The shattered wall of a bathroom stall says Stop Making Excuses in big blue paint. Beer bottles everywhere, their labels bleached by the desert sun. Skateboard fragments, condom wrappers, little amber vials and empty dime baggies. Bruce Lee’s head attached to the body of a zebra. The names and dates of young lovers: Jay + Jessica, 2009. Alex + Jodi, 2010. Are they still together? Outside, the empty swimming pool’s drain sits between a woman’s crudely drawn legs, weeds spilling out of the grates. Hot pink letters say Fucking is Freedom. And around the corner in purple and green bubble letters: Love Wins.
Welcome to Two Guns, Arizona. You’ll find it near mile marker 230 on present-day Interstate 40; this is the highway that wiped out a big chunk of Route 66 in the early 1960s, strangling countless towns along “America’s Main Street” that were not blessed with an exit ramp. For three years, the government explored the possibility of using an atomic bomb to excavate the path for I-40, which probably would have killed even more small towns.
Two Guns was always a dark and weird tourist trap, beginning when Earl Cundiff purchased these thirty-two acres for $1000 in 1922, named the area “Canyon Lodge” and built a house, trading post, restaurant, gas station, and garage along the ridge. Business was good and it got even better four years later when the National Trail Highway was rechristened as Route 66. Automobile traffic increased dramatically and Cundiff leased his land to Henry “Two Gun” Miller, a veteran of the Spanish-American War who called himself “Chief Crazy Thunder” and loved a good fistfight. Miller promptly changed the outpost’s name to “Two Guns” and built a zoo for his mountain lions, installed a swimming pool, and opened a curio shop that sold fragments of Apache skulls. A few months later, Miller and Cundiff argued about the terms of the lease. Miller shot Cundiff dead.
In addition to mountain lions, the brick and chicken-wire zoo housed cougars, snakes, Gila monsters, porcupines, panthers, bobcats, and dozens of rare birds. Two Guns passed from owner to owner over the years, nobody holding onto it for long. One owner was committed to an insane asylum; another fled in the middle of the night, running from the law.
Chaos is your new lady, says the graffiti inside the old restaurant. Written across the door: Big Fat Fake Boobs Are Human Visual Marketing. Also: Fuck Your Car. Nearly every inch of Two Guns is covered in spray-paint, much of it giving off a weary computer-age Dada vibe. In the old garage: Fashion Pixels are Made with Botox. Bongs made from plastic soda bottles and wrinkled porn magazines fill the corners. These beaten and vandalized towns are the bloodshot eyes of America. Dig these crumbling buildings, pick through the litter, listen to the sound of your shoes crunching broken glass, and you get a vivid snapshot of how the nation will look when things fall apart. Read the writing on the walls. Near the old lion cage, a very neat and compact cursive script says “You did this to us.” This is America muttering to itself late at night in the kitchen before stumbling off to bed. The allure of places like Two Guns is that they feel like prophecy: this is how the world might look if civilization ever came undone. But it hasn’t. Not yet. So you look around and wonder what the hell happened here, how it got to be like this.
Quite a lot happened here. In 1870, forty Apaches were captured by the Navajo and burned alive. The Apache “death cave” was eventually rebranded as a family-friendly “mystery cave” and trinkets and soft drinks were sold to tourists. Then a murder in 1926, followed by countless arguments, fistfights, land grabs, and lawsuits. The mysterious disappearance of a Mexican treasure hunter whose bones were dug up by a coyote one year later. A bullet hole in his skull. Fires and explosions that burned buildings to the ground. For a few years, a caretaker lived on the property to shoo away trespassers but he vanished in 2008, leaving behind only a crumpled trailer. Today a Christian motorcycle club uses the old service station as a clubhouse. A wooden cross hangs above the door and motorcycle magazines and tools are stacked neatly on the shelves. And out near the swimming pool and crumbling restaurant, teenagers continue to get drunk on cheap wine, dreaming of love and anarchy among our modern ruins.
“Watch out for me” is written on the restaurant floor. Somebody spray-painted the Golden Rule near the swimming pool. Perhaps Two Guns is the logical extension of our sprawling and disposable culture, the echo of Morrison singing that all the children are insane back in 1966 when towns like this first hit the skids. Here, nagging unspoken truths are vividly illustrated in concrete, wood, and graffiti: Nothing lasts forever. Memory is short. Life is unfair. Unplugged and off-the-grid, Two Guns is an honest and spiritual place — the only shelter amid endless desert with clouds that cast rolling shadows on the yellow land. And it’s dead silent, save for the ambient wash of distant truck traffic on the highway.
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For more snapshots of America, buy my first book, The Road to Somewhere: An American Memoir (W.W. Norton, 2011).