War Stories – Oatman, Arizona

Nothing prevents people from following their dreams moreso than fear. And in the interests of helping to motivate people like yourself to take the plunge, get out, and travel, I feel there is no more important message for me to convey than this: travel is not inherently dangerous.

It is very unlikely that a crazed hitchhiker will butcher you like a slab of beef. A wild bear will almost certainly not maul you to death. The odds of you contracting an exotic virus are minimal. Fantastic stories like these are the exception, not the rule. And they’re sensational, so that’s what we hear about in the news and on film. Hollywood would lead you to believe that road trips and hitchhikers and hostels (and nomadism in general) are reckless – verging on suicidal – lifestyles. You might be disappointed by how relatively boring life on the road really is. The dull reality of travel doesn’t make money at the box office.

All that being said, the road is not completely without danger. When something bad does happen to you on the road, you will – in that moment – feel like shit. But that which does not kill you will make you stronger. And those bad moments on the road will turn into the stories you share for the rest of your life.

Oatman, Arizona

So let me share with you my favorite war story from the North American Road Trip. Shortly after it happened, I mentioned it briefly in a blog post. But looking back at that post, it seems that I was still rattled by the experience and not prepared to tell the story in great detail. But time has passed and I’ve told this story plenty of times since then. So I’d like to share it with you now.

Ironically… Rain + Desert = Bad News

I did not know this before, but rain is a curse in the desert. The ground can’t absorb water very well. Rain from any decent-sized storm causes flash flooding. And what’s more – in the desert, flash flooding can literally “wash out” a road.

I’ve heard of roads being washed out before. But living in the midwest, I never really understood what that meant. Most of our roads here are made of concrete. Water can erode our roads, certainly. Ice can fill in cracks and cause potholes, sure. But the notion that rain could literally wipe a road off the map? Absurd! I used to think that “washed out road” merely meant that rainwater was pooling into large puddles on a road. None of my experiences up to that point prepared me for what a “washed out road” really meant.

I tried to visit Coyote Gulch in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. I really wanted to hike and camp out at the Jacob Hamblin Arch. It was raining, and about 15 miles down BLM200, I came across a chasm that I dared not attempt to cross. The road had been washed away by an overflowing stream. I turned around and tucked tail in what would be my biggest disappointment of the entire road trip.

Six days later, I was on Route 66, heading back to Wisconsin. I planned several stops along the way to visit ghost towns, including Oatman, Arizona. The night before, however, severe thunderstorms had barreled through southern California and Arizona.

If Only There Had Been a Sign

To get to Oatman, you get off of I-40 E at Needles, California (just before the CA/AZ border). You then drive over 50 miles (passing through Oatman at about the halfway point) to get back to I-40 E near Kingman, Arizona.

I refueled in Needles, then proceeded toward Oatman. Several miles down (probably when I got to Boundary Cone Road), there was a sign: ROAD CLOSED.

So I pulled over. I searched Google Maps on my cell phone for an alternate route, but there was none. The only other way into Oatman was via Topock, which would have been a massive detour back through Needles. And knowing what I know now, I can safely say that I would not have fared any better on that road, either. Unless I wanted to abandon my visit to Oatman, I had no choice but to continue.

While I studied the maps, several vehicles passed me from the other direction on this supposedly closed road. With the benefit of hindsight, my guess is that these vehicles did what I was about to do: ignore the road sign. They probably got stuck and turned around. But at the time, that thought hadn’t crossed my mind. I just assumed the road was open and someone forgot to take down the sign.

A Progressive Trap

It took a while before I could finally see why the road was closed. As with BLM200 in Utah, Boundary Cone Road had been washed out by the storm. But the gouge I encountered wasn’t that bad, and the road ahead of it appeared to be clear. My big, rough, and tough pickup truck could easily drive over the ditch. So that’s what I did.

Several miles later, there was another gouge. This one was bigger and deeper than the one before. But I had come all this way – I was committed. Again, the road ahead looked clear, so all I had to do was cross this ditch (which my truck could still handle) and I’d be fine. Besides, how much further could Oatman possibly be?

Then a few miles later, another gouge. And another. Each one bigger and deeper than the one before it. And each time I encountered one, I was that much more invested and that much more committed to getting to Oatman, despite the risks.

Like a Scene Out of “Deliverance”

OatmanAfter one of the roughest drives I’ve ever made, I finally reached Oatman – a flyspeck of an old west town, buried in the valley between some shallow mountains. It was only a few blocks in length, but I got stuck in the town. Not by washed out roads, but by donkeys. A whole fucking herd of donkeys that would not fucking move out of my way.

I crept my truck slowly toward the stubborn animals, hoping that my approach would cause them to scatter. I might have honked my horn or given the donkeys a gentle tap with my front bumper. But the locals were out, standing in front of their shops. They looked like they were just daring me to harass their precious donkeys, and if I had, I’m not entirely sure they would not have come at me with torches and pitchforks. Given the precarious road situation, I could not bet my life on my ability to make a quick escape.

Eleventy-billion hours later, the donkeys finally moved their asses (pun intended), and I continued down the road, leaving Oatman and heading back to I-40 E.

We Should Have Been Killed

Except now I wasn’t just dealing with washed out roads. Now I was dealing with washed out roads AND winding mountainside roads. All these months later, I am still unable to convey in words just how terrifying and hazardous that drive was. If you’ve driven over washed out roads or driven along winding mountainside roads, you can perhaps begin to imagine the precarious nature of doing both at the same time. But unless you’ve had that particular experience, no words are adequate to describe it.

Suffice to say, there were numerous instances in which we were nearly run right off the road (and consequently, right off the side of a mountain). There were so many near-misses that – statistically speaking – we had no business surviving the entire 50 mile stretch.

Remy and I should both be dead right now, is what I’m trying to say. That’s not hyperbole. I’m not blowing smoke to sound more impressive. It’s a mathematical fact – we should both be dead right now. By some fluke and against all odds, we survived this ill-advised side quest.

Lesson of the Story

First of all – obey road signs! If a sign says a road is closed, don’t drive down that road. That’s a lesson I’m sure to remember in the future. And I’ll probably ignore it again. Because that’s just the kind of person I am.

In the moment – during those 50 excruciating miles between Needles and Kingman – I was white-knuckling it the whole way. It was awful. I never wanted to go through such an experience again in my life.

And yet now, it’s one of my favorite stories to tell. The worst stories always turn out to be the best.

But don’t let fear stop you from travelling. No matter how dangerous life on the road may seem or may be, you are not immune from danger by sitting in your cozy little home. Risk and danger exist everywhere. And if you ask me, I would much rather be killed in some crazy adventure on the road than while sitting around at home. I’d rather live life. I can get people interested in my story of Oatman Arizona. But nobody wants to hear the story of how you binge-watched every episode of “House of Cards”.

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