The pioneer of ruin: Amid a desolate mess in Cisco, Utah, a young woman resurrects a home
September 27, 2018
Most everyone speeds on the road that runs alongside Cisco, Utah. It can be hard not to, once you work your way into that feeling of empty space and no one to hold you accountable. The town, after all, doesn't look like much — a desolate mess of ruined buildings on the scenic route from Interstate 70 to the recreation mecca of Moab, Utah, just a few miles from the boat ramp on the Colorado River where rafters load up after running Westwater Canyon. A cursory internet search will tell you that Cisco has cameoed in car chases in the movies "Thelma and Louise" and "Vanishing Point," and may have inspired the Johnny Cash song "Cisco Clifton's Fillin' Station." Without fail, articles about Cisco will also tell you that it's a ghost town. This irritates Eileen Muza. Cisco is not abandoned, she often points out: "I live here."
The La Sal Mountains rise up south of Eileen's home, and Cisco stands in the Cisco Desert, in an exposed, waterless low spot that one book describes without irony as "a hole." But Eileen has her own names for things, her own landmarks. "My Mountains." "The One Tire Valley." "The Green Valley." And the Cisco Desert itself — a scrubby barren plumbed with pump jacks and shimmering with broken glass? Eileen calls that "The Unknown."
The Unknown was not why Eileen moved to Cisco. It might be a reason that she stays, though, if she stays. It also is the reason it is so hard to stay. The desert here is not nice the way it is in Moab, with its shapely red-rock expanses and verdant cottonwood bottoms. In Cisco, even the light has blades. One time, a lake of oil leaked from a pump jack inside town limits. Another, Eileen looked up to discover two men shooting in her direction from the window of a white pickup.
And on a hot, still day in June 2017, a man running a raft shuttle found Eileen's dog crumpled in the weeds at the road's shoulder. He loaded the limp body onto his trailer, blood running over his hands and drove it to her house. She was raw that afternoon when I arrived for a visit, her face shadowed under a broad hat, her eyes hidden behind sunglasses. She hunched over a wheelbarrow as her friend Joe Bell and I helped her look for rocks to seal Cairo — pronounced "Kay-ro," after Cairo, Illinois — beneath his little mound of earth. "You don't have to help," she said a few times, but we ignored her, pulling stones from the flats and palming them with a clang into the barrow.
She wouldn't be getting another dog, she finally insisted. "It's too much of a weak spot for me. I need to be really f—ing strong out here."
If I let myself be soft, she seemed to be saying, I will not last.
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BY NOW, MAYBE YOU PICTURE Eileen as a weathered old hermit lady with her mouth set in a grim line, who is suspicious of strangers and keeps a gun by her front door. And Eileen does carry a handgun, a 9 mm that hangs heavy on her hip. But she is only 34. She's small and hard, with a face darkened enough by sun and dirt that her teeth flash like a signal mirror when she laughs. She has an all-day coffee habit, hair shaved close to the scalp, and the kind of intent, sunlit eyes you sometimes see staring out at you from old tintype photographs. Eileen is a gardener who has landed in a place where nothing will grow.
Eileen was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the oldest of six kids. Her parents — a mailman and a landscaper — never had much money, so in the family mythology, property was the foundation from which other good things grew. According to one oft-told story, as a girl, Eileen's grandmother brought a plate from the evening meal each night to an elderly neighbor and stayed to talk. In return, he willed her his house, and she and Eileen's grandfather were later able to use it as collateral to buy their own, opening a door to better lives. Their kids learned to be resourceful. Eileen credits her love of castoffs and thrift to her mother, Linda Muza, who is on such good terms with the guys at the dump that she bakes them pies.
