Scott Thybony's Canyon Commentary: Mother of the Desert

May 31, 2017

Halfway between Las Vegas and Kingman is a roadside café called Rosie’s Den. For decades, it’s been a place to rest for travelers, outlaws and lost souls. Owner Rosie Larsen took care of them all, no questions asked. Her patrons knew her as the “Mother of the Desert.” Commentator Scott Thybony has this tribute to the late proprietress. 

Rosie's Den
Credit Scott Thybony

After leaving Las Vegas on my way back from the canyons, I drove south into Arizona.  The highway cut straight across a long stretch of Mojave Desert before reaching Rosie's Den, or what was left of it.  A mound of charred rubble marked where the café and bar had stood a month before.  Nothing much remained but a hand-painted sign announcing, “We’re Open!”  That was enough for me to pull in.

Rosie’s had been a place where truckers sat side-by-side with tourists at the restaurant counter and bikers shot pool in the bar.  But something else set it apart.  It was a refuge for those needing help – the broken down, the desperate, the discarded.  It was a desert oasis where people could pull their lives together.  And it began with the kindness of one woman, Rosie Larsen.  I wanted to see how she was doing.

Rosie Larsen, "The Mother of the Desert"
Credit Andre Potochnik

On my first visit to the roadside café, I learned how Rosie had helped countless strangers over the years.  She would care for stranded families, and take in those found walking through the desert after a run of bad luck in Vegas.  When the police found someone in trouble on the highway, they often brought them to Rosie.  More than once she helped women with nowhere to go, giving them work and a trailer in the back.  They were fiercely loyal because of the kindness she had shown them.  

Parking out front, I found Rosie sitting by a small lawn table inside a temporary shelter.  The 85-year old woman wore sunglasses and a blue terrycloth hat over blonde hair.  I asked her what was next and she answered cheerfully, “We’ll rebuild.  What else can we do?”

After buying the place in 1984 she had worked 19 hours a day, 7 days a week for 9 years before it started to pay.  I asked about the people she helped, and she mentioned a man who had walked in the week before after having lost everything in Vegas.  “We fed him,” she told me, “and gave him a place to sleep until he was rested and could go on his way.”  This was despite having just lost nearly everything herself.  “The police,” she added with a smile, “call me, Mother of the Desert.”  

Credit Scott Thybony

Bikers kept thundering in as we talked, joining a rally to raise funds for the rebuilding.  Rosie told me she only had liability insurance in case customers got hurt, but nothing to replace her losses.  As I started to leave, she insisted I grab a burger first.  So I shared a table outside with a motorcycle club where everyone but me wore black leather.  A woman in a ball cap took a seat across from me, her hands glossy and mottled with scar tissue.  I asked if she knew Rosie.  “Nope,” she answered, “I’ve never met her.  I just follow those guys where they go.”  She shrugged toward some bikers drinking beer nearby.  Another woman quickly sat next to her, interrupting the conversation and distracting her attention.  I had probably broken protocol by speaking to one of their women, but with everyone here for reasons other than themselves I felt no threat.

While finishing lunch, I thought about Rosie.  She showed kindness to strangers, to those who she had no obligation to help, to those who may not have deserved it.  For her it didn’t matter, while for me it’s a lesson I keep relearning. 

Rosie’s Den has fully recovered from the 2011 fire.  It’s more spacious and full of light than before, less of a den and more a comfortable cantina.  The main attraction, good food and good people, remain unchanged.  Rosie passed away in 2015, living long enough to see her place fully rebuilt, while her family and friends still help those in need.  Sitting in the café recently, I noticed a sign hanging on the wall informing bikers about the upcoming “Mother of the Desert Rosie Run.”  It was a reminder of how her legacy lives on.