By Chuck Woodbury
Do this: Drive the 22 miles or so from Oatman, Arizona, on old Route 66 east toward Kingman. It’s beautiful and has character. Drive east in late afternoon to experience the jagged Black Mountains bathed in the rich glow of the afternoon sunlight. It’s stunning. Get out of your vehicle whenever you wish for a photo; there’s little traffic.
Stop first in Oatman. Have lunch at the Oatman Hotel, where the food servers claim there’s $250,000 in mostly dollar bills tacked to the walls and ceiling. I’d guess it’s more like $30,000. Either way, it’s impressive. Afterwards, walk upstairs and see the hotel room where Clark Gable and Carole Lombard spent their wedding night (or so it’s said) after getting married in nearby Kingman (the barebones room is not exactly the Ritz).
Oatman’s main street (Route 66) is right out of Knott’s Berry Farm — gift shops and fake gunfights, kinda like in Tombstone. It’s terribly tacky and terribly fun. The most unusual item I saw for sale was a wall-mount wildebeest. And what a bargain — only $950!
The stars of Main Street are the free-roaming burros. They’re descendants of the miners’ burros, who abandoned them in the late 1800s when the mines played out. Buy a bag of burro food for $1. The cute critters will be your best friend. I would advise not bringing your dog — the burros can’t distinguish them from coyotes and can get skittish. We brought our terrier, Archie, on a tight leash; still, a young burro came after him. We had to grab Archie and retreat while a helpful tourist ran interference.
Head east from Oatman on old 66. The narrow, two-lane road is windy and often steep. I wouldn’t recommend RVs over about 35 feet long including trailer or toad. You could do it, but be careful. This was a tough climb for early motorists. Professional drivers could be hired to help them get up and over the steep grades.
Just west of 3,550-foot Sitgreaves Pass pull over after you see a whole bunch of cemetery crosses up and around the curve ahead. There’s a large gravel parking area along what was probably an early path of Route 66. In recent times, for whatever reasons, people have spread ashes of their family (and even pets) on the nearby hilltop, placing often creative grave markers to commemorate them.
Keep your eyes open for wild burros. But, hah! They are hardly wild. If you stop they’ll beat a path to your car or RV looking for food. If your window is open, they stick their heads right in.
As you can see in this 15-second video, if there’s no food, they’ll nibble at whatever’s available. In my case it was my windshield wiper control. Gail and I had a tough time getting away from the animal and his fast-approaching buddy. You’ll hear our excitement in the video.
Farther east, stop at Cool Springs, at the old stone store filled with Mother Road souvenirs (it’s the only business in town), plus tee-shirts, mugs, and interesting displays of local history. Three RV spaces with 30-amp electric and water are available for $20 a night (call 928-514-1904 to reserve). And, wow, the view of Thimble Butte is amazing (the distinctive peak was featured in the animated film, “Cars”)! The store is open every day, roughly 9-6, except for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Dwayne Blake took over the business just a few months ago. He’s lived in the area for more than 40 years. He’ll answer your questions about the local history. On a warm, sunny day (which is most often), enjoy a picnic across the street on one of the red picnic tables. Ice cream is available in the store for dessert.
The ride east from there, about 10 miles, is nondescript. Then you’ll hit Interstate 40, where you can go fast — east to Kingman or west to Needles.
If you’re a fan of Route 66, visiting Oatman and driving the “Oatman Highway” is a delightful way to spend half a day.