Eileen attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for a year after high school. But the $30,000-a-year price tag seemed to lead to impossible debt, so she dropped out and, after she had worked off her loans, traveled instead. She had always loved exploring abandoned buildings; now she grew bolder, sleeping in doorways in Paris and living for a time in an abandoned mansion in Sicily, where horses came down from the hills to nuzzle her hands. The habit continued after she returned to the Midwest, where hard times had left old factories yawning with dark invitation, industrial cathedrals of brick and stained glass. Eileen was cautious, but undeterred by the abstract possibility of falling through a rotten floor, or of getting caught, Linda said. And yet she had a certain tenderness. Every family has a worrier, Linda told me, and Eileen was the Muzas'. She could be gregarious and disarming. When Eileen moved back to Chicago in 2007, she became so fond of a Korean spa that she and her girlfriend sometimes slept overnight in the nap room so they could soak in hot water for two days.
For 10 years, Eileen grew green things for the city of Chicago's floriculture department. She loved the diverse cast of coworkers: gay, straight, every shade of skin, people from all over the world. She tended the garden in her yard until it overflowed with color. But like the Art Institute, it felt shaky. The work was seasonal, and her house was a rental in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.
Then, in January 2015, Eileen traveled to Utah to see the Great Gallery rock art panel, where life-sized red-ochre figures loom on cream-colored sandstone. Another passenger on the plane told her about Cisco, so Eileen stopped there, as many do, en route to her actual destination. She paused in front of a rough log cabin and metal trailer, across from a peeling post office the size of an upended van, all of it surrounded by debris and distance. "That looks like the only house in America that I can afford," she said to herself. She saw possibility in the junk and supplies. Almost everything she might need, except water and soil. In a place no one seemed to want, she could build something truly her own.
The empty house wasn't for sale, but she tracked down its owner in nearby Grand Junction. Eileen negotiated her price. Negotiated it again. And by April, she had it: A place to make a life, for less than a used car.
THE CISCO THAT DREW EILEEN bears little resemblance to the Cisco that was. Before the full metastasis of European settlement, the land here was lusher, part of Ute territory. Bands passed through seasonally, harvesting pronghorn and wild onion, and later moving with their own livestock. Photographs of the town that eventually rose in this spot show unlikely squares of lawn, a mercantile, service stations and hotels. Smiling children cluster in front of a school where there is now only a weed patch. Rubble is all that remains of most buildings. Those still standing are full of garbage that people have dumped, and are surrounded by junked vehicles in various states of dismemberment, also full of garbage.
A bare spot along the tracks on the north side of town marks the place where a giant tank stored water pumped from the Colorado River. Like the much more populous Thompson Springs to the west, Cisco started as a water stop for the steam-powered railroad. The original town site was established a couple of miles away on the narrow-gauge line. Then Cisco followed the new standard-gauge railroad to its present location. A post office opened in 1887.
Many of the early "news" items in local papers document the minutiae of everyday lives — dances, who was visiting who, a kidnapped sheepdog that found his way home after a two-year absence. Cisco was where ranchers from the Book Cliffs to the north and the river bottom and the La Sals to the south brought their livestock for winter range and shipping. Tens of thousands of cows roamed the greater area. As the forage deteriorated, sheep came into favor, with 230,000 permitted to graze by 1938, despite the passage of rangeland protection laws. As many as 100,000 sheep were sheared annually in Cisco in those days; in 1906, a single outfit shipped out a quarter-million pounds of wool. It was packed into tubular sacks and piled along the railroad grade, where local kids played king of the mountain before heading home to be inspected for ticks, according to Dale Harris, who attended elementary school in Cisco and now lives part time a few miles away. Like many other residents, Dale's dad, Ballard Harris, built a life there from salvage. He moved his family house from Green River to a spot west of Cisco and assembled an attached service station from the pieces of a building he bought in a ghost town called Sego.
Drillers hit hydrocarbons in the Cisco Desert in the mid-'20s, and the industry periodically flared and subsided there over the next century. In 1952, a man named Charlie Steen was living with his family in a tarpaper shack in Cisco when he made the uranium strike south of Moab that spurred the mining and milling frenzy that consumed parts of Utah until the 1980s, when Moab's mill finally closed. After diesel train engines replaced steam in the '50s, the town leaned on its role as a stopover for east-west automobile traffic.
