Route 66 Series: Out of the Way, Jackass! (Not You, the Burro)
As anyone who has been following this series knows – there are certainly a lot of charming stops on the fabulous old Mother Road. Despite its faded space on the map, the former Main Street of America still boasts ample antique small-town stops with faded brick buildings and cozy, pretty streets. Right alongside the bigger city dazzles like Chicago, Armarillo, and St. Louis. There are museums, restaurants, tourist attractions, and bright neon lights. Though it’s a blast from the past in many respects, the eastern half of Route 66 still takes you through a mostly civilized world – with nicely paved roads, traffic lights, and plenty of places to stop for gas and a bite to eat.
But somewhere in Oklahoma, things begin to change. Buildings and towns grow more sparse, and the towns you do encounter have a different vibe. The architecture gets more rugged. Tumbleweeds blow past some of the empty roads. Vast, unending fields and plains replace the big buildings and old souvenir shops. Pump stations, whether just for photos or to actually fill your car with gas, become harder and harder to come by. As do restaurants and touristy stops.
By the time you reach Arizona, Route 66 has officially gone from a road through modern civilization to a desolate, abandoned backroad in a forgotten part of America. The cracked, pot-holed asphalt boils under the hot, desert sun. Red rock formations and dry, thirsty mountains stretch on underneath a big blue sky with the occasional white clouds. Sun-burned cacti and bits of petrified wood dot the horizon. Sprawling National Parks and old Pueblo monuments replace cozy diners and old-fashioned cafes. In short, the western half of Route 66 is quite a different world.
And it’s in this most isolated part of the Mother Road that you really begin to encounter some interesting people and places. Like Ray’s in Arizona – a small roadside stop where the owner insists on feeding you chili dogs and showing you his astounding Hot Wheels collection (seriously… it’s astounding, and I had to at least find a way to mention it during this series).
Not far from there you will find the town of Oatman. An old mining town just off the winding, quite untamed (and somewhat treacherous) part of the old Route 66. The really old route 66 – the one from John Steinbeck’s “Okie” world of desperation instead of the movie “Cars.” Once you work your way around the dicey curves and narrow passes, you come around the mountain and there it is – the main street of Oatman. Which might not strike people as a particularly interesting town, until they see that the place is mostly run by…. (*checks notes*)… Burros.
Burros as in donkeys. Wild ones. They roam the main streets of town and the entire surrounding area completely unchecked and unleashed. Burros walk up and down the wooden sidewalks. They follow anyone they suspect might have a treat for them (and each store offers bags of said treats for a few bucks or less). Shops carry signs that say “please don’t let in the burros.” Burros cross the busy main street at random, snarling up traffic and screeching at any car horns that try to move them along faster. Oatman is a town completely overrun with Burros, and I have to say, it makes it one of the most worthy stops on the entire Route 66.
Oatman is a somewhat newer city when it comes to the wild west – springing out of the desert dust in the early 1900s. Around that time, some random gold miners struck it rich nearby. As in millions of dollars, our hard-knock-life-is-over rich. When word got out, mining companies and many mining hopefuls quickly descended on the area. Just a year later, Oatman was its own little desert oasis with a few thousand residents and all the classic hallmarks of the goldmining boom towns of the west. Including a two-story adobe hotel, built back in 1902. Although a fire destroyed a lot of Oatman’s structures in 1921, the hotel survived, and today it holds the distinction of the oldest adobe structure in Mojave County. Some locals still maintain that Clark Gable and Carole Lombard spent a night there after their wedding in Kingman, Arizona, even though many historians have since raised doubts about that.
As for the rest of the town, it enjoyed a swell hey day until 1924. The mining companies didn’t hit it as rich as the random guys who happened to pull millions of dollars out of the ground. So they packed up and left town, taking most of the employment opportunities with them. Oatman probably would have died all together, fading into one of the many gold mine ghost towns that loiter the desert. But along came Route 66 to save the day. When the highway was completed, plenty of traffic came rolling in, and they single-handedly kept the town in business. Hotels and restaurants stayed busy, as did the many unique gift shops and dime stores that sprung up.
