I found a man in Oatman, Arizona, who sang me a song as he sat on the deck of the Oatman Hotel. Oatman is a tourist trap, a corny dusty street lined with places with names like Jackass Junction and Oatman General Store and Fast Fanny’s. It’s in the middle of gold mining country, though the Wild West establishments that line the downtown are for show. Donkeys walk up to you in the street, as tame as kittens and just as demanding.
I was on a work trip tracing the old faded glory of Route 66, that iconic highway built in the 1920s to connect Chicago clear through to the coast past Los Angeles. In due time, the country outgrew the boundaries of such a constricted artery, and of course was replaced with a ribbon of expressway that is little more than a soulless version of what you can find anywhere. The best way to travel, it seems, is to make sure you never experience anything you couldn’t find at home.
Diehards and historians, the curious, the aimless and the bucket listers still look for evidence of the original highway every year. Most of it is still visible if you look out your window as you blast past at 75 mph; it weaves on the right and then the left, crisscrossing its usurper. Sometimes you can follow it for an hour, other times you hit a dead sign a few minutes in. If you’re determined, you can spend more time on it than off.
The 15 of us who pulled in that day probably doubled the population of Oatman. I traipsed in and out of shops and bars, told over and over I was free to purchase any of the genuine local handicrafts, a preponderance of leather and silver on offer. I was shocked to see a picture of a woman the town is named for sporting a Native tattoo on her chin; kidnapped as a child and held, this was how they’d marked their property. A character in the show Hell on Wheels has the same marking, and my pretend world and my real one collided once more.
The Oatman Hotel features dollar bills, signed and stapled to all the interior vertical surfaces. Many yellowed with age, guesses put the total between $100,000 and $200,000, and I could believe either number. I dutifully signed my bill and went back out into the scorching Arizona sunlight.
I heard the guitar before I saw it, and a strong voice singing like Willie Nelson. Sitting in the shade of the porch, Michael Fox cared little whether we heard him or not. No collection cup, no open guitar case, just a man who could have been 50 or 70 with a clear voice and a soft guitar. We hauled out cameras and recorders, because that is what we do.
I asked him to play something else. I asked him for more Willie Nelson, and he smiled and said he didn’t know all of them. He’d never met Willie, though he’d played with several of the legend’s band members over the years. Don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys, I said. Once again that true voice tilted against the contrived scenery.
If you once were, you still are, even if nobody can see you anymore. All of these towns, many of them ghostly deserted, have watched progress snuff them out. And yet for all that I saw in days on the road, it was a man with a guitar singing for everyone and no one that defined the trip.