gets as weary as one’s saddle leather.
Covered sidewalks lined both sides of the Main Street now, I noted, ostensibly to keep the city-slickers from fainting in the desert air. Every shop — the new Oatman has some 40 establishments crammed full of shit tourists seek — was air cooled, and the street was lined with vehicles with mostly Californian number plates.
I found Sweet Sally’s a little way up, looking cool and inviting. The door was shut. I hesitated for a minute, then decided to stop on my way back. I wanted to see what else the Main Street offered to those who came seeking a faux taste of the Old West.
As I picked my way through the tourists, I could make out French, Italian and Spanish. I paused by the Oatman Hotel for a second. The hotel is famous for hosting Clarke Gable and Carol Lombard on their wedding night — they got married down the road in Kingman in 1939 — but what caught my eye was the pair of Harleys parked in front. The owners were missing, but a burro stood by proudly, taking an occasional lick at the metal beasts, and looked up warningly when I approached. I shook my head. As far as I was concerned, he was welcome to ’em. A man’s made to ride a mare, not a machine, if you ask me.
Spotting a shop that advertised ‘Cowboy hats’, I ducked in to have a look. It was a roomy establishment presided over by a bored-looking angelica. I nosed around the full shelves, trying on hats for a bit. You could buy one in black, dark brown, or light brown, in felt or straw. They cost $13.99 apiece and were made in China.
I walked ahead, passing Outlaw Willie’s, Jackass Ron’s (Knives, Swords, Switch Blades, and Ice Cold Drinks), and Dakota Leather & Gifts (18’ to 60’ leather belts made in Dakota territory), all the way to the end of the street, where a candy shop beckoned.
Inside, a pretty gringa with Eastern European features and a yellow backpack, was filling a paper bag with fudge. Fudge! In my days, if we gunslingers had a pound of sugar we were in heaven. We didn’t need no fudge to keep us happy.
The only thing fit to buy in the shop was the jawbreaker. “Those jawbreakers yonder, they are real nice, ma’am,” I said. “Goes down fine as cream gravy. Your feller sure will appreciate.”
“Him! These ain’t for him! He can get his own stuff, if he has a mind to, the ol’ fool!”
“You’ve a fine day, ma’am,” I said, touching my hat.
I walked back to Sweet Sally’s, shouldered open the door, and went in. The big girl behind the counter, who was belting out a song, didn’t look like Sweet Sally.
“Sweet Sally around?”
“Sweet Sa — Never mind. How about a drink?”
“Sure. What can I get ya?”
I gave my order and looked around for a place to sit. There was nothing. A saloon with no seat for a man weary of the saddle! Why, I never. I walked out, giving the girl a look that would pucker a hog’s butt.
“Tell Sally this used to be a real nice place,” I said over my shoulder, but the girl was back to singing.
I headed to the Olive Oatman Saloon, across the street. The town takes it name from Olive Oatman, an Illinois girl kidnapped by Indians and released years later, so there was a touch of history about the place.
Like in the olden days, there was a WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE POSTER on the porch wall. They had taken some effort to make the inside interesting too: Indian art, wooden daggers, silver-framed photographs, cowboy dummies. A plaque by the bar read:
MEN ARE LIKE FLOOR TILES IF YOU LAY THEM RIGHT THE FIRST TIME YOU CAN WALK ALL OVER THEM FOREVER
Picking a seat by the window, I had a look at the menu. Indian fry bread for $5.50. You could also have, among other things, a Burro Breath Burger ($7.50), Cactus Green Chicken Salad ($8.00), and Wild Burro Ice Cream (1 scoop for $3.50, 2 for $6.00).
“Bring me a base burner!” I cried to the waitress. “If you don’t have that, a Diet Pepsi!”
The waitress brought a Diet Pepsi. I took my time drinking it out of a styrofoam cup, looking out through the glass window at The Bucktooth Burro and Fast Fanny’s Place (Prospective Bob’s Mine), till I saw folks gathering outside. That must be the Wild West Shootout that Oatman puts out for the tourists every afternoon.
Draining the last of my drink, I stood up and made for the door. It was time to show the townsfolk what an Indian — a real Indian — could do with a pair of six-shooters.
Squinting, I stepped out into the sun, mean as cat-meat.