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 and 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 you will be butchered by some crazed hitchhiker. You will almost certainly not be mauled by a wild bear. The odds against you contracting some exotic virus are minimal. Stories like these are the exception, not the rule. They’re sensational, so we remember them. For all the things that Hollywood would lead you to believe will happen to you if you embark on a life on the road, you will be disappointed in how relatively boring the road usually is.

That being said, the road is not completely without its dangers. When something bad does happen to you on the road, you will feel – in that moment – like shit. But that which does not kill you will only make you stronger. And those bad moments on the road will turn into war 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. At the time it happened, I did mention it briefly in a blog post. But looking back at that post, it would appear that I was still a bit rattled and not prepared to tell the story in great detail. Well, time has passed and I’ve told the story enough times since then that I’ve got it down pretty well. So I’d like to share this story with you now.

Rain Is Not a Good Thing in the Desert

I did not know this before. As it turns out, the ground in the desert doesn’t absorb water very well. Rain from any decent-sized storm can cause flash flooding. What’s more is that in the desert, this 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 and pavement. Water can erode our roads, certainly. Ice can fill in cracks and cause potholes, sure. But the notion that some rain could literally wipe a road off the map? Absurd! I literally used to believe that “washed out road” meant that there was enough flooding that water was beginning to pool into large puddles on a road. How could I know that an entire road could be wiped off the planet by a little rain? Nothing in my experience prepared me for that reality.

But that’s what happened when I tried to visit Coyote Gulch in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. I really wanted to visit the Jacob Hamblin Arch. But 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.

Six days later, I was on Route 66, heading back to Green Bay. I had planned several stops along the way to visit some ghost towns, including one Oatman, Arizona. The night before, however, the southwest had been visited by massive, severe thunderstorms.

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 have over 50 miles to get back to I-40 E near Kingman, Arizona, with Oatman at about the halfway point in between.

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

I pulled over.

I searched Google Maps on my cell phone for an alternate route, but there was none. The only other way in to Oatman was via Topock, which would have been a massive detour, back through Needles, and with the benefit of hindsight, I can safely say that I would not have fared any better on that road, either. I didn’t have any options unless I wanted to abandon Oatman.

But while I sat there, looking at Google Maps, several vehicles passed me from the other direction, coming off of this supposedly closed road. Again, with the benefit of hindsight, these vehicles might have been ones that did what I was about to do – ignore the sign, get stuck, and turn around. But I wasn’t thinking that at the time. I just assumed someone forgot to take down the sign and that the road was obviously open. So I proceeded into Oatman.

A Progressive Trap

It took a while before I could finally see why the road had been closed. As with BLM200 in Utah, Boundary Cone Road had been washed out by the storm. But it wasn’t a bad washout. My big, tough pickup truck could easily drive over the ditch left behind by the storm. So that’s what we did. The road beyond looked clear, so we crossed the ditch and kept driving.

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

Then a few miles later, another ditch. 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 soon got stuck in the town. Not by washed out roads, this time, 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 wouldn’t’ve come at me with torches and pitchforks. Given the precarious road situation, I would not bet much money on my ability to make a quick escape.

So eleventy-billion hours later, the donkeys finally move their asses (pun intended), and I proceeded on the road 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 in the middle of winding mountainside roads. I don’t know how to convey in words how truly terrifying and hazardous that was. Even if you’ve driven over washed out roads and driven along winding mountainside roads, I don’t know if you can appreciate how much more dangerous it is to do both of those things at the same time, unless you’ve had the experience of doing just that.

Suffice it to say, there were numerous instances in which we were very nearly run right off the road (and consequently, right off the side of the mountain). Statistically-speaking, we had no right to survive that entire stretch. One of our many near-misses should have been an actual miss.

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 fact. We should be dead. Somehow, we survived. We basically won the fucking lottery that day.

Lesson of the Story

Well, first of all – obey road signs. If a sign says a road is closed, don’t drive down that road.

In that moment – those 50 excruciating miles between Needles and Kingman – I was white-knuckled 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.

Don’t let fear stop you from travelling. You’re not immune from danger sitting in your cozy home. Risk and danger exists everywhere. So if you can die at home or die on the road, you might as well live a little while you’re living life. After all, nobody wants to hear the story of how you sat on your couch and watched every episode of ’24’. Twice.

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