December 2, 3 and 4
I’m down at sea level again – the Welcome to Bullhead City sign proudly pronounces its elevation at 504 feet along with its incorporation: 1984. Huh. I remember 1984. I didn’t think they were still incorporating towns that late. And yet, there are signs for historical markers. I haven’t followed any of them, although I did drive out to Oatman, which is even weirder than Bullhead City and may perhaps once have been genuinely historical. My time has been taken up, what with the laundromat and the Verizon store and the Goodwill and the getting Moby an oil change. I have driven up and down the main strip over and over but I haven’t even crossed the river to the casinos. I’m camped right on the river at Davis Camp which as one might expect from the name looks to be an ex army base, now a county park and is excellent.
Bullhead City sits on the Colorado River, the dividing line between Arizona, in which there is no gambling and Nevada, which as we know is all about the gambling. The casinos on the other side of the river are huge and fancy and intimidating, or at least they look that way from where I stand on the small smelly beach at Davis Camp. I actually did sort of want to go to the one which is on a pretend riverboat. I even more wanted to go on the one that is an actual, if very small, boat: it came down the river bwith a fabulously flashing sign that said BINGO over and over but, advertising fail, it didn’t tell me where I could catch this magical bingo boat. This is probably for the best. And I never quite crossed the river anyway.
Gambling is the one vice I don’t seem to have. Throwing money away for nothing – you don’t even leave with a cheap ass Chinese rug or a chipped souvenir magnet like you do at the Goodwill – makes me uncomfortable. I know perfectly well that I’m not going to win and I get sort of itchy and weird. I went to Atlantic City once and it just made me sad. I thought it would be full of glamorous spies in evening gowns and tuxedos, but instead it was full of New Jersey grandmothers in sweat suits clutching big Slurpee cups full of quarters. I suspect Las Vegas will be the same. I do want to go to Vegas – I mean, it’s kind of unavoidable if you’re off to look for America for Chrissakes, it’s VEGAS – but I’m also sort of scared of it, to be honest. Hopefully what happens there and then must stay there won’t be a vampire Nicolas Cage. Bullhead City, or rather, Laughlin, Nevada, which is apparently the town across the river, was supposed to be easing me into the idea of Las Vegas, like a sort of Starter Vegas: baby’s first Vegas. Well. So much for that!
Bullhead City is mostly RV parks, some motels, a lot of smoke shops and pawn shops and title loan places. It’s one long long strip, a road that goes ever on and on, from vape store to quick lube to Mexican restaurant with COCKTAILS blinking and everything in between. Oh and guns: cash for guns in big signs on the pawn shops, a gun show at the Chamber of Commerce (which has a huge stone tortoise outside it, by the way, one of the very best things about Bullhead City) a gun range way out in the desert and gunshots echoing in the distance when you step out to take a picture. In other Bullhead City news, they have an OK Goodwill and you can hike over Davis Dam, which is just outside town and pretty cool.
And then there is Oatman, about 15 miles, 40 minutes (yeah, I know, it’s one of those time/space warp things, I didn’t believe it either but, yeah.) and a planet away from Bullhead City. I found out about Oatman on Roadside America, which says it is a ghost town full of tame wild burros. Hmm. They got the burro part right anyway: Oatman is full of burros. Like, FULL. Like, they’re everywhere, and the cranky inhabitants of the town (none of whom appear to be even slightly ghostly; Oatman is very much alive.) are making bank off them. Also the scenery is fantastic and, OK, the town, made of wood and apparently maybe even the real Wilde Weste kind of wood, would have great architecture if every building hadn’t been quickly and cheaply converted to either a T-shirt shop or a bar. It was sort of like Myrtle Beach Goes West.* Without the burros, Oatman is just another fairly grotty tourist trap – Welcome Bikers!