However, the good times didn’t last. In 1953, construction crews put in a faster interstate highway to accommodate the traffic between Needles, California and Kingman, Arizona. This time, Oatman saw itself completely bypassed. Tourism dried up. Hotels sat empty. Diners and cafes fell into disrepair. The town, for all intents and purposes, was abandoned.
That is, until the burros showed up. Burros are known to run wild throughout the desert in this area. Perhaps seeing an empty town as a quaint refuge from the harsh desert elements, they moved into the streets and took it over. And you might say they went forth and multiplied. Today, I kid you not, more burros live in Oatman than people.
It’s unclear when the people of Oatman decided to capitalize on their wild burro population instead of trying to run them out of town with brooms. But either way, it was a very good decision. Word soon spread of the old mining town in the far west where burros run wild and free, and curious people began to make their way back into Oatman.
In the twenty-first century, interest in the burros combined with a revival of Route 66 nostalgia, and it made Oatman one of the most popular stops on the old mother road. As many as 500,000 tourists a year pour into town to visit the truly unique gift shops, admire that historic two-story adobe hotel, perhaps enjoy a spot of lunch, and yes… feed, pet, and play with the burros.
I myself was amazed at just how tame they are for being wild. As soon as you approach them with a bag of treats, you are guaranteed to make new friends. It also surprised me just how many there are. I expected to see maybe one or two if we were lucky. Nope. Dozens of them roam all over the main street, and we even witnessed one of the infamous traffic snarls they are prone to causing. One plopped itself down right in the middle of the road, and it let out the most ear-splitting squeal when someone tried to get it to move. A comical display that still makes me giggle when I think about it.
I also found the town itself to be kind of magical in its own right. In spite of the oppressive heat, all the shop owners were nothing but kind and friendly. The gift shops sell everything you could possibly want from desert clothes, hippie apparel, motorcycle equipment, bumper stickers, political gags, toys, trinkets, and obviously treats for the burros. There are candies made from cactus, iced cream shops, and novelty t-shirt stores. And of course, all stores are loaded with Route 66 souvenirs. I have to say that Oatman, with its colorful history, quirky populace, and Burro overlords, truly has a little something for everybody.
It served as a powerful reminder that sometimes, the prettiest gems are the ones most hidden away – deep inside a place where most wouldn’t even think to look. It’s a lesson the entire Route 66 can teach you, if you let it. If you give yourself time to take a longer, slower route across the country. To stop and smell the roses, if you will.
It seems hard to believe that our wild adventure across the Route 66 took place close to three years ago already. How many things have happened in the world since then. All of our lives changed at the drop of a hat with a raging pandemic, and now, a terrible conflict in Europe that none of us can (or should) ignore.
The world is indeed full of dark places and events – but there are bright spots too. Like a time-capsule of a highway that still has plenty of life in it, and a town in America’s wild west that is literally run by Burros.
Route 66 Road Trip – Oatman Visit, 2019
The Illustrated Route 66 Historical Atlas – J. Hinckley
Route 66: The Mother Road – M. Wallis
Route 66 Road Trip – Moon & C. Taylor
Visit Arizona – Oatman
All photos by M.B. Henry – for more from Route 66, click here!
About two months from now, I will be a published author! It is absolutely insane to think about, and I am getting very excited as more reviews come in. To learn more about my book, and to pre-order a copy, click here!
What a fun, wonderful read, MB! Absolutely fantastic that burros have “taken over” a town — and that their presence helped revive that town.
Right? I can’t recommend Oatman enough – it’s well worth the dicey backroads you have to take to get there!
I plan to saddle up the Harley in May and head south to North Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee. Blue Ridge Parkway, Cherohala skyway, tail of the dragon and little Switzerland. I think about your big adventure as I planned this trip. It won’t be as epic as your cross-country trip on the Mother Road but it’s going to be a hell of a ride. I might even have to stop in Gettysburg, on the way back to Sunny Cape Cod.
Ooooh yes, yes you MUST see Gettysburg. Have you been there before? That remains one of my favorite historical visits that I have ever made and that includes a LOT of battlefields over in Europe.
