This is one in a series of entries recounting the 2009 trip that Phil Rose and I took to the desert. We are hoping to fund another such trip; for more details or to help out, please check out our Kickstarter. The beautiful photography present in these posts is courtesy of my friend, the very talented Phil Rose.
We’ve discussed some of the dead places along Route 66, abandoned by progress, and in fact those places were some of my favorites on this leg of the trip. There was an intimacy about them, a silence and a feeling of timeless communion, not unlike the feeling one might have in a graveyard. Except these places were the graveyards of communities rather than of people; of tiny microcosms with slightly distinct cultures all their own at one point. Post-industrial era ghost towns.
But not all of the towns were left to whither in the dust of the Interstate System. There are a few towns along the old highway that managed to survive. Williams, AZ was where we first set the wheels of the rental car on the old highway, and it was saved from desolation by the last minute addition of three exits to I-40. This maintained the town’s connection to the highway system even after 66 was decommissioned. We hit Williams still prickling from the surreality of Bedrock City, and we stopped here mostly to look at trains.
Williams was once a stop on the old Santa Fe Railway, and retains both of its old railway stations, one of which is now a sort of small visitor center and museum. We didn’t bother with that, though, as I recall… we looked at the trains.
The town hosted what seemed like hundreds of old train engines, of every description, size, and age. Some of them were the old steam engines, with the big chimney on the top like you used to see in Bugs Bunny cartoons. The trains were all sitting on tracks in this huge railyard, and it seemed as though you could get lost among them.
We also passed through Seligman, AZ. Seligman is a town without a connection to I-40, that has struggled to survive on a dwindling tourism trade brought in by historic Route 66. Seligman, I found out later, is the town that Radiator Springs, the town in the movie Cars, is based on. This explained the old cars at the diner we stopped at with the huge cartoon eyes drawn on the windshields.
Seligman is like a high school girl who’s been stood up for Prom, but is trying to have the best time she can anyway. There are colorful buildings and outrageous displays of mannequins and classic cars… the goal being to entice adventurers traveling down the old highway to stop and leave some of their dollars behind. We did stop, and we walked along the sidewalks and looked at some of the shops. We stayed on the highway, but I anticipate that set back from the main road were duller, slightly more dire buildings. I have found that the brighter a city’s skin, the bleaker its internal workings.
We stopped at a burger stand that was essentially a trailer with a tiny kitchen, a counter, and a hallway for customers to stand and order in; they’d come in one door and exit through the one on the other end. The seating was all outdoors on a covered patio. The gentleman who ran this stand was charming and friendly, and he served me one of my favorite burgers that I’ve ever eaten.
When you order a green chile burger here in the northwest, you usually expect to receive something covered in a green chile sauce, or at the most with a dollop of chopped, roasted chiles. This burger was topped with a roasted, seeded, and peeled chile, just the whole thing lying across the patty. It was smokey and fruity and wonderful, topped with a slab of jack cheese. As I bit into it, the creaminess of the cheese, then the slight resistance and heat of the chile, and then the tenderness of the burger… it was one of those transcendent food experiences. It seared the green chile burger into my mind indelibly.
After leaving Seligman, we passed through most of our dead towns along the old highway, stayed overnight in Kingman, and set back out on the highway out to Oatman, AZ. Oatman was an old mining town that, rather than dying away when the mines shut down, turned to the tourism trade. It kept the city alive until Route 66 was decertified and Oatman was completely bypassed, no longer able to siphon wealth from travelers flowing from Kingman to Needles, CA. By 1960, the town was essentially abandoned.
It has evidently experienced a revitalization of late, due to the renewed interest in Route 66 as a tourist destination. At least, it was mobbed with people when we were there. Mobbed with people, and with donkeys.
We saw the donkeys at first in the hillsides and scrub when we were driving in along the Oatman Highway. They’re descendents of the pack animals used by early prospectors back when Oatman was a mining town. They’re wild now, but accustomed to being fed by hand, and they wander the streets of Oatman in such great numbers that it can be difficult to get a car through the town.
So we parked and went by foot.
My impressions of Oatman were of desperate commerce, donkeys, and white dust. The dust clung to everything and it made the whole down seem the same shade of grey. Every shop in town seemed to sell carrots and feed for tourists to sell to the donkeys, and yes I bought some and yes, I fed the donkeys. Sweet animals… even though they’re feral, they will still let you touch them. There was a man with a huge banner who was selling Sham-WOW towels, he seemed deliriously out of place in a town built of adobe and wooden boards and old wagon wheels.