Living along Route 66, you find yourself stumbling upon a wealth of unusual places that bewilder and inflame the imagination. Some of these places seem lost in time, where shells of legends can be heard echoing through the forgotten thistles of a vast expanse of space. You wander upon the strange, the bleak, the gimmicky, the heartbreaking, and the inspiring. I always feel a detached, hypnotic sense driving down this old road, like stumbling upon holy ground that is beyond my wildest ability to discern. You feel as though you’re a meager drop of blood flowing through some reverent river that nobly carves its way through the body of the earth. Once of dirt and sand, now of concrete and asphalt, this road is old and distinguished and has carried many a soul through life and land. You feel like you’ve been here before, and that you will be here again, in this life or another. Such is the power of this road, and of the place that I happened to stumble upon yesterday, Two Guns.
Driving along Route 66, I saw an exit for Two Guns about thirty miles east of Flagstaff and little did I know how this exit would impact me at the time. To give visual context, this area of Route 66 is a mostly flat desert landscape of faded dirt and jagged rock punctuated by thistles and dried shrubs. It feels like it goes on forever in every direction but west. Looking westward, this land ambitiously rises into the snowy girth of the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff, looming ominously and beautifully in the distance. The Coconino Forest creeps halfway up the distant mountains, the skeletons of the Aspens in late Fall give clarity to the snow on the ground. It feels like being on the precipice of two worlds, between the endless desert monotony and the encouraged welcoming of mountains and trees, and the shelter and community they provide.
This is where I stumbled upon “Two Guns”. Curiosity got the better of me as I slowed down to get off of the exit, for it didn’t look particularly inhabited. As I turned onto the only road I could see, it led me to a series of structures, familiar yet foreign. What looked like the remnants of a gas station lay before me, with distant, crumbling structures dotting the background behind it. A house maybe? Maybe a motel? A water tower? All was bare and desolate and I could sense that time had taken its toll on this place, as debris and graffiti seemed to be the only owners here now. I quickly grabbed my phone and began researching Two Guns, and that is when this place experienced a resurrection of sorts, for it began to come alive in my mind as I read about its intricate history.
The more I researched, the more I was struck at the bleak and macabre nature of this place as it was fleshed out in my mind. The area around Two Guns has been occupied by people for at least a thousand years, as artifacts have been found dating to the 1000s. Diablo Canyon is a small canyon that bites through this land, as I could see it just to the west of the abandoned buildings. Two Guns is the area where the canyon can be crossed going Westward. I learned that this area was the site of many confrontations, battles, fights, and disputes between the Apache and the Navajo. One specific incident in 1878 was particularly brutal, as the Navajo found a band of Apache hiding out in a cave in Diablo Canyon after an attack on their people. When the Navajo found the Apache in this cave, the Navajo burned sagebrush at the entrance of the cave and asphyxiated at least 42 Apache inside with the smoke. It was later named Death Cave and the homesteaders who later settled the land would sell Apache skulls found in the cave at their trading post.
The history continued as I learned about the waves of travelers and settlers who passed through this area, including Billy the Kid and his gang, who passed through Diablo Canyon in the late 1800s. The road going through this land was established as the National Old Trails Road before becoming Route 66 and eventually merging with I-40. In the 1900s, a series of homesteaders built up the area and named it Two Guns, apparently as an homage to the silent movie actor William “Two Guns” Hart. As Route 66 was established and more traffic bled through the area, it became a distinguished tourist spot. A gas station, a motel with a swimming pool, a café, a trading post, and even a zoo were all built during this time. The zoo was notorious for holding mountain lions in small wire cages along with other native Arizona animals.
A series of unfortunate events happened in the later 1900s including fires, thievery, and violent disputes between owners of the establishments. In the end, it was abandoned by the 1970s. The lifeblood of this place, perfused by the people who inhabited it, is all but lost. Only the decaying structures remain. After reading all of this in my truck right outside of the gas station, all of my energy pushed me forward into this enchanted ruin of a place. I had to explore.
I stood outside for a minute, staring at the edifice of atrophy that was the gas station before me. I walked closer to it, noticing the detail of the graffiti on the walls. From the pictures I saw online, the art on the walls were different from the art that stood in front of me. Even though it appeared abandoned and stagnant, wanderers like me who are intrigued by the decay add to its aesthetic. From the crude and silly to the philosophical and inspirational, the graffiti art here seems to be the only changing thing left, as people slowly add to it over time.
