Visit tiny Oatman, Ariz., and you’re likely to make friends right away — of the four-legged variety, that is. (Tame) wild burros freely wander the streets of this former gold-mining town, situated where the states of Nevada, California and Arizona meet.
These gentle burros are both tolerant and assertive. Either give them those carrots you bought in one of the souvenir stores or hide them in your pocket because these animals will stick by your side until you give up their favorite treat. (Don’t feed the young ones; they’ll choke.)
The town of Oatman once claimed a population of 3,500, according to resident Jody Parker, one of about 150 today. The North Carolina trucker moved here eight years ago with his wife “because we found the perfect house at the perfect price.” He waits on patrons at the Olive Oatman Restaurant, named after the woman whose harrowing adventure as a young girl captured the nation’s attention in the 1860s. A picture of her tattooed face hangs on the restaurant wall.
Details of Olive’s story vary a bit according to sources, but here’s one version:
In 1851, Olive was traveling with her parents and six siblings across Arizona to settle in California, but a group of Apache Indians (some say it was the Yavapai) killed the mother, father and four children. Fourteen-year-old Lorenzo survived despite a severe beating to the head, and 16-year-old Olive and 11-year-old Mary Ann were kidnapped and made to walk for days — shoeless — back to the Apache camp.
For a year, the girls were treated as slaves, then sold to a Mojave tribe. Mary Ann died of starvation a couple of years later.
In 1856, Lorenzo, through efforts of a third party, was reunited with Olive. She was barely recognizable, by accounts of the day. Her skin was dark from sun exposure, and she had blue facial tattoos — a Mojave custom. A book about her experience became a bestseller of its time.
The saga became known as the Oatman Massacre, and there is controversy about why the town was named. Some sources claim the reunification of Olive and Lorenzo took place near the town, but most accounts say that happened near Yuma. There also are accounts of frequent visits by Hollywood’s Clark Gable because he liked to gamble, and a story about Gable and his bride, Carole Lombard, spending their honeymoon in Oatman. However, according to one history buff who wants to get it right, this is all legend.
Controversy aside, Oatman is a good destination when you need a break from the blackjack tables at Laughlin (about 45 minutes away). Oatman sits at 2,700 feet, so is often cooler than the desert floor. The gold mines in surrounding hills were shut down in 1942, and today Oatman survives on the tourist dollar. The destination is especially popular with the RV crowd and bikers who sometimes rumble into town by the hundreds during high season (October through April).
A huge part of the mystique of Oatman is that the original Route 66 goes through the heart of town, where you can quench your thirst, cool off with an ice cream, enjoy lunch and buy souvenirs from shops with names like Fast Fanny’s, Outlaw Willy’s, the Classy Ass and Ace in the Hole.
Then there is the annual Great Oatman Bed Race, held in January, “when the streets are overflowing,” Parker said. That festival includes the Chamber Pot Parade (spectators and participants encouraged to wear pajamas), toilet seat toss and burro-calling contest.
But mostly, Oatman is just a much appreciated respite from the slot machines and a breath of fresh air.
E’Louise Ondash is a veteran, award-winning journalist who was an investigative reporter, feature writer and columnist for the Times Advocate and the North County Times. She has written travel features for The Coast News since 2003.