It was one-thirty, the sun was high in the sky, and it was hot enough to cook an egg on the sidewalk. An aged cowboy sat in a rocker on a wooden sidewalk, fanning himself with a hat. A woman wearing an apron came to the doorway of a worn clapboard building, to look outside, wiping her hands on the apron, and shielding her eyes from the sun. Then, from nowhere, BAM BAM, two scoundrels fell, dead. The sheriff was back in Oatman. It could have been a scene from How The West Was Won (filmed here).
Located 28 miles from Kingman, Arizona, this old west town curls around the craggy rocks of Black Mountains. Good luck making it up those hairpin turns and butterflies-in-your-belly drop offs during the eight mile climb.
The mining tent camp, which was called Vivian, became more settled as the Oatman Hotel opened in 1902. This was the oldest, two-story structure in Mohave County. It was a choice place to honeymoon and hosted newlyweds Clark Gable and Carol Lombard, in March 1939. They shared room fifteen, and it’s said that you can still hear the bride’s laughter. (Lombard was killed in a plane crash just three years later).
From 1903 Oatman became a stop on the railroad and, in 1904, a post office was established. The mining boom followed. From 1904 until 1907 over $3 million worth of gold was dug out of the area.
The place was changing: the population boomed to nearly 3,500 and the mining town became Oatman. It was named in honor of Olive Oatman, a young girl from Illinois. In 1851 her family was traveling near Gila Bend, and a band of Apache Indians killed her parents and four siblings. A brother, Lorenzo, and sister, Mary, survived the attack, along with Olive. However, Olive and Mary were taken and held for five years as captives, then sold to the Mojave tribe. Though Mary died in captivity, Lorenzo was able to arrange for Olive’s release in 1857.
In 1915, two miners struck it rich – to the tune of $10 million – and the town boomed again, but the luck didn’t hold. In 1921 much of the town was burnt down and, three years later, the United Eastern mines (the largest in the area) closed. By 1931 the mines had produced 1.8 million ounces of gold. In 1942, all remaining mines were closed by the U.S. government and the focus shifted to mining for materials that would be useful during World War II.
Oatman attracted travelers heading west along route 66 (which had come through the town during the 1920s). However, the tourist dollars dried up in 1952, when an easier route was found south of the mountain passes. The only visitors to the town were the wild burros, descendants of the mules once used in the mines. The herd still comes into town every afternoon to beg for carrots.
Over the years the town has undergone a renaissance or two, first from the renewed interest in Route 66, then as a side trip from the gaming town of Laughlin, Nevada. In 1995 the Gold Road mine reopened for three years, then fell into disuse, except for gold mine tours.
The town now sees 500,000 visitors a year, with the peak being near Fourth of July, when the town hosts the Sidewalk Egg Fry. Be warned: the most dangerous thing in the town now is parking!
If you ever plan to motor west,
Travel my way, take the highway that is best.
Get your kicks on route sixty-six.
It winds from Chicago to L.A.,
More than two thousand miles all the way.
Get your kicks on route sixty-six.
It was a sign. Right there in front of me. A brown and white sign. Historic Route 66. This way. And I turned my Mustang away from I-40. I couldn’t imagine a better way to enter California, to start my new life. At Kingman, Arizona, I stopped at a 1950s style diner (Mr. D’z) to gobble down a tasty burger, hot fries and a thick, rich chocolate milkshake.
Route 66 starts in Chicago and continues 2,448 miles west to Santa Monica. From 1926 onwards, it carried thousands of travelers, and refugees from the 1930s Dust Bowl. Now it would carry me to Hollywood.
Within the hour I slid into what is now known as the Mojave National Preserve. The Preserve contains 1.4 million acres and eleven mountain ranges (from 1,000 to 8,000 foot in height), four dry lakes, cindercones, badlands, mesas, buttes, too many washes to count, caves, lava beds and a super-sized sand dune system. I was compelled to photograph the junction of three desert ecosystems, home to 300 different species of animals.
After some nail-biting twists in the road, I stopped at a mountain peak to look forward, towards my future, and California, spread out before me. As I got back into my Mustang, I popped open the sunroof and turned on the radio. A Beach Boys song greeted my ears. I strummed my fingers on the steering wheel as I sang along, at the top of my lungs.
You know they never roll the streets up
’cause there’s always somethin’ goin’
Surf City, here we come
You know they’re either out surfin’
or they got a party growin’
Surf City, here we come
I stood among the fishermen, as far out in the water as I could, watching them cast. The sun started to dip into the ocean, the sky growing dark, except for the lights behind me. I was 1,080 feet out over the Pacific Ocean, standing on the Santa Monica Pier. It had been a long drive, and I was simply enjoying the view, feeling the breeze on my face, listening to the call of the sea gulls, and watching men bait hooks to recast.
The one hundred year-old pier rests in the middle of the town and glorifies the beach lifestyle: sun, sand and flip flops. Today, the pier boasts an amusement park, shops, arcade, trapeze school, restaurants, and an aquarium. The present day pier was formed from two older piers, dating from the early 1900s. Long ago couples could dance in the Pier’s ballroom and skate on the ice rink.
The landmark has also been the preferred location for film crews working on movies (Titanic, Forrest Gump and Iron Man), TV shows (South Park, Three’s Company and 24), video games (Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland) and music videos ("The Unknown Soldiers" by the Doors, "Clarity" by John Mayer and "Maybe California" by Tori Amos).
As I exited the pier, I noticed bicyclers, women in bikinis on roller blades, a fire eater, and families ending their day at the beach. This really was Southern California. But, I wasn’t ready for tofu just yet, so I opted for a Hot Dog on a Stick (the original location is at the base of the pier).
See the Pier, live on the webcam! www.westland.net/piercam/