Old US 66: The Road to Oatman, Arizona

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With a couple of hours of daylight remaining, I realized I had a chance to fill in a gap of old US Route 66 that, up until now, I had missed.  Nowadays, this old stretch of the Mother Road is known for the only town along the way: Oatman.

From I-40, just south of Kingman, Oatman Road shoots off to the southwest, straight as an arrow.  You might not turn the steering wheel for miles, as you pass over flat desert land.  Enjoy this section of the road; even though it’s narrow with no shoulder, it’s still the best-constructed part of this very old stretch of old 66.

Most sections of Old US 66 became ghost roads when a brand new Interstate stole all the traffic. Oatman Road is different: it lost its federal highway status during a realignment of Route 66, in the early 1950’s, years before the first mile of I-40 was even paved.  The feds decided to send the new alignment of old 66 through Yucca, AZ — the route I-40 now follows.
As the flat miles roll onto your odometer, you’ll have plenty of time to stare at the range of hills that looms ahead.  Before long, you’re driving through them.

Thimble Mountain

One distinctive mountain will definitely grab your attention.  For obvious reasons, it’s called Thimble Mountain, rising abruptly from the desert floor, on the north side of the road.

Just before twisting into the hills, you’ll pass Cool Springs, an old road house/campground/ gas station that’s been rebuilt.  That’s where I found this rusty old car skeleton.

Cool Springs has an interesting history, and owes its new life to a dedicated Route 66 fan who spent years purchasing, then rehabilitating the property.  You can read all about it here.

The road up into the hills, then down the other side, is narrow and somewhat rough the entire way.  A yellow line? Almost never.  Guard Rails? Get real.

If you’re not prone to motion sickness, and you want to see what every inch of Oatman Road looks like as you cross the hills, check out this video on YouTube, conveniently sped up to make the entire journey last only 6 minutes.

As you leave the sharpest, narrowest stretch of mountain road behind, you pass through a mining area of Goldroad, then…

Oatman Ghost Town

Oatman is not a true ghost town, at least what I consider one to be.  I think of Bodie, California and Rhyolite, Nevada as real ghost towns.  Nobody lives there, but hundreds of people still live here in Oatman.  And it seems, every single one of them is in the business of recreating a somewhat cheesy wild west experience.

Oatman was named after Olive Oatman, a young girl kidnapped by Apache Indians, traded to the Mohave Indians, and later rescued near the sight of the current town.  Oatman boomed around the turn of the 20th century, but by 1924 the town’s biggest mining employer shut down, and in 1941 the U.S. government ordered all mining operations closed (because of World War II).  The side of a building in Oatman tells the story:

I drove through Oatman, and parked on the south side of town.  There’s a public parking lot here, just in case the on-street parking spaces are filled with motorcycles (which they will be).

As you walk into Oatman, a couple of prominent figures catch your attention.  The first is an incredibly ugly A-frame house, built on the hill above town.  It’s overwhelmingly ugly — I can’t stress this enough — and it seems to somehow end up in almost every picture you take (such as the two above).

The second is this protrusion of white quartz rock known as Elephant’s Tooth.  Early miners knew that gold and silver often turned up in the same place as quartz, so this was a very big indicator that riches were nearby.

Oatman’s main street is only a couple of blocks long.  The sidewalks are made of wood planks, just as they should be in a proper western town.  It all feels very authentic, until you start reading the names of the businesses.  Gift shops and watering holes such as “The Classy Ass”, “Fast Fanny’s Place” and the “Glory Hole” leave you saying, “Oh, brother!”

Adding to the cheesy tourist experience, Oatman also has gunfights that play out in the middle of old Route 66.  The show is free, but there weren’t any performances while I was there.  One website says the shootouts happen daily at 1:30 and 3:15.

One place that does hold on to its historic decorum is the old Oatman Hotel.  I don’t believe the Oatman Hotel is currently accepting overnight guests, but it does offer a bar and restaurant.

