"Clark Gable spent his honeymoon with Carole Lombard right at the top of those stairs back in 1939."
Susie Clark is standing at the bottom of a staircase in the historic Oatman Hotel in the Route 66 town of Oatman, Ariz. and recounting its somewhat glamorous history.
If you've never been, Oatman sits nestled into the Black Mountains between Kingman and Needles. It's famous for its Gable-Lombard history, its gold mining history, but especially for the burros that roam freely around town, looking for carrot-wielding tourists (the burros are descendents of the animals that served miners back when Oatman was going through its gold boom in the early 1900s).
Clark is one of only about 150 residents in the town, and while my son and I were eating in the Oatman Hotel restaurant (the interior of which is famously covered top to bottom with dollars bills stapled and signed by customers), we learned something interesting about her: She's from Huntington Beach.
At least, she was from Huntington Beach before she and her family bought the Oatman Hotel in 2001.
When I heard that she last lived in Surf City before moving to the mountains, I realized that sometimes, column ideas simply find you, not the other way around.
Clark sat down to have a cup of coffee with us last week on a hot desert morning that was pushing triple digits by about 8:30. Inside the restaurant, though, it was cool, dark and comfortable.
Clark told us how she'd moved to Huntington Beach from Hawaii to be closer to her daughter, who already lived here. Clark, born in Kingman, told us she loved living here and spent many pleasurable years living right near the beach. But when she found out that the Oatman Hotel was for sale, she couldn't resist the opportunity to become (along with her family) proprietor of the famous property.
The hotel, established in 1902, is the oldest two-story adobe structure in Mohave County. To date, it has housed many miners, movie stars, politicians and other people of note (in the restaurant, there's a dollar bill signed by Ronald Reagan). The town was also used as the location for several movies, such as "How the West Was Won," "Foxfire" and "Edge of Eternity."
Today, however, the rooms are all being refurbished – including the Gable-Lombard love nest (the couple was supposedly so fond of Oatman that they returned here several times after 1939).
Clark still gets back to Huntington Beach from time to time, but the hotel keeps her busy.
"This is the slow season, the hot summer months," she says, "but during winter, the place is packed. We have lots of plans here as we fix things up, and we'll be a place to not just stay as you're passing through town, but to have a wedding, parties, all sorts of things."
Oatman is a fun, no-nonsense slice of Route 66-meets-the-Old West. The burros occasionally wander into some of the businesses, including the Oatman Hotel, reminding locals and tourists alike that they were here first.
And if you're ever motoring through, make sure you stop to say hi to a former Huntington Beach resident who left the surf and sand for an old mining town where two movie stars spent their first night as husband and wife.
If your timing is right, who knows, you may even be able to spend the night there yourself.
CHRIS EPTING is the author of 17 books, including the new "Huntington Beach Then & Now." You can write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.