The Imperial Dam LTVA in Winterhaven, CA turned out to be a good choice, and we are much happier here than in Quartzsite. In a lot of ways it’s very similar to Q, it’s still a desert site, we still have access to water and RV dump stations, the area is still mostly full of snowbirds like us. But in addition, it also has lakes and boat ramps for water activities, hot showers, more birds and wildlife, and just a generally ‘friendlier’ feel to the place.
Yes, it’s a good drive for groceries and supplies (20-30 minutes) but Yuma (and Fortuna, it’s suburb) have anything and everything in the way of shopping and restaurants, without feeling like you’re in the middle of a huge, urban center. Prices are much better than in Q, and without going into too much detail, the customer service is miles above. As well, since we’re in a rich farming belt here, produce is cheaper, fresher and readily available. On the way into town, you pass miles of fields full of lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, and other leafy greens, citrus groves and date palm plantations. Roadside produce stands have become my new favorite shopping malls.
If there is a downside to the area, it’s that it’s a long drive to just about anywhere else. (except Mexico. That’s only 30 miles. It’s on my list, we just haven’t gotten there yet.) But being the wanderers we’ve always been, we don’t let it slow us down too much.
Go West, Young Man
Sunday’s adventure took us a few hours north through the beautiful Mojave Desert in California, across the Colorado River to the tiny Arizona town of Oatman.
And when I say Oatman is tiny, there aren’t enough underlines to stress just how small it really is. It’s literally one street, lined with ages-old wooden buildings that were built when the town was a supply line for miners and prospectors in the area. And it was these miners who are responsible for Oatman’s most famous residents who still live there today.
Burros. These little animals were used as the workhorses of the mining industry back in the day. Today, they roam the town (and nearby deserts and mountains) freely, stopping traffic at will and begging for (or demanding) the alfalfa cubes and carrots sold to tourists by the local merchants. Make no mistake, these are wild animals, but they’re also extremely clever, and have figured out that these people mean them no harm, and better yet, feed them. Check out our video here.
On the surface, Oatman is definitely a tourist trap.
Except for 2 restaurants and a couple of tiny homespun museums, the trade is almost exclusively gift and souvenir shops. Some of the wares are really kitchy ‘made in China’ crap, but there are a few stores that offer local artists paintings, Navajo jewelry, and leather items that features true workmanship at rather reasonable prices. And everywhere are antiques and old photographs, western-style signage and other memorabilia.
One store went above and beyond in preserving history, building their roof around a good-sized palm tree and a very large Saguaro cactus, both well rooted in the soil below and very much alive. Gives new meaning to the term ‘houseplants,’ lol.
But when you start speaking to the locals, the history of the place grabs you and pulls you in. The buildings are old and weathered enough that you feel like you’ve actually stepped into the old west.
Floorboards give a little and squeak under your feet, wooden plank sidewalks lead you down the street to the next little shop. Overhanging porches give relief from the bright sun overhead, and the smell of leather, dust and burros permeates the air.
And the townspeople, while obviously taking advantage of the crowds the burros bring to their area, genuinely seem to care about the little animals. On several countertops I saw donation buckets that state all monies go towards the burros’ welfare. Every bag of burro food sold comes with explicit instructions from the shop keeper on how to approach and feed the burros, and gentle reminders that these are indeed wild animals and can be unpredictable. Several watering troughs are located along the street. And someone even goes to the trouble of placing small stickers on the foreheads of the very little ones, reminding the tourists that they are too young for ‘adult’ food and asking that they please not feed them.
We shopped and played with the burros for a time, then stepped into the Oatman Hotel for lunch. This place has to be seen to be believed. A 2-story adobe building originally erected in 1902 and rebuilt after a fire in 1921, the entire interior structure is covered in one-dollar bills, in some places as many as 10 layers deep. Check out our video here.
While we ate our delicious burgers and ‘burro ears’ (homemade potato chips), one of the waiters was kind enough to explain how the unique wallpapering got started. Back in the day, the hotel owner didn’t allow the miners credit at the bar. So what they came up with instead was a miner would sign a dollar bill (a fair amount in those days) and the bartender would tack it up behind the bar, as sort of an insurance policy. When the miner had no money for a drink, the hotel knew the miner was good for it because they already had his dollar bill. This caught on, and over the years, patrons have literally lined the inside of this hotel with signed dollar bills. Best estimate places between $150-200,000 stapled to the walls and ceilings. Ours is over the door behind the fudge counter.
Unfortunately, the paparazzi got wind of it, and the couple fled to Oatman, where they spent their wedding night in room 15 of the Oatman (then named Durlin) Hotel. Reportedly, the couple fell in love with the place and returned several times after. The room is now preserved as it was in the day and may be viewed through a window in the door.
The Spirit of the West
As well, the hotel is the home of ‘Oatie,’ a rather playful poltergeist who is believed to be the spirit of an old Irish miner who passed away behind the hotel.
Wendy, our waitress, was kind enough to share some of the employees’ experiences with us, including the owner of the next-door ice cream shop who was pushed from behind hard enough that it resulted in a broken ankle. A close friend of Wendy’s works there as well, and has had her hair played with by unseen hands so much that she now wears it up most of the time. Patrons and bartenders have reported seeing glasses and money lifted off of the bar.
And Oatie is not alone. Still others have claimed to have heard children laughing and playing, and reports of being touched, or feelings of being watched abound. The young lady who works in the gift shop/museum on the hotel’s second floor told us at last count, it is estimated that no fewer than 14 different spirits occupy the building and nearby areas.
On our way out of town, we stopped at the town jail, currently owned and operated by Wendy’s parents.
This is the only original adobe building left in the town. The jail has 2 cells, with the heavy iron bars deeply embedded into the very thick walls. Outside, the gallows have been reconstructed next to the remains of an original mine shaft opening.
Getting Our Kicks…
Heading south out of town, we encounter a twisty desert road lined with Teddy Bear or Cholla cactus and more wild burros.
This is part of historic Route 66, and we can’t help mugging for a shot as we cross one more item off our mutual bucket list.
We finally arrived back at Lonestar well after dark, exhausted and completely thrilled with our western adventure.
So plans right now have us here until we leave to spend the holidays with family. Right after New Year’s is the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous in Q that Mike wants to attend, and after that is anyone’s guess where we’ll end up. Sometimes having too many choices is as difficult as having no choice at all.
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