Living Ghost Town: Burros and Gunfights
Oatman, Arizona, bills itself as a throwback to the Old West, a "living ghost town." If the wild past really intrigues you, then drive west to Oatman on old Route 66 from I-40, exit 44. This blacktop looks as if it hasn't been maintained since the right-of-way was moved south in the 1950s. Frequent washouts for the first 12 miles leave you repeatedly plowing through sand. The last 10 miles are a procession of shoulderless, blind, hairpin switchbacks up and down through crumbling desert hillsides, with occasional boulders in the road to tickle your tires and undercarriage.
It's a drive that should purge you of any nostalgia that you may have for "The Mother Road," and will help you to realize that the interstate highway system really isn't such a bad thing after all.
Oatman is tiny, maybe 150 yards of weathered, ill-favored buildings perched along the one road that you drove in on. The official population is 200. Though surrounded by towering rock vistas, it hardly resembles the neat, spacious, fake Wild West towns or precious antiques destinations most people visit nowadays. Sure, the town has its share of antiques stores, tourist saloons and junk shops; t-shirts seem to be the big seller, if judged by the amount of signs and advertising banners for Beefy T sales. And apparently there's demand for soy candles. But Oatman provides a good sense of what the frontier West was really like: rough, shabby, and naturally chaotic.
Which brings us to the burros and the gunfighters.
Back when Oatman was a gold boom town, the miners hauled their supplies with faithful burros. When the gold ran out -- roughly around the time that the road was paved -- the miners abandoned the burros to fend for themselves.
Their hairy descendants still live in the hills around Oatman, and come into town to beg for food whenever tourists arrive. Which is to say, all of the time. You can smell their presence even when you can't see them; burro droppings are everywhere. In fact, seeing burro poop along the road is a reliable sign that you're approaching the town. Slow your car down and burros are likely to stick their heads in the windows searching for handouts.
Oatman is one of only a few functioning municipalities with regular Wild West gun battles in its street. Two shootout groups, the Bitter Creek Outlaws and the Ghostriders, simply walk out into traffic, block the street with tourist onlookers, and loudly blow each other away several times daily (only on weekends in the off-season). It's free; during our stop they were passing the hat for a local charity.
The gunfighters' brief, improvised narratives are not sophisticated drama ("You slept with my daughter! I'm gonna kill you!"), but the tourist families around us didn't seem to mind. The encircling crowd stands within 10 or 15 feet of the action, and these are real guns going off, albeit loaded with blanks. For comfort, you can cling to a burro -- they are totally unflustered during the mock killing.
If you didn't know about Oatman, and just happened to drive into town, and burros were coming up to your car to beg for food, guns were blasting, and bodies lay in the street, it would seem pretty strange. But, then, there's no reason on earth you would drive out here unless you knew about the gunfights and the burros.
Note: When we arrived before lunchtime in the summer, there was only one burro, surrounded by scores of tourists. The noise of the day's first gunfight seemed to draw them out of the hills, and soon a dozen or more were wandering the main street. So be patient.