Neophilia, Route 66, and the Burros of Oatman
“What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything.” ~Vincent van Gogh
It’s good for us to step out of our daily routines, to do something different, something new. There’s even a term for it: Neophilia… “enthusiasm for what is new.” Trying new things is a great way for you to be kind to yourself.
According to research, people who try new things live longer and are happier. When we try new things we create brand new neural pathways for those new situations. Our brain releases dopamine, which makes us happier.
When you try new things, you can:
Improve your mood
Increase your memory
Learn new skills
Expand opportunities in your life
Armed with this knowledge, my husband and I decided to be neophiliacs and take a trip to historic Oatman, Arizona. What’s so special about that? You’ll see…
Oatman, Arizona is a ghost town. About 100 residents remain. It’s accessible only by the old Route 66 through the Black Mountains, up over Sitgreaves Pass. It’s main (and famous) inhabitants? Wild burros.
There’s an irony in those wild burros. More than 100 years ago their ancestors were lowered into mine shafts, never to return to the surface. They hauled gold ore, water, and supplies for the miners.
Founded about 1902, by 1931 Oatman had produced 1.8 million ounces of gold from those mines. That’s about 3.5 billion dollars today. 💰
But by the 1930’s the mining boom in Oatman was over. In 1942 the last mines were closed and the remaining burros were left to wander into the wild to fend for themselves. Like the mines, they were “non-essential”.
Yet today, those wild burros are the only things keeping Oatman alive. They wander the main (only) road in Oatman, nudging tourists who feed them with hay pellets out of paper lunch sacks. Yup, people come from all over the world to feed the burros in Oatman. Shops filled with trinkets and paper sacks of hay pellets line the only street, their survival dependent upon tourists who come to feed the burros.
Being a neophiliac can be fun, but driving to Oatman isn’t for the faint of heart. The treacherous, winding Oatman Highway (I use the term highway very loosely), which is also the old Route 66, is the only way into Oatman.
On the way up, bits of decayed road have caved in, narrowing the crumbling pavement and increasing the scream factor around 10mph hairpin turns that drop sharply into the canyon below. Guardrails? They must not have been invented yet. Would this be a good time to tell you that I have acrophobia?
One view point, one small turnout… are the only escape routes if you need a break from the 23 mile road into Oatman. One road in, one road out of Oatman, a ghost town that refuses to die.
Was it worth it? For the trinkets? Not so much. For the burros? You bet.
Despite signs that said, “Beware. Burros may bite and kick”, they were gentle and… hopeful. I might even say they were kind. Maybe they knew their purpose… to keep the ghost town of Oatman alive.
The drive back from Oatman… down through the Black Mountains was easier. For the most part, we were on the “mountain’ side.
At that small turnout, 6 burros were being fed by a couple from the back of their jeep. We pulled over. The jeep was open, loaded with alfalfa and water. We chatted. They lived nearby. They were neophiliacs, too. They had decided to drive up Oatman Highway to feed and care for the burros that were still trying to make it in the wild. They made the drive every day.
They told us about the burros, how to best care for them, how to help them when they were injured, and what they should eat. They taught. We learned. We fed the burros.
Being a neophiliac doesn’t mean you have to brave the crumbling roads of Route 66 to Oatman. It could be simpler. Much simpler. Maybe a hike in the woods. Or a new recipe. Or a phone call to an old friend. Anything to get that dopamine flowing. Enjoy the journey.
May your week be filled with kindness. 💜
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This is great! Trying new things is one of the joys of life, and reading about someone's adventure is fun too. Thank you for sharing! I of course enjoy watching documentaries set in nature that take me on a wild adventure from the comfort of my home. Two that come to mind are: "Addicted to Life (Nuit de la Glisse)" (2014):
and "March of the Penguins" (2005):
You've encouraged me with this post to look for more documentaries that explore nature. Thanks!
I sure do love this story, Heather. I will never be described as a neophiliac, but if it weren't for that horrendous road and the fact that I am as old as dirt, I would love to visit those donkeys. Survivors! Your article allowed me to be there - to see, touch, smell, feed them. Thank you for the vicarious pleasure. I loved the idea of a " scream factor". Keep up the good work!