Sandi Wheaton's photographic journey from Chicago to LA with a Jeep, an Aliner trailer and a bunch of cameras

shooting in Two Guns

Tuesday, November 10th, 2009

remains of the KOA campground at Two Guns, AZ

remains of the KOA campground at Two Guns, AZ

Two Guns, Arizona is a bizarre and fascinating place.  This is a real, bonafide, empty ghost town right on the side of the Interstate.  There is an exit on I-40 to Two Guns, but there’s nothing there except ruins.  And Mike.

When you learn of the history of Two Guns, you think it must be jinxed.  For starters, here is the home of the “Apache Death Cave”, where it’s said that 42 Apache men, women and children were massacred in the cave way back in 1878, after the Apaches had attacked a nearby Navajo settlement.  In more recent history, according to David Wickline in his extremely useful “Images of 66”, Two Guns started catering to early Route 66 travelers back in 1924.  Two men who built the place up, Earl Cundiff and Harry E. Miller (known as “Two Gun Miller”), apparently fought regularly until Miller shot and killed Cundiff in 1926.  After 1948, Two Guns fell into a state of disrepair until Ben Dreher tried revitalizing the area in the 1960s – only to have the place go up in smoke during an explosion and fire in 1971.  Later, a Shell station and KOA campground were built.  Those two structures were also eventually abandoned.  The ruins of all of these versions of Two Guns can be found here, making it a pretty unique site to explore.

graffiti in the empty gas station

graffiti in the empty gas station

I park the Jeep and trailer at the exit and make my way in to shoot some photos.  The first thing I come upon is the abandoned Shell gas station.  This is one of the more recent structures of Two Guns and is in pretty good shape still.  It’s your standard empty gas station affair: broken glass, the odd chair here and there, and the inevitable graffiti tags, of course.

Farther up the road you find these two storage tanks that were painted back in the day with images of trappers and cowboys, and more modern decorations that have been added since (read: graffiti).  Further along still come the remains of the old KOA campground.  This is really interesting to me.  There is a lot of miscellaneous debris around the place (stuff from the building’s interior, etc.), but the inside of the building is incredible.  The amount of graffiti is intense, as is its subject matter (the series of naked women wearing stormtrooper masks while crawling on their knees particularly leaves an impression).  It’s wild seeing the old bathrooms and showers so decimated.  I keep thinking of all the youngsters who had experienced fun camping times there, sweet innocent memories formed while road tripping with their parents down Route 66 – and this location that had seemed so safe and pure to them is now covered with spray-painted skulls and penises.  The sense of time passing and life changing is as vivid as the graffiti in places like this.

showersSo I’m shooting away amongst the rubble and I start hearing all this noise – stuff crashing around a bit and things moving… I’m sure someone is here and I get scared.  I duck behind a wall and scurry-while-crouched-Scully-from-X-Files-style across the building.  I feel really stupid when after holding my breath for a few minutes and peeking around corners, I realize that it was just the strong wind kicking up the debris and making noise.

There’s so much to shoot, I actually run out of supplies and have to leave sooner than I want to.  Silly me: I brought only the two camera bodies and left my tripod, extra battery and empty SD cards in the Jeep.  I’m still a little jumpy from the noise scare when I start making my way back to the car.
I’m walking down the road toward the exit and what do I see coming up the path?  A homeless guy.  He’s walking toward me, with his long beard, trench coat and gnarly walking stick… he’s between me and my getaway vehicle… he’s seen my equipment in the car by now (if he hasn’t already unzipped the windows to help himself)… and there is NO ONE, anywhere, for miles.  If this dude wants anything from me, I’m in trouble.

So I try to be cool.

“Hey.” I cautiously greet him as he approaches.

“Hey,” he replies…  “That your Jeep down there?”

