Two Guns, Arizona

The shattered wall of a bathroom stall says Stop Making Excuses in baby blue paint. Beer bottles are scattered everywhere, their labels bleached by the desert sun. Skateboard fragments and condom wrappers, little amber vials and empty dime baggies. There’s a drawing of Bruce Lee’s head attached to the body of a zebra. The names and dates of young lovers are everywhere. Jay + Jessica, 2009. Alex + Jodi, 2010. Are they still together? A woman’s crudely drawn legs fills the bottom of the empty swimming pool, weeds spilling out of the grates. A hot pink scrawl says Fucking is Freedom. Around the corner in purple 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 expedite the building of the interstate, which would have killed even more small towns.

Two Guns was always a dark stop along the road, ever since Earl and Lousie Cundiff purchased these thirty-two acres for $1000 in 1922. They named the area “Canyon Lodge” and built a house, 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. Traffic hummed through the Cundiffs’ gas station and they 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 what he claimed were Apache skulls. A few months later, Henry Miller and Earl Cundiff argued about the terms of the lease. Henry shot Earl dead.

In addition to mountain lions, Henry’s zoo housed cougars, snakes, Gila monsters, porcupines, panthers, bobcats, and several 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 into the night, running from the law.

Two Guns, Arizona

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 an exhausted Dada vibe for the digital age. In the old garage: Fashion Pixels are Made with Botox. Bongs made from soda bottles and wrinkled porn magazines fill the corners. These vandalized towns are the bloodshot eyes of America. Near the old lion cage, a tidy 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.

Places like Two Guns feel like prophecy, a glimpse of how the world might look if civilization ever came undone. You look around and wonder what happened here, how it got to be like this.

Two Guns, Arizona

In 1878, forty Apaches were captured by the Navajo and burned alive. The “death cave” was eventually rebranded as a family-friendly “mystery cave” where trinkets and soft drinks were sold to tourists. Then Henry murdered Earl, setting the stage for a century of fistfights, land grabs, breakdowns, and lawsuits. A treasure hunter disappeared and his bones were dug up by a coyote, a bullet hole in his skull. Fires and explosions burned buildings down 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. Then a Christian motorcycle club used the old service station as a clubhouse. A wooden cross still hangs above the door and motorcycle magazines and tools are stacked neatly on the shelves. Near the swimming pool and crumbling restaurant, teenagers continue to get drunk on cheap wine, dreaming of love and anarchy among the ruins. Watch out for me is written on the floor. Near the swimming pool, somebody spray-painted the Golden Rule.

Two Guns, Arizona

Two Guns is a story of American violence and muscle, a meditation on this country’s peculiar mixture of optimism and neglect. Clichés are illustrated in concrete, wood, and paint: Nothing lasts forever. Memory is short. Life is unfair. And there’s a brand new casino just down the road with air conditioning and an all-you-can-eat buffet. 

Two Guns might be one of the most honest and spiritualized places in the nation, a profane patch of shelter where you can watch the clouds cast shadows across the yellow land. And it’s absolutely quiet here, save for the rumble of a distant truck.

See also: Operation Plowshare; Two Guns by Gladwell Richardson; Arizona Legends; Twin Arrows Casino & Resort. For more snapshots of decaying Americana, buy my first book, The Road to Somewhere: An American Memoir (W.W. Norton, 2011).

And here’s a reverb-heavy mix dedicated to America’s ghost towns:

6 Replies
  • Very interesting! I have been to Two Guns…..twice. Once 36 years ago at 13 – the fam broke down in our motor home and got towed to the service station and we spent a week at the KOA waiting for the part and then my Dad fixing it….then went back this June as a memorial to my Father…..it is just as you describe it now but it was quite the adventure way back when…….

  • Beatiful writing and beautiful pictures. I get such a perfect sense of place from your writing. Thank you for the inspiration.

  • James, I want to be on the boat or car or ark that helps us be more human too. The articulation of your thoughts into words continue to stun me with bright light and make me feel like I know myself better after reading something you’ve written about your experiences. Sometimes I think that the really smart people who are also tender flowers can’t survive, it’s just too much. And the people with less outward intelligence end up crying at restaurant counters and yelling at handsome young men at gas stations bc this is how they know they can be seen, which is mostly what we all want, is to be seen, understood, to not be invisible. Want to spend some time with you…and Ms. C.

    Melinda Wax
Leave a comment

%d bloggers like this: