Leah Sottile | Longreads | May 2018 | 46 minutes (11,600 words)
The best way to get to Bundyville is to drive straight into the desert and prepare to never come back.
The ghost town that used to be home to the Bundy family is reachable only by deeply rutted roads covered with red quicksand so thick that it can suck in even the burliest 4×4 if you hit it wrong.
On the map, Bundyville is actually called Mount Trumbull. But back in the early 1900s, people started referring to it as Bundyville, because, according to one Arizona Republic article from 1951, “every single soul in the tiny village except one person answer to the name Bundy!” There was never electricity, no phones.
Abraham Bundy, Cliven’s great-grandfather established the town with his wife, Ella, in 1916. Their son, Roy, homesteaded there with his own family. And Cliven’s dad, David, was born in Bundyville — a place “perched atop a cold and forbidding plateau at an elevation of 5,200 feet,” according to the Arizona Republic article.
Before World War II, as many as 200 people — mostly Bundys — made their home in Bundyville, despite its remote location. Newspapers took six days to arrive. Four postmasters doled out mail twice a week. There was a school, a general store.
It was a Bundy utopia. A place that was all theirs, a place no one else wanted. And yet, still, it slipped right through their fingers. There wasn’t enough water to sustain them. By the 1950s, the place was mostly abandoned. Little had changed between the time the Bundys arrived and the time they left. “We heard the coyotes howl at night,” one Bundy resident once said, “but did not see a living soul.”
I want to stand in that place — where the family’s curse of loss began and where their anger at the government may have originated. I want to go to the middle of nowhere to see how far this family has been willing to go to live by their own code.
Bundyville still holds meaning for the family. Each year, hundreds of Bundys make a pilgrimage back for a giant Bundy family reunion. It’s like it’s not just a place in the desert, but a state of mind, too.
When Abraham Bundy and his wife arrived there, it must have seemed like it was the only place where they could fathom solace, calm. Far from civilization, far from the reaches of the federal government, the family tried to tame the landscape, farm, and raise livestock for themselves with little forage or water. To live by their own rules. To make an intractable place bend to their will.
I explain all this to a representative at the BLM’s Arizona Strip field office — that I’d like to go to the place the Bundy story started. And she clearly doesn’t think it’s a good idea for me and my producer, Ryan Haas, to go there this time of year. It’s been raining recently, she tells me. I think, so what? I’m from Oregon. But rain is unusual in that part of the Southwest, and it turns the clay-like dirt on the roads into a silty paste known to suck up tires, stranding unprepared people in potentially deadly temperatures until someone can come with help.
I read about an old lady who got lost on the road to Mount Trumbull and almost died before anyone found her. Another article talks about some hikers who’d come across skeletons in the desert there.
The outdoorsy dude-bros at a Jeep rental place in Hurricane, Utah, were skeptical, too: Just before we pull out of the lot in the burliest Jeep they’ve got, one of them throws a shovel into the back for us. “Better than nothing,” he says with a shrug.
The next morning, we wake up at 3 a.m. The way we’re figuring, if we’re going to make it, we’d better go while the ground is frozen. Read more…