Cisco's population hit about 250 in 1940. It had periods of diversity, though likely the segregated variety. Italian, Chinese, Japanese, African-American and Native American crews worked the railroad. There were Basque shepherds from Spain. A famous black cowboy named Charlie Glass was a regular in the area until his death in 1937. According to Moab resident Ginger Shuey, Glass occasionally stopped by the house where her grandmother, Virginia Gruver, boarded guests. Virginia left her kids — Ginger's young mother, aunt and one of her uncles — in charge while she was away, and Glass looked out for them, Ginger said. Once, a customer tried to grope Ginger's aunt and she dumped a bowl of stew on his head. When he leapt up in fury, he found Charlie's gun in his face.
It can be difficult to judge whether the Wild West stories about Cisco are true or apocryphal. Perhaps that matters less than the fact that people choose to tell them, simultaneously recreating the town and adding its patina to their own histories. Virginia, Ginger told me, was a bootlegger. The sheriff raided her house, but never found her whiskey because, being a man, he didn't think to look in the brown-glass Clorox bottles by the laundry. Dale said his father went to investigate a strange noise one night wearing only "his unders and a six-shooter," and found a man and a woman trying to crowbar open the change box in the service station phone booth. He scared them so badly they got wedged in the doorway trying to flee.
AJ Rogers, a retired Utah Department of Transportation foreman who grew up and still lives in Thompson Springs, remembers visiting the cafe in Cisco in 1970 to play pool and drink beer as a teenager, the proprietor not being particular about ID. In 1973, AJ got a seasonal job building I-70, and it was I-70 that ultimately killed Cisco, bypassing it by a couple of miles. Ironically, AJ told me, the new interstate ran right through the townsite that Cisco had left to follow the railroad.
The town "went from very quiet to absolute silence," recalled Dean Christensen, who ran leases in the oilfield over the next 40 years from the house next door to Eileen's. Even so, he said, the distance from law enforcement meant "there was always something happening in Cisco." One resident supposedly built a two-story doghouse over an oil well to hide it from inspectors. Dean claimed at least three bodies were dumped near Cisco during his tenure, and that the serial killer Ted Bundy stopped by the old store and gas station and immediately turned around when he found a group of armed locals playing cards. Dale Harris' dad's place burned down after he died, and Dale demolished the garage and root cellar, too. Transients had been staying there, he explained uneasily. He'd found a coyote carcass strung in a doorway. His son found a dead dog hanging from a pole.
By the 1980s, Grand County had collected 80.5 acres of Cisco in lieu of delinquent taxes. It sold the land to a company that planned a mall-sized incinerator that would process 2,000 pounds per hour of toxic chemicals like PCBs. The company's president attended county meetings in a polyester suit and diamond pinkie ring like the "Dynasty" version of an old-time snake-oil salesman.
It would have been a fitting conclusion to Cisco's decline — the town no longer valued for what it might produce, but for the wasteland it had become. In the end, even this faded. An hour down the road in Moab, the county seat, environmental consciousness was growing. In 1988, the then-mostly conservative community blocked the incinerator by a 2-to-1 vote.
The referendum signaled the region's new direction: A near-complete dependence on tourism, its own form of extraction. When experiences are sold, when scenery becomes commodity, places can morph into caricatures of themselves, obscuring context and meaning. Moab drew the money, and Cisco drew the lollygaggers. The ruins alone couldn't imbue Cisco's scrap of ground with the complexity of memory — substance abuse and skeletons in the desert and drinking water carried in milk cans and men crushed between train cars and joy and poverty and house fires and holes in the floor and rooms washed yellow with leftover road paint because it was what there was to use. The town became a sideline, a bit part of many narrative threads, but with no complete one of its own. And with no center, it could become whatever viewers wanted.
Like with the La Sals and the desert, Eileen came up with her own affectionate name for Cisco: Garbage Island.
IT DIDN'T TAKE EILEEN LONG to realize that leaving her property on Garbage Island unattended was risky. The day after she bought it, someone ransacked the trailer. She couldn't stay to ward off vandals because she was broke. So during the first two years, she tried to have friends camp there while she went home to Chicago for the temperate months to work her landscaping job and see the woman she was dating. In the offseasons, she returned to Utah. Eileen's mom, Linda, joined her for her first month there, and the two worked on Eileen's two small parcels through bitter winter weather and bad head colds, burning debris in a metal barrel as they went. It was so cold when her dad, Richard Muza, visited that the paint he intended to use on Eileen's little post office froze solid and he had to thaw it with a space heater.
Eileen's parents supported what she was doing.
"I remember thinking, you're really going to know who you are here, because there's no distraction," Linda said. "It's like this is where music began. This is a place that people had to fill up with their own sound so they didn't f—ing go crazy."
Eileen had been warned about Cisco's extremes, but by early winter of 2016, she had settled in full time. "Part of me wants to just see how bad it's going to get," she told me after a mutual friend introduced us. She went to Catholic school, she said, "and I think this place has something to do with that. It's a challenge, but also it's a punishment. Everybody has to wander through the desert, right, in the Bible?"
Over the coming months, she grew skinny on discount groceries and boiled her coffee with water poured from 5-gallon jugs filled at the 7-Eleven in Moab or a spigot behind a dumpster in Grand Junction, where she went for building supplies when she couldn't find what she needed in Cisco. The wind was constant, and that spring, it gusted so hard one night that some of Eileen's friends heard a lopsided building tear apart and collapse.
In summer, it got so hot that sometimes Eileen would lie down on the dirt floor of the cabin's cellar when the sun hit its apogee. It rained so rarely that she forgot what it felt like, she said, though sometimes the wind threw pebbles against the metal skin of her trailer, and they sounded yearningly like the first drops of a storm.
A few days into one of my visits, fed up with the heat, Eileen, her sister Claire and Claire's friend, Amy, piled into an SUV and bumped overland to find a spring that someone had told Eileen about. Eileen imagined it as a deep pool and brought a bar of soap. There was supposedly an old road, but every track we tried ended in a gully or holes big enough to swallow a wheel. We exited off the interstate instead, searching a web of oil and gas roads until we found a place where a thicket of saltcedar and cottonwood glowed in the sunset light. Water gurgled somewhere beneath the riot, but we couldn't see it. Eileen stepped gingerly through the cattails. "There are animals in here," she squeaked, part nerves, part delight.
Claire and Amy branched north looking for water, too, but found only a dead cow. They led us to the little knot of juniper trees where it lay, and we peered through a hole in its chest. There was only blackness inside.
EILEEN CAME TO RELISH THE FREEDOM of The Unknown, all searching walks and random artifacts: a dump full of brown-glass Clorox bottles like the ones Ginger Shuey described; a wooden post hammered into the ground miles from anywhere with a metal file jammed into the top. She became the place's unofficial archivist. Still, she asked Claire, only half-jokingly, if she might go insane. Linda worried about Eileen being a young woman alone out there, and about Eileen being lonely.
The most challenging thing about Cisco wasn't the solitude, though. It was how often Eileen had company she didn't want. When she bought her place, she hadn't realized just how many spectators the ruined town drew. She watched flabbergasted as tourists climbed under fences to explore ominous buildings papered with "No Trespassing" signs or wandered onto her own property filming with their iPhones while she was in plain sight. She piled twisted metal and wood to keep people from driving into the desert and circling behind her place, where they were difficult to track. If someone seemed creepy, she'd find a way to mention her shotgun. She kept her buildings lit up all night with solar-powered exterior lamps. When a drone whined over the roof of her cabin, she tried to shoot it down. When someone parked close to the cabin for too long, she blasted a recording of Charles Bukowski reading his grim poetry in a gravelly monotone. Once they hear him "talking about whores and beer farts," she said, "people hit the gas real quick."