Even if you’re not hungry or thirsty, poke your head inside the Oatman Hotel’s lobby, and check out the wallpaper.  Every spare inch of wall space, and even ceiling space, is covered with one-dollar bills, left here by visitors over the decades.

The Oatman Hotel was built in 1902, and survived a devastating fire that burned most of the town’s other buildings in 1921.  It’s the oldest two-story adobe building in Mojave County.  Also a claim to fame: Clark Gable and Carole Lombard spent a honeymoon night here, after marrying in Kingman, in 1939.

Perhaps Oatman is most famous for its population of wild burros, which roam the streets, begging for handouts, all the while leaving strategically placed reminders of their presence, with which you can ruin your favorite pair of shoes.

The burros are descendants of the beasts of labor who helped mine the gold from nearby mountains.  When the gold mines went out of business, prospectors simply turned their animals loose, to fend for themselves.  Burros can turn up along the side of the road for miles on either side of Oatman, but most hang around where the food is, here in town.

Oatman’s burros are supposed to be considered “wild” creatures, but I noticed a funny thing during my visit.  I had arrived just before 5 p.m. on a Sunday.  The burros were all around town, until the stores started shutting down for the day.  Suddenly, as if on cue, the burros all walked down the street and into this “corral” of sorts (pictured above).  I wanted to take a picture of a burro on the street, but they were all gone, at exactly 5 o’clock.  That’s not very  “wild” behavior.

Stores sell carrots and burro feed, making it easy for you to make friends with a jackass.  Signs all over town advise you to not share food with baby burros, since they can choke and die.

Somewhat dismayed by the phony-wild-west gift shops and carefully rehearsed wild burros, I decided to seek out some of Oatman’s less-noticed, and hopefully more authentic corners.

There are dirt roads, rusty cars, and old buildings here — the kind of things you’d expect to find in an authentic old western town.  But mostly, I was overwhelmed with a junky feeling.  I can’t quite put my finger on what the difference is between historic ghost-town junk and run-down hillbilly junk, but here, I was definitely leaning towards the latter.  Maybe it was all the mobile homes, or that darned ugly A-frame house overlooking the town.

The final straw came as I was walking back down the street to my car.  A few people who had obviously been drinking started acting obnoxious, yelling a lot at each other.  After a few minutes of shouting across the street and in every direction, the noisiest one climbed onto an ATV, and drove off.  Maybe all of this drunken whooping and hollering is authentic wild-west behavior, but to me it felt unpleasant and uncomfortable.  I crossed the street to avoid the scene.  Yes, yes I know, this is just one incident, and probably something that almost no one else has experienced.  If you love Oatman, I’m sure you’ll write me and tell me just how wrong I am.  Maybe I am.

I don’t want to dissuade anyone from checking out Oatman.  It’s on a great old stretch of the Mother Road, and it has its own rich history.  But if you’re looking for an authentic ghost town experience, you might be a little overwhelmed by everything else Oatman provides.

Once the sun finally set, and the light set those beautiful mountains aglow had disappeared, I headed on down Route 66.  Just south of Oatman, there’s an intersection, with a road that allows for quick access to nearby Laughlin, Nevada.

I could have continued on down 66, but it was too dark, and I wouldn’t have seen anything.  So I made the turn to Laughlin, leaving a short stretch of old 66 still untraveled.

I had made hotel reservations at the Avi Casino, which at the time, I thought was in Laughlin, alongside all the other casinos.  It turns out, the Avi is actually miles away, on an Indian reservation at the southern tip of Nevada.  The Avi provided a good bargain, but I probably wasted $10 in gas driving all the way up to Laughlin, then back down to the Avi, then back up to Laughlin for dinner, and back again.  If you’re staying at the Avi, take the route described above, but cross the Colorado River at Fort Mohave.  If you plan to stay in Laughlin, you should head north from Oatman, and take Silver Creek Road towards Bullhead City.

Note: This trip was first published in 2007.

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