There is something about the Old West that appeals to romantics—myself included. Shoot-outs on Main Street, brothels with beautiful ladies, stagecoaches rushing along and keeping the highwaymen at bay…all depicted in famous films, many with John Wayne and Gary Cooper. The truth was a little less charming—few face-to-face shootouts, as a shot in the back was a safer option. And the stagecoaches were damned uncomfortable, even with the springing, as the roads were just ruts in the dirt.
Southern Arizona in the fall would give me a chance to dawdle along some back roads that were mere trails in the late 19th century. The temperatures were projected to be in the high 70s, and a Honda CB500X ABS was sitting outside, your basic $6,500 bike, with Honda accessory centerstand, saddlebags and a top trunk taking it to $8,000 and 470 pounds. First I would head to Oatman, Arizona, a one-time ghost town that has not been very ghostly for the past 40 years. The place has become a minor tourist destination, especially since the build-up of Laughlin, Nevada, as a gambling mecca. Even gamblers can get bored and want to go see the sights. The only flaw in my plan was that I had to cross the Mojave Desert on the Interstate, well over 100 miles of smooth asphalt surrounded by sand and stone. Time to test the stamina of this 500, which did just fine, keeping up with the light traffic moving at 75-80 mph. This 500 is a middling-sized bike, with enough horsepower to keep me happy, and its light weight makes it easy to run down dirt roads.
I had called to see if the old Oatman Hotel was open for business; apparently Clark Gable and Carol Lombard honeymooned there in 1939, so it definitely has a touch of romance. No rooms available any more; food only. The CB500X got me across the desert in an hour and a half. After sleep in Needles, which has a dozen generally featureless motels providing clean sheets and warm water to the traveler, by 7 a.m. I was crossing the Colorado River and heading into the Black Mountains to catch the sun rising over Oatman.
The origin of the Oatman name is certainly not very romantic. The Oatman family was headed for California in 1851 and they were traveling alone, camping roughly where the town is located. The story goes that some Native Americans attacked the family, slew most, and kidnapped two daughters. One of the girls later died, while the other, Olive, was held captive until the local and more peaceful Mohave Indians traded for and released her, now pregnant, in 1855.
Prospectors had been digging around these mountains since the 1860s, but in 1902 there was a big find—enough gold in them there hills to warrant a big company moving in, even building a narrow-gauge railroad to haul the ore to the mills in Milltown, close to the river. It was quite a climb, as Oatman sits at 2,700 feet above the valley, but the work was completed in 1903. And washed out by storms a year later. And rebuilt. Then washed out again, abandoned in 1905. The Mohave & Milltown Railroad was short-lived, with the big mines playing out soon after, and the town’s population dropping to a few hundred.
Until another strike in 1915 brought a 10-year boom to the town, these mines closing down in 1924. By then, a different clientele was showing up, riding Indian Big Chiefs and Harley J Models, driving Studebaker AAs and Ford Model Ts. The newly numbered (1926) U.S. Route 66 ran right through Oatman and it was a rough dirt road, going over the treacherous 3,500-foot Sitgreaves Pass. This made good business for garages and mechanics. Then the feds had to go and spoil it all in 1953 by building a new road, Interstate 40, around the Black Mountains; it was a little longer than the Oatman Road, but a lot easier on the vehicles.
But to heck with reality! Let’s see what the 21st century has done to the image of the Old West. The Oatman Hotel, built in 1902, is still the center of town, and three-dozen stores are there to sell souvenir coffee cups, etc., to the tourists. A dozen or more burros wander down the main street, much to the delight of the visitors. These are supposedly the offspring of the burros that were used by miners a hundred years ago.
A couple of doors up from the hotel is a shop called The Hideaway, with quite a surprise inside. The second floor has a small collection of old American motorcycles—just be prepared to navigate a very steep, narrow, circular stairway. All worth the effort.
I’m there too early for any excitement, like the daily shootouts in the middle of town, so I look around, take a few photos, and am on my way.
That CB500X is a very nice bike to negotiate the twists and turns that take me up to Sitgreaves, from where I looked down to the Colorado River in the west, Sacramento Valley to the east. And then on into Kingman for a late breakfast at the Roadrunner Café, right opposite the Powerhouse Visitor Center and Route 66 Museum…neither of which should be missed.
