The shattered wall of a bathroom stall says Stop Making Excuses in chipper 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? 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. 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, 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. The government briefly explored the possibility of using an atomic bomb to excavate I-40’s path through California, which probably would have killed even more small towns.
Two Guns was always a dark stop along the road, beginning when Earl Cundiff purchased these thirty-two acres for $1000 in 1922. He named the area “Canyon Lodge” and built a house, trading post, restaurant, and gas station 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 hummed through his gas station and Cundiff leased the land to Henry ‘Two Gun’ Miller, a veteran of the Spanish-American War who called himself ‘Chief Crazy Thunder’ for reasons he kept to himself. A man who 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 zoo housed cougars, snakes, Gila monsters, porcupines, panthers, bobcats, and a number of rare birds. Two Guns passed from owner to owner over the years, nobody holding onto it for long. Some said the property was cursed. 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. Pick through the litter and listen to the sound of your shoes crunching broken glass. Dig these crumbling buildings and read the writing on the walls. Near the old lion cage, a tidy and compact cursive script says You did this to us. This is America muttering to herself late at night in the kitchen before stumbling off to bed.
Places like Two Guns feel like prophecy, a glimpse of how the world might look if civilization ever came undone. But it hasn’t. Not yet. You look around and wonder what happened here, how it got to be like this.
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 Miller murdered Cundiff in 1926, drawing the curtain on a series of countless fistfights, land grabs, breakdowns, and lawsuits. A Mexican treasure hunter disappeared and his bones were dug up by a coyote, a bullet hole in his skull. Fires and explosions burned buildings to the dirt. For a few years, a caretaker lived on the property to shoo away trespassers, but he vanished in 2008, leaving behind only his 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. 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 old restaurant floor. Near the swimming pool, somebody spray-painted the Golden Rule.
Two Guns is a story of American violence and muscle, a meditation on its peculiar mixture of optimism and neglect. Nagging truths are illustrated in concrete, wood, and paint: Nothing lasts forever, memory is short, life is unfair, and there’s a brand new casino a dozen miles down the road with air conditioning and an all-you-can-eat buffet. But Two Guns remains an honest and spiritualized place, a profane patch of shelter where you can watch the clouds cast rolling shadows across the yellow land. And it’s absolutely quiet here, save for the ambient rumble of a distant truck on the highway.