It’s the “wild” burros wandering the streets and overdosing on whatever it is that the tourists are feeding them that send the whole scene into surreal overdrive. PETTING ZOO GONE WILD! The burros never stop eating and the tourists jam the sidewalks and wander through the street to feed them. There were lots of signs at the various bars and schlocky gift shoppes for BURRO FOOD $1 but what exactly it was, I do not know. One lady was feeding them dog biscuits. Some of the burros had STOP stickers on their foreheads, which apparently meant that you shouldn’t feed them anymore. This met with limited success. There were a lot of children and, well, they were feeding every burro they saw. I sound snotty and self righteous now – and I am, the whole thing was so outrageous and the burros so clearly overfed – but when my kids were little I too would have been shoveling their hands full of burro food and snapping pictures like my life depended on it. Then I would have gone to one of the plentiful bars and had a great time. I have become a complete bitch in my age and I should shut up. Although I did not feed the burros myself, I had a good time walking around taking pictures of them and it was really only after I saw the foal keel over and lie as if dead in the middle of the street that I began to worry. I am still a bit worried but probably that foal is completely fine. I hope. If not, there was at least one pregnant mare that I saw – no shortage of burros, was the prevalent feeling. And I bought a magnet, so I have no room to complain.
The road to Oatman is just a long empty road through the desert by some pretty spectacular and abrupt mountains. At this point the red Arizona desert has turned into the brown Nevada desert (I have learned over the past few weeks that there are lots of different kinds of deserts!) but it is still starkly beautiful. And, the road is decorated. There are cairns of stacked rocks all along it and, even better or worse, depending on your outlook, most of the bushes have been decorated like Christmas trees. It’s very surreal. I asked the lady in the shop where I bought the magnet (it’s a chipped piece of sandstone with a sharpie stick figure of a burro on it and it says OATMAN AZ – local art! I like it!) who decorated them and found out that a) tourists do it and b) she doesn’t know why and c) it’s a goddamn mess and nobody wants to clean it up and d) who knows why the hell the tourists do anything and e) she’s been living in Oatman for 40 years and it used to be nice but NOT ANYMORE. Also, those no good donkeys get into everything. This was a sentiment echoed by the other shopkeepers.
I spent several days in Bullhead City doing, well, not much of anything. It was nice until the last day, when the winds came. These desert windstorms are more than I can handle. I had a great campsite in Davis Camp – I was sort of perched on the edge of a spit, overlooking the river, lovely – but when the wind kicked up insanely it got way less cool very fast. Amelia is not built for winds. She shakes like, oh god, I don’t know, some kind of horrifying carnival ride in a Ray Bradbury short story. It’s terrifying. I find myself obsessively googling how much wind it takes to tip over an RV and remembering that really, she only weighs about 3000 pounds tops and that’s just. . not much. Not enough. SO in the middle of the night I fled the rocking trailer and went to sleep in the truck. It was really hard to get in and out of the truck with the wind going insane – 50 mph gusts or so, maybe more – but I managed it, freaking the fuck out all the way. The truck was not uncomfortable, although you would think after 8 weeks it would smell less like glue – but all night I kept waking up to check and see if Amelia had rolled into the river yet. The truck rocked too, but not the way the trailer does. My towel blew away – I had left it hanging on the tree by the campsite after my shower that afternoon. I looked for it the next day but it was gone, baby, gone. Amelia, however, was OK and so the next morning, which the NWS wind alert said would be a lull before renewed winds that afternoon (so only 30 mph gusts, good god) I hitched up in record time and beat it for Vegas. Which is where I’m writing this.
And yeah, in retrospect – Bullhead City? Baby’s First Vegas, all the way.
* There’s a building for sale right in the heart of downtown Oatman (Oatman has, like, one street. Maybe there’s another one I didn’t see, OK, but two would be the max. Anyway this building has a gift shoppe downstairs (quelle surprise) and an apartment upstairs and they want $340,000 for it but I bet you could get it for less. I actually stood there and considered it – I could sell tasteful things! Books and local art! Good coffee! Perhaps handmade chutney! Nutritious organic burro food! – but then my brain returned from wherever it had been vacationing and I fled.