People seemed to feel entitled to the space because they thought it was empty. Eileen fought this the best way she could think of: She let them think she owned the whole town, so they would listen when she told them to stay on the road. She didn't like strangers trespassing on private land that absent neighbors couldn't defend, or taking things for their own use. And she justified her own salvage of bits and pieces from the ruins by explaining that what she took stayed where it belonged: in Cisco.
Late one frigid December night, I was reading in Eileen's post office when I heard a gunshot a few feet away. I cautiously stepped into the dark to find her in trenchcoat and underwear, standing next to her friend Nick on a boardwalk she'd built to avoid the gumbo mud that the earth became each spring. The muzzle flashed as she fired at an angle, again, into the sky.
"F—ing kids," she said.
She pointed to the other side of town where she'd heard someone rummaging in a building on the main road. I spotted headlights rolling eastward. But instead of speeding away, the truck turned up the side road toward us. Someone inside played a high-powered spotlight over one old building, then another. The truck turned again and rolled to a stop between Eileen's buildings, not 20 feet away from where we watched from behind the outhouse. The spotlight pooled across the front of the cabin. "I wish I was wearing clothes," Eileen hissed. She fired once more over the desert. The truck reluctantly rolled on. Eileen stomped back to bed, her bare feet pounding the boards.
AS MUCH AS CISCO'S POWER to attract people irked Eileen, it also was the thing that began to steady her there. A woman named Farland Fish stopped in town one day to let her dogs chase the rabbits that lurked amid the junk and was surprised to find Eileen there, too. Athletic and tall with wind-tangled blond hair, Farland lived in the La Sals, worked odd jobs and shared Eileen's love of old stuff. She felt an immediate kinship with the younger woman, and when Eileen moved to Cisco full-time, Farland became a steady visitor. Eileen thought of her as a second mom.
There were others, too. A man who checked the oil pumps began looking in on Eileen. Her nearest neighbor brought her bullets. Raft shuttlers brought her ice and oranges. A musician and woodworker named Michael Gerlach came out from Milwaukee after a bad breakup and stayed off and on for eight months. A drinking-water advocate named Fern Schultz hit the road following a dear friend's suicide and a decision to drop out of grad school and ended up helping out Eileen a couple of times on Utah backroads. Later, she stayed for nearly a month.
Eileen first met Joe Bell, who later helped her bury Cairo, when she confronted him looking for metal as darkness fell one night. Joe turned out to be armed, a former defense contractor IT specialist with libertarian-leaning politics who had moved back to Moab, where he grew up, to become a blacksmith. They recognized something in each other, and soon Joe was a regular, too.
These connections helped build Eileen a foundation that property and self-reliance alone couldn't give: a boosted faith in her own vision, and a kind of community. They also made the punishing work — Eileen's journey through the desert, with its long days and constant grime — lighter.
Eileen taught herself how to build windows and doors from studying how Cisco's builders had improvised. Joe helped Eileen reroof the cabin with optimistic-looking red metal. Inside, Farland helped her peel back fake wood paneling, chickenwire and plaster, thick paint and layers of wallpaper. They yanked up three shag carpets laid over several sheets of linoleum. Michael helped build a new floor; Fern broke down kitchen walls "full of rat stuff turned to dust." Pieces of past eras, interleaved, emerged from the walls, from the dirt and sheds surrounding. "Star Wars" cards and a gold ring; old coins and floppy disks. Written on the cabin wall, in cursive pencil, a name: Jesse Gruver, Ginger's uncle. And another inside the front door: Franzisco Picabea, 1962, beside faded lines scrawled in Spanish and Basque.
Eventually, Eileen had the cabin in livable shape, the tiny post office overhauled and fitted with an air conditioner, and the shack next door shored up and tightly insulated. She began renting out the two smaller buildings to guests through Airbnb, bringing in a thin but steady seasonal income and visitors from near and far that approximated the diverse mix she missed in Chicago. Besides family and friends, there were artists, an FBI agent, models from Europe, a couple from China, two young women on their way to Vegas to get married. One day, she got an email from a retired teacher in Japan who was building a scale model of Cisco for the railroad set in his house. Another day, some horses wandered into town and she, her sister Maggie and a friend led them back to the camp of some Peruvian shepherds.