From there I picked up U.S. Route 93 for a pleasant, if uninspired, run between the Aquarius and Hualapai mountains, with a whole lot of cactus on both sides of the road. With the sun in the wrong place, the CB’s instrument panel is hard to read and the linear tachometer nigh on useless. I wandered off on a couple of dirt roads just to get a feel for how this 470-pound (including accessories) bike does. It is fine on a firm surface, but when there is a bit of sand, the front end does not pick up, and instead it wallows. As a minor adventure bike, this is fine; for major adventures, not so good.
Wanting to avoid Greater Phoenix and its 4.2 million inhabitants, I took the Vulture Mine Road just west of Wickenberg. This goes south and, after a few poorly marked turns, arrives at Interstate 40, on which I went a few miles east, and then south again on State Route 85, which got me to Gila Bend. And a little-used municipal airfield that has two F101 Voodoo fighter/bombers on display. The U.S. Air Force began using them in 1957, and retired them in 1972; they saw a lot of duty over Vietnam.
Heading east on Interstate 8, then southeast on Interstate 10, got me close to Tucson, where I found a motel near the northern edge of the city. In the morning I headed east to Tombstone, trying to stay off the Interstate by using State Routes 83 and 82, small two-laners. As noted, the 500 certainly has sufficient power to handle the freeways, but for me, no matter what size bike I am on, the real pleasure is in riding the back roads.
I first went to Tombstone back in 1980, and seem to drift through there every 10 years or so. The town has developed one of the most successful tourist industries imaginable. Mining, of course, was the foundation of Tombstone, when a prospector named Ed Schieffelin struck silver back in 1877. The name, legend has it, is said to have come from somebody’s telling Schlieffelin that all he’ll find there will be his own tombstone. Instead he became a rich man.
Over the next 10 years, more than a thousand metric tons of the valuable ore was shipped out. In 1885 the population was judged to be over 13,000, down to a mere 600 by 1910; the mines played out, the people left to find work elsewhere. In its heyday, the town had four churches and over a hundred saloons. In 1959, some enterprising citizens got the 1882 courthouse declared a state park, then in 1961 much of the town itself was made a National Historic Landmark District. And the tourists began to come.
The most famous single event in the town’s history was the gunfight at the O.K. Corral in 1881, when Wyatt Earp, his brothers Virgil and Morgan, and Doc Holiday faced off against outlaws Ike and Billy Clanton, Tom and Frank McLaury and Billy Claiborne. I arrived during Helldorado Days, which was celebrating the fight by separating thousands of tourists from their dollars; upwards of half a million visit the place every year.
The main street in town was shut down to traffic, with dozens of costumed extras putting on shows, stagecoaches packed with tourists rumbling along. There’s no admission, just pay for what you buy, be it a glass of sarsaparilla, a T-shirt or a reproduction of an 1870s revolver. Lots of bikes were in evidence, mostly touring rigs, and the shaded boardwalk streets were crowded.
Time to push the button and head back toward Tucson, detouring along the way into the Saguaro National Park (East). This has a great little one-way, eight-mile road (and 130 miles of walking trails) through the park, which gave me a great view of the desert. About 100 varieties of cactus are found in the Southwest; the saguaro, with its great arms, can grow to be 60-feet tall and live 150 years.
I spent a couple nights at a friend’s house and then boogied home. Out of Tucson, I took the Ajo Highway (two lanes) to Ajo, which was developed in 1885 as a copper-mining site. No romantic myths about Ajo, just an occasional bit of union/management trouble.
This half-liter Honda CB500X is a fine lightweight-touring rig, sipping gas at the modest rate of 55 mpg, giving it a 200-plus mile range. I wouldn’t really recommend it for two-up travel, unless rider and passenger are both on the petit side—but for solo touring, it is great. And priced to fit even my skinny wallet.
Then it was up to Gila Bend, a left turn onto Interstate 8 and west for California, entertaining thoughts of renting the movie Stagecoach when I got home.
(This article The Wild West was published in the March 2014 issue of Rider magazine.)