Burros invading a shop

The Grand Tour 21: The Funkiest and Saddest Towns of our Trip

This entry is part 21 of 22 in the series Grand Tour

May 18, 2018: Peach Springs to Lake Havasu City: If there is one thing that you can say about eccentrics, whether ordinary or deliberate, they seem a happy lot. The places that are just in it for the money can sometimes seem desperately sad. 

The Grand Canyon caverns motel has clearly decided that it does not have to try very hard in the food department, and it shows in the breakfast. Bread, cereal, muffins, coffee, orange juice, and something they call fruit salad, by which they mean someone opened a tin of sliced peaches in a tin of sliced pears, put them into a bowl, and stuck in a serving spoon. Your options are zero, so be grateful for the spoon.

Peach Springs to Lake Havasu City

The terrain is rolling west of Grand Canyon Caverns and it is dressed in typical Arizona yellow and dusty green. We soon enter the Hualapai reservation, but there is none of the Indian craft tackiness that we saw on entering the Navajo territory. The town of Peach Springs itself looks neat and modern at first glance but then you notice that several of the newer looking buildings are boarded up. Down the road Anna notice is a large modern looking Adobe style house that is also boarded up. All of the towns along this stretch of Route 66 suffered when Interstate 40 opened, leaving them off the beaten path. Boarded up buildings are common enough in such towns, but those are generally the old and the tumbledown. It is a puzzle, therefore, to see seemingly new buildings boarded up here.

Hackberry has the Hackberry General Store, founded by Route 66 artist-in-residence Bob Waldmire. We pass a few minutes before opening, but don’t stop to wait. It looks like the typical park-junk-outside-and-put-up-a-route-66-sign sort of place that was charming 2000 miles ago but has lost its power to please at this stage of the trip. Besides, Oatman awaits with a whole new kind of funky weirdness.

But first, Kingman, yet another heart-of-old-Route-66 town. We skip the historical district—we know by now that this means a row of gift shops in old buildings and after Williams we don’t expect it to be done differently. We are also pretty confident that, by this point, we have seen every Route 66 souvenir ever made and the only difference here will be that the hats and T-shirts will say Kingman on them.

We do go to the museum, however. This is a professionally curated museum, meaning it is long on interpretation and short on artifacts. It is a museum of the modern Ikea model where you are directed from room to room in chronological order which here, as everywhere else, means covered wagon to railway to Dust Bowl to the 50s to the Interstate. It is well enough done to entertain for an hour or so and it is refreshing that tail fins and neon don’t dominate here as much as they do elsewhere.

There is also a collection of electric cars—for no discernible reason—which includes Willie Nelson’s Rolls Royce and Mercedes themed golf carts. This is just a collection. There is no curation or interpretation. Some of the vehicles have small placards on them and some don’t. Basically it is just a garage that does not smell of motor oil.

This combination of professionalism and randomness is part of the charm of larger small towns. Serendipity and excellence are not common bedfellows, and this electric car museum has nothing to recommend it other than as an example of the ordinary eccentricity of Route 66. But as the gift shops become ever more predictable, every little bit of eccentricity is welcome.

And speaking of eccentricity, onto Oatman. As we leave Kingman and cross over the Interstate with our nose pointed towards some low but gnarly looking mountains, we at last start to see something more like a real desert , by which I mean an Easterner’s mental image of a desert, by which I mean sand has replaced yellow grass, though the sparse shrubs remain. Desert scenery

The color scheme isn’t much different, still dusty green dots on a dusty yellow backdrop, but there is the addition of the occasional cactus. Other than the low lying patches along the rim trail at Grand Canyon we have not seen cactus this trip. These are still not the tall traffic-policeman cactus of the type featured on the Arizona license plates, but something smaller and less animated that appears to be in bloom—though if it is blooms we are seeing, they are blooms of a kind of dusty yellow that seems drawn from the same limited palette as the rest of the desert. As this description betrays, we have become a little jaded with the landscape, and all our hopes for novelty are fixed on Oatman.