The pillars of the gas station reminded me of the ambition of the people who staked a claim on these lands, either looking to make an honest buck or tricking curious tourists out of their money with gimmicky ads and tourist traps. It’s all a part of the human condition, I suppose. The pillars stood tall and proud, even in their decline and disarray, like an American version of some ancient Roman ruin. It’s like these structures were still holding value. They were embodying some kind of lost truth, now eroding from the blistering desert sun, repurposed for honest insight and reflection on the impermanence of our world and our futility to hold onto time.
As I walked past the gas station, the crumbling glass from the past windows screeched beneath my feet, almost resembling lamented wails from the pangs of the past. The shattered glass was reflective of the shattered dreams of this place. I had the strangest feeling come over me as I walked onward through this ghost town. It was almost like I felt this place move through me rather than I through it. I came across a wooden structure standing alone against the desert sky. I assumed it was a trading post or novelty shop, now empty and rotting alone but still enticing in its own way and adding to the chaos.
Walking further back from the road, I passed the remnants of the motel that stood here and housed many a weary traveler along this desolate highway. The building had collapsed, only the A-frame of the roof remained somewhat intact. Next to it stood a cemented area with a pool and pavilion, now caked with bright and exuberant artwork. The colorful art stood out quite starkly against the grey bleakness of its surroundings.
I thought about what this space would have been like in its prime. A cool, refreshing pool and a cozy refuge in the middle of a dry wasteland. It was a makeshift oasis, a beckoning waystation calling the tired and dreary to its respite. I felt the warm smiles and relaxing sighs of the endless faces who enjoyed this spot to relax and recharge. This cracked, empty shell that was once a pool reminded me of what we all seek traveling through this life, a shelter from the storm and peace of mind, if only for a moment.
Further on stood a gutted house, standing adrift in an ocean of gravel and scrub. I walked through it noticing the segmented spaces separated by shards of wooden frameworks. “Perhaps this was a bedroom or a living room”, I thought. Moving forward, tiles beneath my feet began to crackle, letting me know that I stood in a past kitchen. This was somebody’s home. This place felt intimate, like standing in the middle of the most personal of spaces. Somebody, perhaps a family, called this place home. That thought kept coming back to me as the framework of splintered wood surrounded me like some giant cage, the emotions and intimacies of the people once there hawking over me. Their shared experience seemed to flow through me and I could feel the weight of their lives and the hope that came with deciding to make such an inhospitable place a home. They went for it. They were here. And then they moved on, leaving their tarnished dreams in the muck of the debris. How fragile life is, I thought. How temporary all of this truly is. Life is just dust in the wind I thought at that point, but not in a melancholic sense, but in a vibrant, rejuvenating sense. It was an encouraging sense to get up and soak up this life while we still draw breath!
Past the house was Diablo Canyon, just to the west. This is where a series of stone structures were built. A zoo, I presumed from the faded words “Mountain Lions” written above one of the entrances. Small stone rooms and wire cages were scattered about the structure, perhaps housing an array of curious creatures. I stood on the backend of these stone buildings overlooking the canyon, my eyes scanning the rocks for some indication of this “Death Cave” that I read about. I never found it. It’s hiding out there amongst the rocks somewhere. I am sure there is a trail leading down to it but for now it will only be an abstraction in my mind. Tours in the cave were once provided as an attraction here. One of the owners even put up fake artifacts to make it seem more exciting and “authentic”. Another testament to how our nature to deceive and swindle can be just as prominent as our nature to love and nurture. We are complicated beings.
As I made my way back to my truck and onward to Flagstaff, I just took in the sensations. The roaring sounds of the nearby highway were overshadowed by a raven that seemed to be following me. Flying from perch to perch overhanging me, his dark demeanor and occasional grating croaks intrigued me. He was overhanging the landscape seeming to keep watch like some homage to death and the slow decay of time. He seemed to embody the spirit of this place. “He should be the mascot here” I whimsically thought as I got into my truck.
Looking back at Two Guns in my rear-view mirror driving away, I could feel the ambition, the comforts, the struggles, the swindling, the hopes, and the intimacies of this place and the people who filled its space. It was a place to die in some old feud, a place to pass through on some long venture Westward, a place to settle and hope for the future, a place to eat, to hide, to rest, to refuel, to wonder, and to hope. Now it is a place to reflect, almost transforming into hallowed ground with time and standing as a testament to the impermanence of our world. Now it is a blazing catalyst, lighting a fire upon our souls and calling us to make the most of this life while we are still fortunate enough to have it. ❤