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Rediscovering Oatman

By Jordyne Neminske
Photos by Jordyne Neminske

By now, nothing could surprise me. We’d spent forty-five minutes on the road only to see a lot of dirt and little life. Then again, what else would you expect when living in the desert?

We yielded for burros, which added ten minutes to the drive. And here I was thinking about other things I would rather be doing than waiting for the dusty animals to stop right in front of my car and take there sweet time getting out of the way. Sure, I’m being cynical, but you try being happy when it’s 110 degrees outside and it’s not even eight o’clock yet. Everyone knows that the burros are an essential to Oatman, Arizona, and if this was any indication of how my day was going to pan out, then I knew this trip wouldn’t make my top ten fondest memories.

Luckily, we arrived early enough to park in the street, saving us a killer walk uphill. For not only my sake but everyone else’s, I tried putting the thought that “it’s not all bad” in my head. This really can’t be too bad, can it? I looked to my left and saw my sister’s expression. She’s eight now so I thought some of her excitement would fade, but the smile plastered on her face was unwavering and that was enough to prove me wrong. I remember a time when I too felt excited to spend a day here in this dusty, rickety, old mining town. Now, all I saw was chipped paint, rotting wood, and knick-knacks that would be cool to have until you realize that they would only take up space. She was seeing history under a cloudless sky. Her mind was reeling with theories of the town’s origin and possibilities for the town’s future. Just her smile alone was enough to motivate me. Now was I was determined; I was here to rediscover Oatman.

Our day started with breakfast. There were only two restaurants in all of Oatman and they were both always packed. My family and I chose to eat at the “Dollar Diner” as we had nicknamed it many visits ago. The walls are covered in dollar bills, some of the bills having been drawn on. While one part of me thought they could tear all of them down and buy a new town, another part of me thought about how unique it was. Where else in Northern Arizona would I find a diner like this one? The thought brought a smile to my face.

After eating, we walked around. My mom held my sister’s hand protectively, putting herself between her and a very hungry burro. The brown, somewhat smelly, animal sniffed at my mom.

“Here you go,” an elderly woman said, giving my mom a bag of donkey food, “we were just on our way out.” The small act of kindness came as a shock to me. Very rarely will you see people give away donkey food away simply because it was thirty dollars a bag.

“Thank you,” Mother said, giving her a grateful smile. She took the bag and very slowly put the cube of grass in the palm of her hand. She extended it out to the burro who took it without really waiting for her to reach any farther. My sister laughed and reached to run her hand over its coarse coat. A cloud of dirt puffed up when her hand made contact, but it was just what we all needed to start off our day.

Oatman consists of one wide road. Shops sat on the left and right. The buildings are undoubtedly old and the wooden deck looked like it would snap in half under all the weight of people walking on it. Each store had trinkets on display out front, making the walkway ever more narrow than it was before. Nothing was there to stop the burros from walking on the deck either, so there was rarely any room to walk in the shade. If you weren’t up on the deck, you were forced to walk in the dirt where people were constantly driving by.

We walked up and down the stretch a few times, stopping more than once to feed or pet a donkey. Each store we went into brought a friendly conversation with the owners. We found out that some people that lived here, residing in the houses on top of the hill, and then others who would take the long commute to work. I thought it interesting just how many people loved spending every single day here, and here I was throwing a mental fit over spending just a few hours here. Looking back at it now, I realize that it was silly and I was happy to clean up my act sooner rather than later.

At some point my mom and I made it up the hill, leaving my dad and sister behind to get us water. By now it was ten o’clock and we were all sweating. I personally felt like I was going to melt but wherever I looked, I found something to take my mind off of it.

Eventually we made it into the closed off mine. It took me much convincing, but after a while of deep thought, I took a breath and put one foot in front of the other. It was pitch black except for one very small beam of light that squeezed through a crack in the rock. We walked down the path hand and hand. Usually it takes a little more to scare me, but this mine had me thoroughly freaked out. The creaking under my feet made me feel like I was going to fall. With the flashlight of my phone, I was able to see the spider webs in the corners. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see a hand reaching out of the rocks. I jumped. I nearly knocked my mom over which, of course, made her laugh. “Oh relax, Chicken. It’s fake.” Of course I knew it was fake, but that on top of my severe claustrophobia and the eerie feeling of the mine was enough to give me a heart attack.

Once I had a good scare, I realized that it wasn’t that bad. The floor under me felt hollow and the twists and turns made me a little nervous, but it was my first time being in the mine and overall it was really cool. There was a display of hats in the front and on the outside was the rest of the “body” sticking out from the rocks. Now that I was outside and breathing in the good air again, I knew that it was a little funnier than I thought before. I explored the hill a little more, taking into account the little hidden shops that didn’t actually have air conditioned but were set up under tarps. Even these people looked happy to be out and enjoying the day.

We found the other half of our group in the crowds, watching the gunfight. The gunfight was a more comical show than anything. They hold it every weekend, but this was my first time seeing it. While I was standing there and watching, I realized a few things. Sure, after going to Oatman as many times as I had, it had lost its effect on me. Today though, I witnessed something new while also finding the beauty I had once seen. I saw more history but I also saw how happy everyone was to be a part of that history.

On the ride home, I dwelled on this. It wasn’t a water park or Disneyland by any means, but it was history held close to home and that’s important. Approximately half of a million people travel to visit Oatman every single year and I definitely saw why. The town itself was humble but it packed a punch. There were a few bumps along the way, but overall, it was something that I’ll never forget. Nothing will be like your first time visiting, but a close second is the trip you take when you feel the need to rediscover Oatman, Arizona.

Getting to Oatman

Oatman is a living ghost town located about 30 miles southwest of Kingman along county highway 10. Click here for directions from Kingman.

Jordyne Neminske

Jordyne Neminske is currently a junior at River Valley High School in Mohave Valley, Arizona where you will find her either reading a good book or writing her own stories.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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