Cisco, Utah: "People Come Out Here to Get Away From Stuff"

Feb 28, 2019

Many Coloradans on their way to the tourist mecca of Moab have seen a ramshackle cluster of buildings just off Interstate 70. Some stop to look around, amazed by the isolation. But the few poeple who live there prefer it that way. Molly Marcello with community radio station KZMU in Moab takes us to Cisco, Utah, which, in its own way, is bracing for another busy tourist season.

Cisco, Utah is just off I-70. Many Coloradans pass the settlement on their way to Moab.
Credit Molly Marcello

Eileen Muza, full time resident of Cisco, Utah interrupting a windy photo shoot on her property. In a town full of rusted automobiles and tilting structures, most people expect abandonment in Cisco – not Eileen.

Cisco is isolated, a steady jog off Interstate 70 with no services and no running water. It’s situated about an hour north of Moab and an hour west of the Colorado border. Tourists will usually happen upon the place if they’re taking the scenic route to Moab. If they stop, its likely for the Instagram-worthy material in Cisco – the ephemera of the American West against endless desert sky.

EILEEN: “They are coming, there’s no doubt. The tourists are coming – hell or high water.”

In the busy season, visitors can overwhelm the Cisco landscape. Eileen says some people take and break stuff, others have even opened the door to her house. Online, Cisco is still mostly described a ghost town. But its very real residents take issue with that phrase.

STEVE: “People come out here to get away from stuff. There’s so many articles that say that Cisco’s a ghost town and no one lives out here and they’re all false.”

Eileen’s neighbor Steve. We find him sitting on his ATV in the middle of Cisco Pumphouse Road, enjoying the sunset, pink clouds for miles from the Book Cliffs to the La Sal Mountains. It’s nearing the time of night for any strangers still lingering in town to move along.

Cheerful Cisco residents.
Credit Molly Marcello

STEVE: Everybody just [thinks] since there’s no ‘no trespassing’ signs and there’s no fences…we can just do whatever we want. And, it’s not like that. I mean I’ll call the Sheriff on you. And if the Sheriff don’t show up I’ll just go run you off. People assume there’s no one out here but there is.”

EILEEN: “And the last thing you want is – nobody wants to be surprised out here.”

STEVE/EILEEN: “Somebody will.”

People in Cisco are protective, of themselves, their lands and its history, a history that spans decades in the American West. Cattle ranchers, shepherds, oil and gas men all left footprints in this place. At one time in the modern era, Cisco enjoyed a cafe and pool hall. What remains today are historic leftovers from every Western era. Chinese coins and opium tins mingle with 8 tracks and floppy disks.

Since she purchased property in Cisco five years ago, Eileen’s worked nearly every day she can – weather permitting – to restore old buildings and preserve some history here. She’ll come across an old store sign and transform it into a new floor, and any markings she finds of past residents get proudly displayed on rebuilt walls.

EILEEN: “I’m trying to preserve these places. I’d like to do it creatively though. If there’s something missing – like pieces of the floor, I want to use other materials that are already here basically. Because I feel like that’s what people did here. That’s already the aesthetic which is good because I like that aesthetic. But it makes the most sense in a place like this where you can’t go to the store and get what you need, you have to use what’s around. And so that’s what I want to do here.”

That scrappy, creative by necessity type of building continues a long tradition in this place. You can spot evidence of this practice from the past just about everywhere – old floors are patched with mason jar lids, an old chicken coop fashioned from a truck camper. Eileen builds this way now too – strips of metal become plumbers tape, box spring mattresses a fence, La Croix cans - shingles.

EILEEN: “We’re using these cans that are not crushed - they’re whole cans. Then we’re cutting around the top and around the bottom so both ends come off. I cut these and then you have all these shingles.”

EILEEN: “To me it’s like a creative process. Of course it’s construction, but it’s almost like sculpture. I’m making art. I’m not trying to make this garbage city. It very much depends on the way the garbage is arranged whether or not it looks good. Random tires strewn about – it never looks good. If you could make it an impressive formidable wall on the other hand, in a half circle, that’s a different story.”

As she re-builds these lands and their stories, Eileen works against two distinct forces capable of destruction – the relentless desert wind, and the steady stream of people who still believe Cisco is a ghost town. The winds might be unstoppable, but she hopes people at least will get the memo about the occupied town soon. She says if Cisco’s approached in the right way, by contacting her for a tour or visit, there’s a lot to be gained from experiencing the forgotten corners of Western history.

EILEEN: “If you come out here and you can stay in one of those buildings, and you look around you and then you can really think about what it would be like to live here and live like this. That’s I think important. And then you leave here thinking about what you have now and what you need now. How much space do you need? How much water do you need? What do you do with your garbage? What’s important? The only way people really ask themselves these questions is if they come to a place like this.”