Never been to Europe but I’ve been to Gettysburg, several times. I have ancestors who fought on both sides. It borders on a holy experience to trace the steps of your own ancestors, at a place like that.
I can imagine! I have ancestors on both sides as well but I don’t know a ton about their movements or where they fought.
Fascinating. Thanks for a great read! We Okies can testify…we love our home but we have horrible roads.
Haha yes I did notice quite a few bumpy roads in Oklahoma but I have to say you have some of the best bridges there, and some lovely, open scenery!
What a wonderful article! It makes me want to visit.
You guys should do the entire route someday. You’d really like it!
Burro overlords. LOL. Two months?! That’s very exciting. And such a pretty cover. I got my preorder in.
Oooh yay I hope you enjoy it when it comes!!
I’m sure I will. 😊
I would love to see the burros. Looks like 9 hours drive for me.
If you do make the trip I know you would enjoy it 🙂
Great article! Looks like you were very popular in Oatman.
I sure was! 🙂 🙂 🙂
I have never heard of this place – a must see! Thanks for sharing your road trip with us. Just magical.
Yes – you would love it! 🙂
Fascinating. I have enjoyed your Route 66 adventures, but I can tell you this is my favorite. I have never heard of Oatman. I can’t believe I missed it on my Route 66 travels, but maybe I traveled before Oatman became famous. Regardless, I’ve been there now with your story. Wonderful.
Yay I’m so glad you enjoyed it! I’ve loved sharing all of our fun experiences on that highway, I still have a few more cued up to write as well! 🙂 It’s actually kind of easy to miss on a Route 66 guide book because you have to take the original route to get there, not the newer route. Some books don’t even print the original route anymore, especially since it can be a bit treacherous in this area.
MB, I love this! I want to visit Oatman! Route 66 has rich history here in Springfield, Missouri. I really love your pics. I giggled thinking of the burro squealing in the street. Get ready to roll your eyes …you really could get some kicks on Route 66 there! 🤦🏼♀️ 😉 but probably not since they are so sweet.
Ooooh yes we definitely stopped in a lot of places in Missouri when we traveled the entire route. I particularly liked the caves and the little tourist place called “Uranus” haha 🙂 Fun times! You would love Oatman – in fact, I think you would indeed “get lots of kicks” on the 66, in Oatman and elsewhere, but hopefully not by a burro because that might hurt!
Love it! Yes, “Uranus” gets a lot of stops lol! If you’re ever near Branson please let me know! I have so many places on my bucket list, but these gas prices are going to keep me close to home!🤗
Yeah I hear you about gas prices. Don’t think we’ll be taking a road trip this summer! 🙁 At least not a long one lol.
Oatman? Sounds like a place going on my list of places to visit! bring on the burros!
Yes!!!! You will love it! 🙂
Thank you for this happy post in a not so happy time. How bad could it be if burros ran the world? A slower, friendly life for us all. Great post! Thanks again.
Yes – it is a bit hard to keep our chins up nowadays isn’t it? Agree about the burros – all they need is a treat once in awhile!
Well it sure is weird these days. Keep posting; it keeps us sane. 🙂
I shall do my best!
We enjoyed Oatman very much! The burros were so fun. We actually witnessed a Burro stampede. About 15 starting running after one… they were mad at him for some reason. Your pictures reminded me of our trip on Rte 66! We stopped at the Gas Station and did the same photo. How fun for all of us.
It’s such a fun place – the entire route is really kind of magical. I actually wouldn’t mind doing it again sometime we had so much fun 🙂
We enjoyed driving both ways… but headed out of Oatman towards the gas station was one beautiful ride! I would do it again in a heartbeat!
Lovely to read and see the photos, I’ll get there one day!
Yes -and when you do, I know you will enjoy it to the utmost! 🙂
A wonderful, lively, portrait of a legend
🙂 Glad you enjoyed it
The burros of Oatman conjure up the sacred cows of India.
Oh I never even thought of that! 🙂
Or the deer of Nara, Japan.
Ooooh yes, that sounds lovely!
What a fun place!
