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© Dawn Kish

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Den Mother
Route 66 has its share of iconic eateries, but only Route 93 has Rosie's Den, a red-roofed café and bar that reflects the inimitable spirit of owner Rosie Larsen. Rosie alone is worth the trip, but the food is something special, too.

By Leah Duran

White Hills Rosie Larsen greets all of her good customers with a smile and a hug. Larsen, who turned 85 in January, is the life force of Rosie's Den, a café, bar and de facto community center surrounded by desert in White Hills, Arizona.

The establishment is a hub for travelers on U.S. Route 93, a solitary stretch of pavement that connects Las Vegas and Kingman. Fifty miles from the lights of either city, this red-roofed haven sits amid scattered Joshua trees.

Rosie and her restaurant are inseparable. Larsen, whose green eyes shine beneath black eyeliner and a short blonde bob, doesn't look — much less act — her age.

"I'm here all the time," says Larsen, who started a new business when most people begin thinking about retirement. "This place is my hobby. We've got a neighborhood bar and no neighborhood."

Larsen was 58 when she saw an advertisement for the property in a magazine. At the time, she was investing in real estate in Florida, but six weeks later, Larsen signed Rosie's Den into being.

"I was never in the restaurant business, and I wasn't sure I'd be able to handle it," Larsen says. "Twenty-seven years later, here I am."

Larsen says she started with 11 plates and a staff of one. "I worked from 6 a.m. to midnight. I cooked, cleaned toilets, washed dishes," she says. "While I was cooking for one person, I'd wash dishes for another." Several of the menu offerings, including the chili, hamburgers and spaghetti sauce, are Larsen's personal recipes.

Today, 22 employees keep Rosie's Den running 18 hours a day, seven days a week. Larsen says she still stays up until midnight working on the restaurant's books. "I'm a night person," she says.

Rosie's Den boasts the second-highest lottery sales in the state. It's also famous for letting customers drive motorcycles up to their table of choice on the outdoor patio. Regulars and tourists alike inquire about Rosie. "They want to know if I'm still alive," she says, laughing.

Larsen says when people sign her guestbook, they say "thank you" for three main things: good food, smiles and hospitality. The latter extends not only to customers, but anyone in need.

"People know if they can get to Rosie's, they'll get help," Larsen says. "The Highway Patrol always called me 'Mother of the Desert,' because they knew if they picked up a hitchhiker, I'd give them a ride or pay them money to mop the floor."

Larsen talks at length about the Den, but sums up her previous life in a few short sentences. She grew up in Washington state, "where it rained all the time." In 1950, she moved to San Diego, "where it was foggy until 10 in the morning."

Ten years later, she and her husband, Norm Larsen, relocated to a farmhouse in Pennsylvania that they shared with their three sons: Brad, Norman and Randy. "When my husband died in 1970, I took the kids and moved to Singer Island in Florida because I couldn't afford the big farmhouse," Larsen says. "I thought humidity was just a word in the dictionary."

Of the four corners of the United States she's lived in, Larsen says Arizona has the best climate. "Why do I want to go back to any of those other places? So I'm sentenced for life," she says. "I've thought about retiring — where would I go? I'm too old to start over. I wouldn't get my hugs!"

Brad Larsen, Rosie's youngest son, manages Rosie's Den with his wife, Sheila. "They call Rosie 'Mother of the Desert' because she's everyone's mother," Sheila says. "Now she's becoming the grandmother and we're becoming the mother and father."

"This is her legacy," says Brad, who has been his mother's business partner for 10 years. "She still runs things here."

Larsen points out a windowsill to be dusted and instructs Brad to order more T-shirts. "This [place] has been my hobby, work, love, husband and kids," Larsen says.

Two years after moving to Arizona, Larsen threw a party at the restaurant for her 60th birthday in an effort to meet more people and gain customers. More than 100 guests attended. Now, she celebrates her birthday in a similar style — but only every fifth year.

"I can't ask these people to come every year, so I said I'll have them come every five years," Larsen says. She also has a policy of not attending weddings or funerals, Brad adds.

When Larsen turned 80, she drove eight laps in a NASCAR vehicle with the Richard Petty Driving Experience at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. "What I'd like to do is take out a spaceship," she says.

She also plans to travel to Asia with her eldest son, Randy. "I don't want to go unless I have at least a month," says Larsen, who has set foot on six continents. "It takes time to see the backcountry."

These days, Larsen says she spends most of her time "being a hermit" in her office and home, a trailer tucked beneath a Joshua tree. She adds offhandedly that she has survived three different types of cancer — throat, left lung and right lung. "My doctor calls me the 'miracle patient,'" Larsen says. She's been in remission since last April.

A small, nondenominational chapel next to the dirt parking lot invites Rosie's patrons to "Pause, Rest, Worship." Its stained-glass windows mirror the outside landscape with depictions of yucca and Joshua trees. "I told the Lord if I ever have any money, 'I'll build you a home wherever I am,' " Larsen says.

When the chapel was nearly complete, a customer offered to make the windows for the price of the glass. "I've been helping people all these years, and I'm always rewarded," Larsen says. "The Lord has always guided me, and when it's time to go it's time to go," she adds. "I'm told where to go, because that's where people need me."

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