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!