We exchange a few sentences about what we’re both doing here, and he informs me that he lives here, and that he just spent the afternoon walking about seven miles out here in the desert.  He’s tired!  I discover that like me, he is also between jobs.  He needed somewhere to go, and he knew there was an old ghost town out here – so he figured he’d hang his hat here for awhile.  When he needs to go into town, he hitchhikes into Flagstaff.  Apparently the police know he’s out here and they don’t bother him.  I learn his name is Mike.  He seems harmless enough and I start to feel silly for being so worried and paranoid.

koaMike doesn’t appear to be carrying much with him – his walking stick, a small bag, and whatever is in his pockets.  So I’m pretty shocked when he pulls a large bundle of papers out from his bag and starts educating me on the history of Two Guns.  He’s got a stack of articles and book pages that he’s photocopied at the library in Flagstaff.  He gets all animated and starts rifling through his papers to prove facts, and he points out ruins of buildings off in the distance for reference.  “Now, see that building over there, just beyond that rise?  …wait, you better have a look at it through the binoculars…” – and he pulls a set of Bushnells out of his pocket.  It was surreal.  But I start to figure out that Mike has learned that travelers like me who pull over there are interested in the history of the place – or just wonder what the heck they’re looking at when they do pull over – and he was smart enough to equip himself as an ad hoc tour guide to serve.  Pretty clever of him.

Whatever Mike’s plan or motivation is behind his educational services, he seems genuinely interested in his subject matter – and he never once asks me for money.  In fact, when he walks with me back to the Jeep to hang out for a moment while I get a snack and he rolls himself a cigarette, I ask him how he was doing for food.  “Oh, I’m OK, thanks.”  I would gladly share what I’ve got with him so I try again, “you sure?  I’m going to have a bite here before I leave – I’ve got some cheese and crackers and fruit here… you sure you don’t want anything?”  “No, no, I’m fine.  I’ve got me some smoked sausage here that I’m going to cook up… actually, I could invite you for dinner!” he says.  “You want to stay for dinner?”  I no longer know what to think or assume about this guy.  Am I being insulting to assume that he would want to share my food?  And would I insult him by turning down his generous offer?

Mike, Two Guns resident

Mike, Two Guns resident

Then he gets another idea.  “Where are you going to camp tonight?  You can stay here if you like.  You can pull your camper up the road here… or if you want, there’s lots of space up in the building where I stay.  You can drag your sleeping bag or whatever you’ve got up there – you can have a whole area to yourself, I won’t bother you at all.”  Now, one could argue that the guy just wants to take advantage of a young female traveling alone, and that’s what all this gallantry is about.  Maybe he has a weapon stashed up at the KOA and he’s trying to lure me up there with friendly banter and promises of safety.  But I really don’t think so.  I really think the guy just thought the company would be nice.

The scene gets even odder to me when I explain that I really want to find a cheap campground because I need to get a shower.  Mike takes on helping me with that, too.  He says he goes to the Mission in Flagstaff sometimes – it’s for men only, but if I go there, they can tell me where women can go for a shower and stuff.  Of course, it had never occurred to me to seek out the support systems for those living on the street.  At any rate, although I’m currently jobless, I’m not homeless, and I’m not about to use up services offered to those in straits more dire than mine.

What’s more, there is another bizarre element to this situation: I am scheduled to be interviewed by phone on channel 12 news in Phoenix the next morning at 6am, and I need to be sure I have a clear cell signal.  The juxtaposition of that reality in my head with this conversation I’m having with Mike about where to sleep and shower that night is truly, truly strange.

koa bldgNevertheless, it amazes me that I’ve found some common ground with a homeless guy on an empty path in a ghost town.  We’re both between jobs, trying to find our way, and here we are both offering support to each other.  Once again I find we really are all the same, and we just want to connect with others.  But in spite of what we share, the fact remains that Mike and I are living in very different universes.  I don’t know what circumstances brought him to squatting in a decaying KOA in the middle of the desert, but I count my blessings that allow me to take this trip.  It’s all relative, right?  Being let go from my job sucked and I’ll probably have to sell my house when I get back, but I’m looking at Mike and I’m thinking that things could be so much worse.

Or could they?  Come to think of it, Mike seems like a pretty darn contented man, living out there in the middle of nowhere.  Maybe he’s onto something…


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