But the real novelty, the real highlight of the day comes before Oatman, as we approach the gnarly mountains before us. The first novelty is that there are no bridges over the washes here. You come upon a sign that says do not enter when flooded and the road takes a sudden dip down and you are driving across the bottom of the wash. It is exactly like the way Google Maps satellite view will sometimes warp a bridge down into the bottom of a gorge, except here it is a feature, not a bug. Some of these washes are pretty wide and deep and it is easy to imagine the force and the volume of water that flows through them when it rains. These are not fords, in short, the road simply crosses the bed of a river that usually isn’t there, but which might sweep you away in a heartbeat when it was in flood. There are about a dozen or so such wash crossings between Kingman and Topok, but I don’t remember seeing a single bridge.

Next we start twisting up the Sitgreaves Pass. This is the real novelty, the real highlight of the day. In my Miata days, I sought out twisty roads, but this beats them all. Not that you would want to attack it in a sporting fashion. You would never have a chance to get up much speed anyway. And you can never see far enough ahead to know what’s coming. Most scenic drives are a raw deal for the driver because you have to keep eyes ahead, but here the road twists around on itself so much that the driver is facing most of the scenery at some point.

Sitgreaves Pass

Anna suggest stopping at one of the overlooks to take in some of the dramatic valley scenes below, but that never works for me. I have to move through a landscape to enjoy it. But if someone wants to drive me through the Sitgreaves Pass as a passenger so that I can see any bits I missed in driving it, I’m up for it. At one point Anna wonders if anyone would be dumb enough to bring a Winnebago through this road. Sure enough what comes around the bend in the opposite direction? I have to pull off the pavement to let the monstrosity past. The driver waves. If he thought the gesture I was making was a wave, he was mistaken. I was actually tapping my temple with my index finger.

Fortunately I don’t come up behind one of these intrepid souls. In fact, I am blessed that I am not held up by anyone, nor am I holding anyone else up, for my entire journey through the pass. As a driver, I hate to be in anyone’s way, which is a real risk when you are a tourist trying to find your way around an unfamiliar place. Winnebago drivers generally have no such compunction.

Only at the end of the twistys leaving Oatman does anyone come up behind me, a hot rod and a muscle car, both with broad white racing stripes, and clearly traveling in convoy. Fortunately I get to a straight section just as they catch up to me and I’m able to slow down and wave them past.

Oatman is pretty much exactly as advertised. It is a real mining town (actually a mining camp, not a town, we are told) but it looks for all the world like a movie set, an impression only reinforced by the staged gunfights at noon and 2:30 PM which temporarily close the street — the street being the only through highway. The gunfight is played for laughs, with the robber trying to hold up an ATM. It is a bit of fun, but it is part of what makes it impossible to take Oatman seriously. But then, who is asking you to take it seriously?

Staged gunfight at Oatman

The shacks that line the twisting Main Street are authentic to their period— every one has a veranda covering a raised wooden sidewalk to keep feet out of what must have been a dirt or mud road back in the day. They are quaint, but their stock is exactly the same souvenirs as any other Route 66 souvenir shops, except that they have Oatman on the caps and T shirts. But there is one unique item here: the burros. You can get stuffed burros, China burros, burro T-shirts, burro hats, burros on everything. We pick up a stuffed burro that doubles as a purse as a gift for our youngest granddaughter.

The streets are, as advertised, full of burros. Burros seem to recognize the paper bags in which some stores sell burro food and will follow patiently behind anyone carrying one. Don’t put any kind of open bag down on the ground though, or it will have a burro’s nose in it PDQ. They also seem to recognize cameras and cell phones and quickly turn away from them, as if to say, “If you don’t have a paper bag, buddy, you ain’t getting a picture.”


