Route 66: Ghosts Towns and Burros

February 21st, 2012 § 0 comments

One of many memorials along Route 66.

So this is Route 66? I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it looks like the Middle of Nowhere. No 3G signal, so my iPhone’s GPS is inoperable. Golden Acres, the road sign says. Looks like a nondescript dusty watering hole with a smattering of palm trees. Wherever we are, we continue onward and soon come upon several white crosses along the roadside. One reads “Wes Trombone.” A brass instrument comes immediately to mind. But this was someone’s name. Whoever it was, this marked his death. That’s all that the desert was willing to reveal. I pause to reflect; nothing really goes through my mind except a few moments for this person, a thought that this was someone’s child, someone’s friend. This name on the side of the road marked with a cross, like the countless markers within graveyards. Only this one marks the spot, and we were destined to find more along the way. We drive onward.

Cacti Kon. That’s the name that we call our middle child Konstantin at that moment. It’s fitting on this leg of the trip. His is the sort of name that begs for variations, and we’re quick to throw them out. KONserve. KONcrete. KONgo. KONquest. The Wrath of KON. King KON. Butter PeKON. And he doesn’t seem to mind at all. I’ve thought about shortening his name to Kosta (my dad’s nickname), Dean (his cousin’s nickname), Connie (my favorite term of endearment), Dinos, Dino. Yuck. So he will most likely have the same fate as me, where his siblings shorten his name to the first syllable (mine was Ann) that will stick for his youthful days, and then go back to the full Monty as an adult.

So here we are, with Cacti Kon jumping out of the RV parked on the side of Route 66, running through a desert patch in search of his namesake. He stops to pick a limb of a stubborn cactus as a keepsake — no small feat even with a handy little whittling knife. Immediately after Kon extracts the cactus fragment, it finds a new home atop his orange Crock. The battle is on: The Cactus vs. Kon. Kon whips his foot around, bangs it against the RV’s tire, flings off his rubber sling-back and finally managing to free the cactus, but not without one of the sewing-machine sized needles embedding itself in his knee. Leave it to Kon to make a simple request turn into major endeavor. I made the mistake of trying to pick up the cactus from the ground and quickly recoil, wounded. As I suck my bloody finger and tend to Kon’s self-inflicted wound, I look around at the desert landscape and curse under my breath. It’s bloody hot out here, and there’s absolutely no refuge from the sun. Wounded but finally victorious, we climb back into the RV, where Kon inserts the cursed cactus into a sand-packed Venti-sized Starbucks cup, next to a completely different looking cactus pulled from an earlier desert patch. Another bloody story, another bloody time.

Onward, we pass by the turnoff of Catfish Paradise. Catfish. Really? Speaking of fish, Catfish Kon hasn’t let go of the idea that we will come across a fishing spot. He brought his poles on the trip and hasn’t given up, despite the prospect of fishing in desert country isn’t something I’d lay any high bets on.

We continue on what we assume to be Route 66 and stop again after a while, this time at a straggly tree haphazardly adorned with patriotic Canadian decorations, including a flag, ribbons, small windmill and a golden leaf. The tree sparkles in the intense sun with its silver Christmas bulbs. In the midst of this dry wasteland was Canada’s hope for redemption perhaps. From what is anybody’s guess. But it was quite impressive, even though whoever did this left in a hurry. There was an open black plastic trash bag spilling over with more ornaments. Our kids ran around in excitement, gathering anything on the ground that looked interesting. A tie for Richard. A miniature flag on a stick for Francesca. Canada Kon came in with two sparkly silver bulbs, rusted bud light bottle cap and a glittery red snowflake Christmas ornament. We move on.

We come across one abandoned town after another as we drove onward on Route 66. Then out of the desert’s vastness appears a baby burro sucking on its mother’s teat, smack in the middle of the road. There was nowhere to go but stop. Donkey Kon was having a blast with the rest of his siblings, and the kids proceeded to feed our entire supply of carrots to the half-dozen donkeys who came up to our RV.

Stopping to play.

We had entered the dusty town of Oatman, formerly a mining mecca some 30 miles west of Kingman and nestled within the Black Mountains of Arizona. This is one Wild West town that has benefitted from its Route 66 roots. We were among a half-million visitors this year who have stopped to take in the town. The stories about this here location are quite entertaining, considering today’s Oatman isn’t as magical a setting as the tales that are told. That is where the imagination takes hold.

As one story goes, two prospectors struck a $10 million gold vein in 1915 and the town’s population grew to nearly 4,000 people. It became a hotspot to be, even for movie stars. This town is famous as the honeymoon stop of Clark Gable and Carole Lombard in 1939. Gable fell in love with the area and returned often to play poker with the miners and the eight-room Oatman Hotel boasts the Gable/Lombard honeymoon suite as its major attraction. There’s also Oatie the Ghost, an Irish miner who died behind the hotel supposedly from too much alcohol. He was hastily buried in a shallow grave near where he was found, and has yet to leave the premises. Numerous sources say that the Oatman Hotel is haunted, and there are reports of the spirits of Gable and Lombard laughing from their honeymoon room, mixed with sounds of bagpipes coming from Oatie’s room.

