Route 66 was once America’s Mother Road, winding through mountains, along rivers and across great plains. Now, due to the development of the U.S. Highway system, only short segments of Route 66 remain intact. Many of these short segments are spotted with historical sites or kitchy tourist attractions that capture the essence of the great American road trip, and most of them are easy to find, especially those that encompass classic “Americana” with big, flashy neon signs. But if you ever want a challenge along Route 66, go searching for a ghost town.
If there’s one piece of travel advice I adopted from my Route 66 adventure across the U.S.A, it is that you should ALWAYS carry a paper map and never completely rely on a digital GPS. Having been brought up in this remarkable age of technology, it didn’t even occur to me to have a backup hard copy of a map because, well, I’ve never actually needed one.
Oatman Arizona is a ghost town located somewhere along old Route 66. It’s a ghost town all right, in more ways than one. Not only is it now uninhabited, but it is also located high into the remote mountains of Arizona. I had read about Oatman briefly in my research, discovering that it was conveniently located on our route to California, and that wild burros freely roam the streets. As a biology major and animal enthusiast, you can guess my main motivation for choosing to explore Oatman.
Anyhow, we decided to simply type in “Oatman, AZ” on our GPS in hopes that this was the correct destination. After all, it’s a tiny ghost town off of the famous Route 66, how could that be wrong?
As we began our journey, the GPS informed us that the trip should take about 35 minutes. Into the mountains we went.
Climbing, winding, climbing, winding…the desert mountain road became narrower at every turn. As the elevation increased, so did the temperature outside. From 103 degrees Farenheight down below where we began, the temperature had risen to 111 degrees Farenheit, the hottest I have ever experienced. After 35 minutes, our little Dodge Dart was still chugging along, up and up and up. We began to question our use of the GPS whose “destination arrival time” was continuing to increase as we drove on. As the temperature and elevation rose, it felt as though we were traveling farther and farther away from civilization. The mountain road became so narrow and so winding that we began honking the horn as we turned each corner. All it would take was one oncoming vehicle whipping around the corner to knock us clear off the mountain and down into the canyon below. The road was gravelly, there were no shoulders or guardrails to keep you from plummeting to your demise, and there was barely enough room on the road for two cars at once. We began to worry that the road was actually only one way and that we were going the wrong way. I also knew that the little car we chose to take cross-country (due in large part to gas mileage) is small, a stick shift, and has never experienced extreme heat temperatures comparable to Arizona heat.
On this road there are no signs to provide you with the confidence that you are in fact going the right way. No homes or businesses to ask for help. No gas stations, so hopefully you left with a full tank. And no cell phone service so if your car breaks down, your fate will most likely include walking many, many miles in the desert heat, so I hope you packed water just in case too.
After an hour and 15 minutes I was finally able to breathe a sigh of relief. Don’t get me wrong – the drive was amazing! The anxiety came from the uncertainty of the road we had chosen and the possible dangers that came along with it. If I had simply packed a paper map for validation or if I had done a little more research on that particular stretch of road, I may have been able to predict what that drive was going to be like. What I learned when we finally reached Oatman? That there is a more direct route from another city if you drive around the mountain and that’s where all of the tourists were actually coming from, and that’s why we were the only vehicle in sight for an hour and 15 minute journey to the ghost town. But what I also learned was that we had accidentally taken the “road less traveled” and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
If you ever go to Oatman, I highly recommend the harrowing journey through the mountain (as long as your vehicle is capable of making the trip). The views of the desert below, the sense of remoteness in the mountains, and the thrill of not knowing what’s around every corner is an experience that will remain engrained in my memory forever.