The helpers, too, just kept accreting, some in less obvious ways. Among them was a couple from Arizona who stopped by bearing groceries and some dog treats several months after Cairo died. They gently urged Eileen to keep the treats, and she resolved to donate the box to the Moab animal shelter. She figured she could walk a dog. The person behind the desk brought out a desert-born, dingo-looking little thing, with crooked ears, mysterious scars and a limp. She had been returned twice. Now, she climbed into Eileen's car as if she had been there a thousand times, "like she was already my dog," Eileen said. Eileen named her Rima.
Maybe it was just Eileen's way with people that led some to return. Or maybe it was Cisco — its free-feeling distance from regular life, its suggestion that "ruin" was not ruin at all. "Cisco is the best place to land in the midst of troubles," Fern told me. "There is no judgment. If you work, Eileen likes you. If you work hard, she likes you even more." Joe Bell gave me an explanation for the phenomenon that seemed as plausible as any. "Once I realized (Eileen's) situation, I wanted to see how the story ended," he said. "I want to see her succeed."
ON A WALK OUT INTO THE UNKNOWN this winter, I asked Eileen why she thought so many people were drawn to the town. She was quiet for a moment. "I like Farland's thought that they like to peek into the future of humanity," she said. Maybe Cisco compels them for the same reasons apocalyptic narratives about zombies and other disasters are so popular. They can look into the darkness of societal collapse from a safe vantage. Then they can go home to running water and a job.
"I guess this was a town recently enough to be sort of alarming as a ghost town," I said at another point. "If this town can empty out and blow away, basically it can happen to any town."
"And it will," Eileen said. "It happens everywhere."
But late one night as we watched the barrel fire burn down, I asked Farland and Eileen more explicitly if this ghost-town obsession was really about death. They rejected the idea. "It's the opposite," Eileen said. Even if old things can't remember, they take on the feel of those who used them, carrying it forward. And with the work of Eileen's hands everywhere here now — her soul layered with the others who have rebuilt this place over and over and over — she said she won't be leaving if she can help it.
What Eileen has done isn't restoration. But it does feel like a resurrection. Cisco is breathing again, and not just because of the wind changing the pressure in the buildings, making the boards creak.
Eileen still questions her decision to move here when smoke from wildfires blots out the sky or something creepy happens. She hasn't seen her mom in two years. Her grandfather died this spring, and she grieved from a distance, consoling herself by yelling at a bus full of Australian tourists. She sometimes talks about buying an old church in the green wilds of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. But even then, she would keep Cisco. She and her sisters are planning an artist residency in an old Winnebago that she and another friend are framing as a house. Every day, she seems more interested in her chosen home's future than she is in its past.
When Eileen was redoing the floor in the shack near the post office, she found two more signatures. They belonged to the Paces, brothers who founded a local cattle company and owned the mercantile for a time. She signed her own name low on the wall. "To me, this is like art now," she told me. "This is not just making a house. Everything is intentional. Those guys did the same thing.
"Everybody wants to put their name on something. I think that's what art is about:
"Here I am.
"I'm alive right now.
"Look what I made."
This June was much like Eileen's first on the property, a fist of heat pressing down. One weekend, we took off with Rima to look for water — a cake of soap wrapped in brown paper balanced between us on the dash of her little sedan. Not to the trickle spring with its dead cow this time, but to the Colorado River, where a shelf of stone sliced into the current.
The dog watched Eileen peel out of dirt-rimmed clothes and dive under. When she surfaced, floating on her back in an eddy, Rima dashed along the edge, biting and barking at the water — this foreign, wet, wild thing. And Eileen laughed, her teeth flashing up at the slate-gray sky, tassled at its edges by virga that promised rain but never touched the earth.
Sarah Gilman writes and draws from Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Hakai Magazine, BioGraphic, Adventure Journal Quarterly, and others. She was a staff and contributing editor at High Country News for 11 years. This story was funded with reader donations to the High Country News Research Fund.
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