Fun read. I’m ready for a road trip which would have to include Oatman.
Yes, allll the road trips. I haven’t been on one in so long! 🙁
Ha! I have never heard of this town with all the burrows – How fun!
I feel like you especially would love this place! 🙂
Because of the burros?
Yes!!! 🙂 🙂
What a great glimpse of mostly forgotten America!
🙂 So very glad you enjoyed it!
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An attention getting title and a fun look back. 😊
🙂 Glad you liked it!
I had never heard of this. How fun! Now I’m wondering what those burro treats were? I have no idea what a burro might like to eat
It looked like a combination of oats and straw. Delicious I’m sure…. 🙂
That’s a lot of hot wheels!
What a coincidence M.B. Henry! I am reading Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” at the moment and follow his descriptions of hunger and thirst and anxiety for what the future brings for the fleeing family from dry Oklahoma. They solely followed Route 66. Thank you for your post
You are reading one of my favorite novels ever written – I absolutely love that book. Let me know what you think about it!
I am halfway through it, and sometimes I have to put it away as it becomes too exciting. I had the same feeling reading East of Paradise last month. I will try to explain in a post. Thank you for answering me❤️
Fabulous MB> My smile for the morning 😉 🙂
PS I hope Oatman has a dedicated pooper scooper. They could even sell that off to make money from the tourists as well 😂
Hahaha that’s funny because I actually wondered who the poor sucker is that has to clean up after all those burros! 🙂
I just realised that you had been unfollowed by the mysterious WP glitches. Fixed now I hope 🙂
Oh goodness the glitches are insane! So many posts that I like end up “unliked” and people unfollowed!
And now I am checking the spam folder every day now
How very interesting! I love the burros! Did you go for a ride on one??
No hahaha but I did get to pet quite a few of them!
That last photo with the burro reminded me of Shreky’s Donkey saying “Oh Man, I Can’t Feel My Toes. I Don’t Have Any Toes! I Think I Need A Hug.” 🙂
Hahaha Donkey’s the best 🙂
Whenever I read your reminiscences about your travels along Route 66, I also want to take that road trip. If we ever do, we will be sure not to bypass Oatman and its burros! 🙂
If you ever take it let me know – I’d be happy to recommend good guide books and charming pit stops! 🙂 🙂
Thank you for the offer, M.B., I will keep it in mind. Never underestimate the value of an attractive pit stop. 😊
Another brilliant post M.B., a most unusual town I must say. We did a road trip around our state to areas we hadn’t been to and as we try to use back roads we found some interesting places. its great that you put up all the photos to, some I remember from when you posted them originally, I cant believe it was back in 2016!!
Yes it’s hard to believe it was so long ago already! I’m so glad you enjoyed the post
I always love seeing photos of other folks countries 😃
Those burros are so cute! Thanks for telling about this town with more burros than people.
Very glad you enjoyed it!
Oatman is a fun place to visit and at times can be quite busy with tourists.
Yes it was quite busy when we were there!
Great post! Takes me back to our own short visit to Oatman.
Oatman is one of those places where you can set aside, if just for an afternoon, all of the bad stuff. Maybe it’s Oatman’s isolation or maybe it’s the quirkiness. Maybe it’s both and a lot more.
Route 66 and all it’s tributaries are indeed fascinating.
I completely agree that you can just set things aside there. It’s like the rest of the world doesn’t even exist! I also agree it’s a combination of both its quirkiness and its location. Glad the post stirred up some fun memories for you.
I love your burros! Looked for them in Red Rock Canyon but they must have been shyer than yours!
These definitely weren’t shy haha! 🙂
I might visit Oatman just to meet the burros. Great post, MB!
Yes – please do! The burros love visitors!
Those burros are SO cute. I’d never heard of this town, but I’d love to visit someday.
In fact, you have me wanting to do the entire Route 66 trip – I’m enjoying your series that much. 🙂
I highly recommend the whole route if you ever find the time. It’s one of my favorite trips we’ve ever taken honestly!
Another interesting post! I always loved seeing the burros when we went on our trips out west.
They are pretty cute, aren’t they? 🙂