By Amy Silverman
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In the wall display, Olive is wearing a very warm-looking 19th-century dress with a full skirt, a serious 19th-century expression and some extraordinary tattoos on her chin. The tattoos were acquired during Olive's captivity among the Mohave Indians, who considered them beautiful, and did not prevent her marriage to a gentleman named John B. Fairchild after regaining her freedom.
John Laird can also suggest that Ruben Conde, who runs the gas station down the road in Sentinel, can be prevailed upon for a lift to the Oatman site.
Ruben, who calls himself a desert rat, is happy for the opportunity to get out.
Ten miles over dirt roads from Sentinel with Ruben will bring you to a bluff overlooking the Gila River. Along the way, Ruben has checked for deer tracks, spotted a red-tailed hawk's nest and expounded upon why environmentalists are stupid. Ruben has the soul of a farmer; his grandfather came up from Mexico to homestead in the area, and so when he looks at the floodwaters in the Gila, he sees what could be irrigation water going to waste.
The road the Oatmans took in 1851 winds down from the top of the bluff, across the river flood plain now planted in cotton, and winds back up the bluff on the other side. Travelers had to unload their wagons going up, or the oxen couldn't pull them.
"See the grooves here from the wagons," Ruben says, and indeed the ruts worn by the wheels of 19th-century travelers are visible in the soft volcanic rock.
The Oatman family had just made the top of the bluff when it was accosted by Indians. "They threw him off here," says Ruben, pointing to the spot where young Lorenzo Oatman was tossed after being beaten. His parents and several siblings were killed, and his two sisters, Olive and Mary Ann, taken into captivity.
Mary Ann died, Lorenzo survived to free his sister, but what happened to Olive Oatman during her five years with two Indian tribes is one of those historical mysteries Old West buffs like to puzzle over. An account published by a rather strait-laced minister friend of Olive's insisted that the Indians had offered her no "unchaste abuse."
Rumors flourished, however, of a marriage to the chief's son and two half-breed children, and it was said that Olive's adopted Indian mother wept even as the tribe swapped her back to civilization for some beads and blankets. After regaining her freedom, Olive seems to have led a rather normal life--except for the tattoos--until she died in Texas in 1903.
One account, though, hints at some lingering difficulties. Her husband is said to have destroyed all the books relating to her captivity. Was it jealousy, as John Laird would say? Who knows what happy memories Olive Oatman hid from her husband, the people and the places she must have missed?
@body:Like Job, but with more complaining, Gila Bend has suffered.
The town started out as a camp for the Mormon Battalion building the trail, then became a stage stop along the Butterfield Line, then a terminal on the Southern Pacific Railroad. The town grew slowly as settlers drifted in, turning their attention first to cattle ranching and then to cotton farming. Its high point was probably in the early 1960s, when Gila Benders actually worried about growth.
Those were the days, old-timers will tell you--five all-night cafes, 24 gas stations, prosperity not around the corner but in your pocket.
Then the blows began to hit. I-8 was completed, so travelers from Tucson could zoom straight through the town without having the opportunity to have their fan belts checked. I-10 was completed between Blythe and Phoenix, so travelers from the east to California could finally bypass Gila Bend entirely.
The town began to wither, as Walled Lake Door cut back, Southern Pacific closed its switching yard, the feedlot shut down and Paloma Ranch laid off workers. Gila Bend seemed poised to fall from the vine entirely.
And then, in what seemed like almost a slap from on high, the honor of being the hottest place in the country was cruelly stolen from the town.
Duke Fox is still angry about this, although it took place a decade ago, and he still insists there was hanky-panky somewhere.
Gila Bend is a great place for conspiracy theories, because so much bad has happened to it. The proposed toll road that would replace the present hair-raising stretch of State Route 85 with a pay-per-drive four-lane has given rise to its own share of conspiracy theories, these fingering Casa Grande.
The thermometer conspiracy, however, involved Bullhead City. It all started in 1983, according to Irv Haynes, who's in charge of the Arizona and southern Nevada stations of the National Weather Service. That's when his predecessor discovered that the thermometer in Bullhead City was sitting on a cool patch of grass in front of the fire station. He told the firefighters to move the thermometer around to the back, so it could have natural desert vegetation beneath it.
Then Haynes came on the scene. His contribution to the controversy lay in replacing the old bulb thermometer Duke Fox had been using in Gila Bend at the Space Age Lodge with a new electronic one. If you sit in the lobby at the Space Age Lodge, you can read the temperatures on a scientific-looking digital apparatus much like the ones on exercise bicycles.