Burros are obviously part of the draw here, but they are not universally popular with the local merchants. At one point, our way is blocked by a family of burros who are sticking their faces into one of the shops. The owner comes out and shoos them away with a firm swat of a broom. “You can go right by her”, she says to Anna, who is a little nervous about squeezing between the back end of a burro and the railing, “She won’t hurt you on my porch, she knows better.”

Burros invading a shop

My take away from this is the burro in question is a menace elsewhere, but this woman’s porch is sacred space where it can do no harm.

Outside several stores we see signs saying, “Do not feed donkeys outside this store.” One even adds, “Feed them outside the store where you bought the feed.” Many also have signs saying, “No burro food sold here.” One senses some tension at the chamber of commerce.

The burros, in any case, seem to be totally calm and harmless, even when their foals are with them. My sister got kicked in the head by a horse as a child because she got between the horse and her foal. Burro moms in Oatman seem to have no such protective urge. My theory is they just bring the kids to town to teach them how to tell the difference between a camera and a bag of burro food.

Needless to say, burro poop is everywhere in the streets of Oatman. Watch where you step. Be aware of your surroundings too. During the gun fight, one of the burros decided to have a pee, sending pedestrians darting out of range of the splashes. There are several gunshots during the gun fight. They are loud. The human spectators jump. The burros are completely unperturbed.

We have lunch in the Oatman Hotel. My last chance for a Navajo taco, which is wonderful. Why no one has built a fast-food chain based on this dish is a mystery. You owe me a commission if you become a billionaire with this idea.

Contra Delgadillo’s Snow Cone, and contra authenticity, the Oatman Hotel does not direct its patrons to outhouses but to proper toilets.

One of the mysteries of Route 66 is that many of its towns can be bustling with tourists—cars parked everywhere, shops so full you can’t move—yet the roads leading into and out of these towns are virtually deserted. Most travelers, I conclude, must arrive by tesseract. We were alone entering town, and alone leaving, though in town there were cars and people everywhere.

From Oatman the road twists down into a great yellow desert plain. The outside temperature gauge on the car climbs mile by mile from 26 degrees centigrade in Oatman to 35 degrees centigrade on the valley floor. The mountains on the other side of this valley are our first sight of California.

We passed through Golden Shores, one of the most sparse of the sparse desert towns, and into Topock and our first sight of the Columbia River since the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Then we were a mile above it; here, only a few feet. It is blue in a way you had almost forgotten a river could be blue. It is a relief, if you don’t think too much about the temperature gauge. Apparently the Dust Bowl refugees were ecstatic to see the Colorado after crossing New Mexico and Arizona, only to be bitterly disappointed when they entered California and had to cross the Mohave. It is easy to appreciate how they must have felt.

Here we turn east briefly on I 40 to pick up the road to Lake Havasu City, a detour partly because Anna could not find a hotel she liked in Needles, and partly because this is where London Bridge was moved to. Our hotel is 15 minutes’ walk from the bridge, but it is 35 degrees centigrade so we decide to visit it in the early morning before we begin our own journey across the Mohave. I trust we will have an easier time of it than the Joads did.

Not wanting to stick our faces outside in the heat we decided to eat at the Grill at the hotel. Our expectations were not high but the experience was still disappointing. This starts with entering through the bar and discovering that the bar has a betting window in it—something I don’t ever remember seeing before. Gambling is sad. The people who gamble are sad. The people behind the betting window are sad. Even the wan girl who shows us to our table seems sad. The food, needless to say, is sad. It is amazing to me that such a slovenly approach to food still exists. We have eaten in roadside shacks in the middle of desert zombie towns where they took food more seriously than here. This is the sort of place where you order the pasta because you hope that it comes out of a can. Tomorrow, California, and an even sadder culinary experience awaits us.

Series Navigation << The Grand Tour 20: Mannequins, Dinosaurs, and Fuzzy StarsThe Grand Tour 22: Grit, Grime, and Gouging in the Golden State >>
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