2005 Oatman Arizona Tour

A Loop Ride Through Old Route 66, Sitgreaves Pass and John Steinbeck


(Editor's Note: Since first writing this story, the Oatman Hotel has stopped renting out rooms. You can still visit and tour the place, but you can't spend the nite. --MO, 5/24/05

The Oatman Hotel brags it is "the oldest two-story adobe building in Mohave County," having been built in 1902.

That may be true, but it is actually much better known as the honeymoon hideout where Clark Gable and Carole Lombard spent their wedding night in 1939. They were looking for someplace remote, to escape from their fans and the press, and Oatman, Arizona, was about as remote as you could get.

Oatman Hotel, Saloon and Restaurant
Inside the Oatman Hotel Restaurant. Visitors are encouraged to write their name and home town on a dollar bill, and tack it on the wall. Locals estimate that over 20,000 bills cover the walls and ceiling.
Sitgreaves Pass
Rising from the ashes - Cool Springs Camp.
The Olive Oatman Saloon, named after the daughter of a couple from Illinois who were killed by Apaches. Olive was taken prisoner, and made a slave for most of her life, eventually rescued, and lived here for a while.
Located on Historic Route 66, the old hotel is listed in the National Historical Building Registry, and is also a favorite destination of modern-day ghost hunters, hoping for a glimpse of its resident poltergeist, "Oatie." Oatie was a gold miner from Ireland who lived in the hotel during the town's gold rush days. Many people claim to have seen Oatie in his old room upstairs, or downstairs at his favorite stool at the bar in the early morning hours. In honor of his heritage, the town still holds a birthday party for him every St. Patrick's Day.

For $35 you can spend the night here, and for $10 extra, you can even have Oatie's old room. For you romantics, the Gable/Lombard "honeymoon suite" is also available, for a mere $45. I wouldn't suggest it, though, as nothing much has been changed in the room since 1939, and that may even include the sheets.          

Next to the bar is the restaurant, complete with a dance floor dominated by an antique Harley-Davidson. Live music is provided daily by Dale Thompson, who is practically as much a fixture here as Oatie was. My wife and I ordered the house special "Wild Buffalo Burger," ($6.95) plus side orders of "Burro Ears" ($2.95). The menu is quick to note, however, that "no burros were harmed in the making of these ears!" The buffalo meat has an unusual, tangy taste that neither of us found at all unpleasant, and I ordered an extra helping of the crispy potato "ears," I liked them so much.

Oatman is famous for the wild burros that roam the streets at all hours, and who have, in fact, legal right-of-way here by local edict. So if one blocks your bike, just be patient. Honking, yelling, or trying to move him out of your way in any fashion will get you a talking-to from the local sheriff.

The Oatman Hotel Restaurant is a popular motorcyclist's hangout, catering to both the road riders who pass through here in droves, and to a large contingent of dirt-bike riders who play in the mountains surrounding the town. Oatman is such a popular bikers' destination, in fact, that the Mohave County Chapter of ABATE makes this their regular meeting place. The ride east out of town on Route 66 will quickly tell you why.          

The very moment you leave the town (which is only about two blocks long), the road starts heading up, into Sitgreaves Pass (3556') on one of the oldest and best-known sections of Historic Route 66, called "The Gold Road." Along this stretch, you will see the ruins of literally dozens of old, abandoned gold mines. Note the extremely-low speed signs in the corners, and take them seriously. This route features more potentially-dangerous switchbacks than just about any road this side of the infamous "Dragon" of Deal's Gap. Runoff from rains and snowmelt often leave piles of loose sand and gravel in the worst possible locations, and numerous repairs from landslides have left treacherous "tar snakes." I'm not trying to scare you away--the riding and the scenery up here are fantastic--but one needs to be cautious, and ride conservatively. This pass was considered so gnarly back in the 1920s and `30s, that several locals made a good living by offering to tow tourists' cars through it, or to drive it for them, while they cowered in the back seat.

This section of Route 66 is actually "known" to millions of people, yet they don't recognize it. This is the area referred to in Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath" as "The Mother Road," and it was here, looking down from Sitgreaves Pass, that Pa Joad made the comment that the mountains, "look like the bones of a country." See if you don't agree.

As the road crosses over to the canyon leading down into the desert, you will pass a Route 66 landmark, the Cool Springs Camp. This was just a pile of rubble for many years, marking where a famous store and gas station once stood, but had burned to the ground in 1966. A couple from Chicago have been rebuilding Cool Springs for several years now, and it's worth a stop to visit the little gift shop and museum they're putting in here.          

Following Route 66 down into the desert, it will eventually come to I-40. Don't get on it. Pass underneath, and follow the signs to the north and east, to stay on Route 66. This will take you up the old Santa Fe railroad gorge into Kingman in just a few miles, and is a much more pleasant ride than the Interstate. Arriving at the first stop sign, follow Route 66 to the east, for less than a mile, and look for a bright pink-and-turquoise building. This is Mr D'z, one of the few remaining, original (okay, renovated) Route 66 diners. Stop here if you're hungry, but even if not, I'd suggest a quick stop for a mug of their home-brewed root beer to wash away the dust of the road.

Now, turn back the way you came, through the stoplight, and then follow Highway 93 out of Kingman, up and through Coyote Pass. This is a wide, four-lane highway, as it is part of the main route to Las Vegas. But our loop only going to stay on it for a short couple of miles, exiting to the right so we can turn left (west) on Highway 68, heading to Golden Valley. The other side of the valley, our loop climbs up Union Pass, for more great scenery as it heads down to Davis Dam and the Colorado River Valley. This is the route to the gambling town of Laughlin, but our loop is going to bypass the traffic and glitz, then turn south on the Needles Highway and going around Laughlin to the west. This is a picture-postcard ride alongside the Colorado River, toward Needles, California (you know, home of Spike, Snoopy's brother, from Peanuts!).          

But we're not going to Needles today. Instead, about six miles south of Laughlin, look for a large, lighted sign that says "Avi Resort," and turn toward the river (east). This is the Aha Macav Parkway, and when it takes you down to the resort on the river and bends south, turn west at the stop sign onto Aztec Road, which will take you over a new bridge on the Colorado River. As soon as you get to the Arizona side, immediately turn south on the Arizona Parkway (which also has some old road signs marking it as "Oatman Road"). This will "T" in a couple of miles, and you want to turn east again. Now, depending on which road signs or map you want to believe, you are either on Oatman Road, Highway 53, or Boundary Cone Road. No matter. Stay on it, and you'll reconnect with Route 66, right back into Oatman.

The total loop is 105 miles, but it will take you a good three to four hours to traverse, and along the way, you'll encounter more Americana than you can shake a stick at. The Oatman Hotel is located at 181 Main Street, Oatman, AZ 86433; phone (928) 768-4408, and they are open Monday through Friday from 11 a.m to 5 p.m., Saturday and Sunday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Parties of six or more should call ahead for reservations, and all major credit cards are accepted.

 

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