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You'll get panhandled (by burros) and shot at (by fake bad guys) in Oatman, a Route 66 town that's a triumph of reinvention

You'll get panhandled (by burros) and shot at (by fake bad guys) in Oatman, a Route 66 town that's a triumph of reinvention
Wild burros roam the streets in the Historic Route 66 town of Oatman, Ariz. The burros are descended from pack animals turned loose by early prospectors and are now protected under federal law. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

If you don't divine from the signs that you're on Route 66, the souvenirs will tell you.

In Needles near the Arizona border, the road sign at my first exit was one I'd see often on my journey: Historic Route 66.

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I pulled into a gas station to fuel up. The store was filled with tchotchkes and souvenirs — magnets, bumper stickers, postcards and T-shirts — all emblazoned with the iconic black-and-white Route 66 crowned road sign. Route 66 posters lined the bathroom walls.

Welcome to the Mother Road.

Under a "mechanic on duty" sign, a park bench offered a moment's rest and a panoramic view of the Black Mountains, the first destination of my Route 66 road trip.

One of a pair of 10-mph hairpin turns on Oatman Highway, near the summit of Sitgreaves Pass on Historic Route 66 near Oatman, Ariz.
One of a pair of 10-mph hairpin turns on Oatman Highway, near the summit of Sitgreaves Pass on Historic Route 66 near Oatman, Ariz. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

I asked mechanic Rick East for directions and he pointed northeast to a ring of craggy mountains about 20 miles away, cloaked in a light haze.

"See that hump? That's Oatman," East, a native of Gallup, N.M., said of the Arizona town.

"It's crazy; 66 used to run up there."

Indeed it still does — for travelers who are still willing to make the journey. I wasn't sure I was.

Caryn Waldron tends bar at the Oatman Hotel Restaurant & Saloon, which is covered with dollar bills
Caryn Waldron tends bar at the Oatman Hotel Restaurant & Saloon, which is covered with dollar bills (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Oatman has "boomtown" in its blood. It was once a mining camp for gold seekers. Then it became a ballyhooed stop on Route 66.

In 1953, the music stopped. A bypass was built that seemed destined to kill it off.

Oatman reinvented itself again, this time as a Wild West town.

Today, covered wooden walkways flank both sides of Main Street, where nearly every shop caters to tourists.

They are accompanied by wild burros, which are more wily than wild. Their goal: Look adorable and score a hay cube or carrots, which you buy for them.

But the day I was there, they weren't biting. Something must have been amiss with my batch of hay chunks because they ate them, then spat them out.

Maybe they were full. They certainly should have been. The tourists feed them all day long.

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If you get tired of the burros, you can turn to the bad guys, the highlight of any visit to Oatman.

The faux Wild West shootout on the weekends is action-packed and loud. But when it comes to promoting the town, the bad guys are good guys, part of a volunteer group that serves as a de facto tourism bureau. They mill around town mixing with visitors and posing for photos before the showdown.

And for comic relief, the burros are apt to wander in, stealing the scene.

You'll want to stop in the Oatman Hotel & Saloon, if not for the buffalo burger then for a gander at the $140,000 in dollar bills that line the walls.

Miners would fork over a buck and swill till it was gone. The barkeep kept the bill, scrawling a name across it.

Dusk falls on the Black Mountains along Route 66 in Cool Springs, Ariz.
Dusk falls on the Black Mountains along Route 66 in Cool Springs, Ariz. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

I was a little apprehensive about leaving Oatman because the Oatman-Topock Highway, an old Route 66 alignment, looked like a squiggly series of switchbacks that might spell an early end to my journey.

The narrow two-lane road atop sheer cliffs leaves little room for error, at several spots dropping off hundreds of feet into a rocky abyss.

I was so anxious that I strongly considered a roundabout route to Kingman using Interstate 40.

A parking lot attendant allayed some of my fears with this sage advice: Stick to the speed limit — 10 to 15 mph in places — and you'll be fine.

I figured if early Route 66 travelers had braved the road in old jalopies, my Honda Civic could certainly handle the 45-minute drive.

Memorial crosses along Oatman Highway near the summit of Sitgreaves Pass on Historic Route 66 near Oatman, Ariz.
Memorial crosses along Oatman Highway near the summit of Sitgreaves Pass on Historic Route 66 near Oatman, Ariz. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

After a few white-knuckled miles, I pulled off at an overlook. The rocky point offered a spectacular view of the rugged mountainside, a few shadows dappling the jagged desertscape from the clouds above.

My tension eased as the hairpin turns gave way to a more sedate course.

When the road finally straightened out, I pulled off at the lonely Cool Springs Station Museum, a stone building housing a gift shop filled with Route 66 memorabilia.

I soon found myself crouching down in the middle of the road that so recently terrified me, trying to snap a photo of the Route 66 shield painted on the pavement with the Cool Springs building in the background.

Fortunately the traffic was sporadic to nonexistent, and the road ahead was waiting for me.

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