The goldrush ended in the 1940s, and the population of Oatman steadily sank. It’s lucky if it has 150 residents now, which is quite impressive nonetheless, and it’s one of the most authentic ghosts towns you’ll find in the Middle of Nowhere. The biggest attraction for us were the donkeys, where they outnumber the people now. They’ve been freely roaming since the prospectors skedaddled out of Oatman and let their donkeys go free to proliferate the hills. We were welcome to feed them as we wandered in and out of a few of the shops, hoping for a high-noon gun battle to materialize. It appears as though the showdown happened early in the morning to beat the heat, so we moved on with our tour de Route 66.

Our drive revealed two more crosses with orange flowers, and a 150-foot drop where donkeys graze way below. We’re at 3,550 feet above sea level, and I would imagine that the nameless people plunged to their deaths. Another pause. As we drive on, the only sign of humanity are four mailboxes in a row on the side of the road, and a gold-mining area with no trespassing signs.

Another pause in our journey.

Some 15 miles east of Oatman, we come across a building that looks totally blown out and ravaged by the environment. When I look closer, the sign reads “Ed’s Camp.” Yet another abandoned encampment that was beyond repair and merging with the landscape. (I found out later that the proprietor, Lowell “Ed” Edgerton, originally came to the area as a miner but instead of searching for gold, he constructed a makeshift camp around 1920 for servicing Route 66 travelers. He threw up a few buildings that included the Kactus Kafe, a gas station, a bathroom and a few cabins. He also established a trailer camp of sorts.)

We barrel on and, before we know it, we are entering the outskirts of Kingman and cross under Highway 40. The clusters of mailboxes grow along the side of the road, then come the tell-tale signs: Cracker Barrel, McDonald’s. As we listened to rough cuts of the Beatles on CD, we enter civilization and stop to graze at a Mexican restaurant. The outside of  El Palacio looks old and rustic, but inside new and cleanly done, with clusters of plastic flowers arranged like large wedding bouquets. The food was good, although nothing unique. (Urban Spoon rated it a 78 percent, which is pretty much on the mark.) Looking around, I see a large man roaring from the bar as he watched a Mexican soap opera from a big screen. I see a young woman with bleached hair and black tips, I see an Indian family, several tables of tourists, pretty much a cross-section of America. What runs through my mind is, do these people live here? What brought them here? How do they spend their days? Would they rather be someplace else? Did they like the food?  Trains rumble in the background, making themselves known.

After spending the night in Kingman in one of the best commercial RV camps yet, we hit the high road and pass countless black-shielded Route 66 road signs assuring us that we are still on the right track.  I spot St. Michael’s Catholic Church next to a bail bondsman office. We follow along a train track that has more traffic than the road here. The front of one locomotive reads BNSF, and most of its intermodular freight is labeled “China.”

The constant rumbling of trains through the barren terrain.

Mile marker 99 is also the location of another cross where someone met death. We didn’t stop because cars were right up behind us. Twenty-three miles out of Kingman, we stop at a general store in a town called Hackberry that boasts a post office serving 68 residential mailboxes. The general store has plethora of Route 66 memorabilia, along with an old gas pump, a 1950s Corvette, old cars and engines and even an old sled parked out front. Cardshark Kon nabbed a tin container of Route 66 playing cards and we were on our way. The general store’s website reads, “The rail road came to Hackberry in 1882, loading cattle from area ranches along with ore from the Hackberry Silver Mine. The mine began in 1874 when prospectors built a mining camp near a spring on the east side of the Peacock Mountains. The mine was named for a large hackberry tree that grew near the spring. Mining ceased in 1919 but not before over $3 million in gold and silver had been produced. During this time, Hackberry offered regular services to its residents including a one-room school house, post office and two bordellos.”

Another spot where folks appear to be living in the relics of the past. This one was even enchanting.  That wasn’t the case for our next stop, Peach Springs, an important destination for the kids. Not only is it the headquarters of the million-acre Hualapai Indians reservation, it’s the town that inspired Radiator Springs for the movie Cars, but there was no pit stop in sight. Only some rundown homes, a relatively new nondescript hotel, an indoor fitness facility (huh?) and a small grocery mart. It was a bit depressing and, like the Pixar movie, depicts to some degree the losses that it and many other cities along Route 66 faced after they were bypassed by I-40. The kids lost interest quickly, thankfully, and we didn’t linger.

Entering the Seligma scene.

On to Seligma. It is quite interesting to see how some towns left unkept fall into total decay and a permanent part of the past. Other towns, like this one, are resuscitated and emerge as a tourist destination highlight. We stop to eat at Delgadillo’s Snow Cap, a quirky drive-in diner with counter service. Inside, a small entryway is lined with business cards taped on the walls, and little writings from all over the world. Seating was outside, on picnic table benches and metal garden chairs. Here junk is collected and showcased, like an old umbrella stroller seating a few Teddy bears and American flag.  A worn straw broom is propped on display on a wall, near a beat-up white plastic mannequin wearing a black one-piece swimsuit and pink tutu, standing proud. The place is packed with people eating chicken burritos, cheeseburgers and hamburgers, vanilla and strawberry shakes, crinkle-cut and sweet potato fries.

The Snow Cap in Seligma.

Conspiring Kon poking around again.

These joints along Route 66  are magnets for oddball signs, like “No parking except for Bob”, “Route Beer 66″,  ”Rock & Roll Ave”. Betty Boop is sold in every conceivable shop, along with the same fare of coffee mugs, bumper stickers, license plates and keychains. And lining the streets are other appealing establishments such as Roadkill Cafe, Route 66 Motel, Aztec Motel, Copper Cart, Canyon Lodge and Black Cat Bar.

All this and more in the  land of rundown ghost towns still inhabited by people.

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