You’ve got to be really determined to get to the town of Oatman. With its wooden guardrails and hairpin turns ascending and then descending into the Black Mountains, that stretch old Route 66 is treacherous.
But it’s a drive of breathtaking beauty that rivals Sedona’s state High- 89A. Pedestrian traffic is limited to occasional lizard, and the only station my radio will pick up plays pure country music, interrupted by sporadic commentary from Paul Harvey.
"We live in our own little world," said Oatman’s "night mayor" Jeanne Menefee, who stopped in the town 12 years ago while traveling with her husband, Bob, and never left. A tall woman with short silver hair and hands adorned with rings she claims her during 11 failed marriages, Mayor Jeanne considers herself an armchair Dr. Phil who dispenses advice to just about everyone, including bikers from Venezuela.
In the past few years Oatman has become a global phenomenon, attracting visitors from Great Britain and Japan for events such as the annual Sidewalk Egg Fry, which starts at high noon July 4. Would-be fry cooks just have to show up and make an edible egg, using only the sun as a heat source, within 15 minutes. The Oatman Chamber of Commerce provides the eggs, and prizes include stays at local casinos, meals and show tickets.
Although Oatman isn’t the hottest spot in Arizona on July 4 (the temperature will reach an average of "only" 106 degrees), it’s certainly the coolest place to fry an egg.
This once-booming mining town is a place where wild burros, descended from the ones who hauled ore out of the mines years ago, roam freely among the tourists and occasionally play chicken with motorists. The Ghostrider Gunfighters shoot it out at 1:30 p.m. every day in front of the Oatman Hotel, and for $100 you can stage your own shotgun wedding.
And, when bikers ride into town, the mayor — more of an entertainer than a politician — says she wears a sign across her chest reading, "I might be old but mine are real. How about yours?" and lifts the back of her skirt to show inquiring minds the oversized business card attached to her bottom.
"It’s a party every day," said Mayor Jeanne, a native of Rhode Island who hasn’t officially been "elected" for the past nine years.
Named for Olive Oatman, a woman whose family was massacred by the Apaches in 1851, the town started as a mining camp in 1906, a few years after prospector José Jerez stumbled upon one of the largest gold veins in the state. By 1931, miners excavated $37.5 million worth of gold bullion. Before the boom ended in 1942, when the federal government closed all but one mine, the population swelled to 10,000.
Today, 125 year-round residents cater to 400,000 annual visitors who descend on Oatman for its Western atmosphere.
From a table in the Oatman Hotel Restaurant affectionately dubbed the "mayor’s office," Mayor Jeanne meets and greets weary tourists who wander in for a cold beer and a bite of the "world famous buffalo burger" with a side of burro ears (homemade potato chips). Dollar bills signed by tourists line the restaurant walls. Miners started the tradition in the 1930s by tacking $1 onto the wall for a tab worth 20 beers.
Everyone in Oatman has a nickname. Mayor Jeanne distinguishes the town’s two Marys by referring to one as "Crackpot" and the other as "Crazy." They take care of each other while minding their own business. The nearest policeman is 30 minutes away in Kingman.
"Oatman is a wonderful town," said Cheryl Shallow, manager of the Olive Oatman Restaurant and Saloon. Shallow abandoned San Diego five years ago to take up residence in Oatman. "It’s family-oriented, and everyone is really good to each other."
Tourism keeps the town running. Curio shops line Main Street, and tables covered with T-shirts featuring burros and the words "Dumb Ass" and other kitsch items crowd the wooden plank sidewalks. Most of the shops are owned by outsiders.
Mayor Jeanne and the Chamber of Commerce are trying to spruce up Oatman’s image by bringing in artists. Today, two galleries flank Main Street.
Scott and Mary Watson sell sandstone sculptures and silverwork at Creative Edge Gallery. Zoe Hamilton, who opened Dry Dock Pottery a year ago on the ruins of a restaurant, features artwork from artists throughout the Colorado River region. Hamilton shares her studio with two cactuses, which shoot through her wood plank roof.
So if you find yourself on old Route 66 and come upon Oatman, you’re not lost. As Mayor Jeanne likes to say, "The people who should be here, are here."
Other things to do in Oatman
Gold Road Mine. Tour the mine located 2 1 /2 miles down Route 66 toward Kingman. Visitors can stand under America’s Main Street. $12. (928) 768-1600 or www.goldroadmine.com.
Oatman Jail and Museum. Built in 1919, it consists of two holding pens and the sheriff’s office.
Glory Hole. This two-story building was featured in the film "How the West Was Won." (928) 768-5513.