By Leo W. Banks
IT'S A GOLD rush for the plaid-pants' set, silver-haired Winnebago wanderers figuring it's time to get good and rich. They prowl the wooden sidewalks of old Oatman, a carat-sized town that howled early this century, clutching $3 panning kits and asking directions to the motherlode.
The locals snicker under their whiskers and tell the God's truth: You won't find enough to pay your way home. But they still come.
"We get up to 50 questions a day about gold in here," says Vas Naikel, cook and manager at Cactus Joe's Cantina. "People want to know where's the best place to pan. We tell them you can't pan where there isn't any water. We got one wash that runs two months a year and that's it. But most need to find out for themselves."
Gold has always been a hot topic in northwest Arizona, and it is again. The current fever--well, call it a mild temperature elevation--started in December 1994 when Addwest Minerals, Inc. began production at the old Gold Road Mine, two and a half miles northeast of town.
It's a serious effort to retrieve what company executives believe is at least 160,000 ounces of gold sitting underneath the Black Mountains.
Addwest's venture, which employs 92 workers and could add as many as 30 more, is small by comparison to gold mines in, say, Nevada. But it's the largest such operation in Arizona, and word has spread.
So has the misconception that chunks of the yellow metal are laying out under the blazing sun, winking like some dance-hall floozy.
That has brought to Oatman a passel of tourists, retirees, vacationers and always-driving-Route 66 Kerouacs who can't rest without knowing what's beyond the next sunset.
Most have time to burn. Some bring their grandkids, promising a day of frontier-style prospecting. A few lost their trousers in Laughlin, Nevada, 32 miles away, and are looking to spend a day in a place where all they'll waste is time.
That's the hard-rock truth about placer mining around Oatman. "I'd be surprised if anybody found anything using a gold pan," says Bill Hawes, assistant state mine inspector in Arizona. "I think the coarse, visible gold has all been gotten."
But it's still a tantalizing trip, because there really is plenty of gold there. Hawes says the area reminds him of the prolific gold belts currently being worked in Nevada, although the Oatman deposits are more spread out.
They're also far, far underground. Addwest is digging at several levels, the deepest of which will eventually reach 750 feet, says Sonny Watson, the company's human resources manager.
"You need to have pretty good resources to get this gold out," says Watson. "Ma and Pa Kettle couldn't do it."
That's dead-solid-straight talk, as far as prospector Preston "Red Dog" Hane is concerned. He works a claim outside town and says, "Even if you know where to look it's too damn much work. I tend bar instead."
Back in the early part of the century, Oatman and Gold Road were re-blooded boomtowns with more than 10,000 residents swinging picks in dozens of area mines.
Production at the Gold Road vein, that same one Addwest is now working, began in 1901. In 30 years, that mine and others in the Oatman district yielded a total of $31 million in gold, according to state records.
The work stopped in 1942, when President Franklin Roosevelt ended all mining not related to the war effort, leaving the region mostly quiet for decades. Not until the price of gold rose from $35 an ounce to its current level of about $400 did it become feasible to mine them again.
Such armchair history is well-known to the folks at Cactus Joe's. Gold talk comes with the beer. So does the firm belief the fabled motherlode is still out there.
"Nobody thinks it's been found yet," says Naikel, who doubles as captain of the town fire department. "We all have theories about where it is. Everyone tries to out-guess the geologists."
It helps that rocks sparkling with gold still turn up in Silver Creek Wash after a good rain, and every once in a while the hills echo with a loud dynamite boom, a sound that only reinforces the narcotic notion that you really can get lousy rich in a dusty, 146-Post Office-box town.
It's enough to make a person turn cuckoo, not that anyone in Oatman would notice. The town is well accustomed to, shall we say, odd goings on. Take the 30 or so burros walking the streets. Seems that when the miners took off in '42, they left their fuzzy-bottomed, ripe-smelling pack animals behind.
Now the descendants of those beasts ankle up and down the streets, sometimes nuzzling against a tourist's Toyota trying to get a handout. They'll eat just about anything, even food.
"There's a tradition that whoever spots the newest baby burro gets to name it," says Kevin Enright, who sells jewelry and trinkets under a canvas top next to the antique fire engine. "The latest is named Shirley. Cute as a button."
From his spot on main street, Enright has a good view of the burros and gold seekers. He's developed a unique way of taking the temperature of Oatman's metal fever.
"Until you see a bunch of wily old guys with filthy beards, there's nothing to it," says the pony-tailed Enright. "I tell people they can make a lot more money hunting Arizona opals anyway. A good-sized one can bring in $100 or more."
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