The first time I drove the highway that winds northeast from Moab, Utah, I almost crashed. The road follows the Colorado River through towering red mesas stained black with desert varnish. Thickets of pretty tamarisk hug the river banks; hawks and eagles cut sharp circles overhead. I kept veering toward the shoulder and eventually just pulled over, giving in to the urge to gawk. In the parking lot of a trailhead named for a 19th-century cowboy, I sat on the hood of my hatchback and savored the view. Holy shit, I thought. This place is magnificent.
I was on my way to visit my friend Eileen, who’d bought land in Cisco, a ghost town on the desert plateau west of the river. Oh my God Eileen, I gushed when I arrived, the red rock! Eileen nodded: Yeah, people really love the mesas. Personally she hated them. Faced with a sheer canyon wall, she experienced an uneasy synesthetic reaction. All that rock sounded like the surround sound promos they used to play at movie theaters — that rising, overwhelming whine. It made her skin crawl.
Eileen didn’t move to Utah for the mesas, in other words. As she tells it, she came for the garbage.
Audio Listen to an audio version of this article here. Find more at Audm.
Cisco was never grand. Established in the 1880s as a water stop for steam-powered trains, the town peaked at about 250 residents. It served as a hub for sheep and cattle ranchers, then oil and gas drillers, then Cold War uranium prospectors. But in the end the trains switched to diesel, and when an interstate stole the highway’s traffic, the gas station and general store closed. These days Eileen is Cisco’s only full-time resident, making her home in a log cabin at the edge of a trapezoidal tract bounded by Highway 128 and Pumphouse Road. She calls this formation Trash Island, and rightly so. Most houses on it are uninhabitable, splintered and ready to collapse whichever way the wind blows next. Surrounding them is the layered garbage of Cisco’s past. Old cars and railroad ties. PVC pipes, toppled oil derricks. Sun-bleached washing machines. Melting stacks of tarpaper.
These remains are semi-famous. Scenes from Vanishing Point and Thelma and Louise were shot here, and most days at least a few tourists pass through, unless it’s winter. From the accidental Youtube collection, “Ghost Town – Cisco, Utah,” “Cisco Ghost Town, Utah,” “The Ghost Town of Cisco, UT,” and a few dozen similarly titled works, you get a sense of what draws the visitors’ eye. Some videos follow silent narrators as they poke through empty RVs and ruined buildings, lingering on domestic details: a green La-Z-Boy, an organ with broken keys. Others zoom out for landscape shots of pink sunsets or to sweep the whole tableau by drone. From up high, the garbage seems geological, as natural a part of the desert as the scrub and rock.
I must confess, I love this way of looking, though some people call it ruin porn. Eileen and I met almost twenty years ago while rambling around Milwaukee’s slowing industrial yards. It was our favorite pastime. Most weekends, weather permitting, we explored some abandoned factory or another and, if we were lucky, found minor treasures to take home: safety goggles, hard hats, bright cerulean blueprints. For a whole group of our friends, this was being a teenager in the late-nineties Rust Belt, and I remember it as an unmitigated joy.
In high school, Eileen scared me. She slouched around the visual-arts wing in immaculately thrifted outfits flecked with paint, looking like someone who knew exactly what she was about. Whereas I didn’t know myself at all. I played flute in the band instead of studying the subjects I secretly preferred: jazz, which involved improvisation, and dance, which required elegance. When we finally met on a trip to an old foundry, we did not become fast friends. But I saw we were more similar than I’d first thought: both sensitive, reserved, and determined to be tough.
Cisco-as-ghost-town is a screen for whatever fragments of Western fantasy people care to cobble together.
Later, I absorbed the common critique of ruin porn — that it tends to erase history and inspire myth. It’s true that as a high schooler I had a pretty vague sense of the politics that made Milwaukee’s ruins. But mythmaking has always shaped the U.S. landscape. As soldiers and surveyors pushed the country’s borders westward, they wrote adventure stories that influenced frontier policy and converted new flocks of settlers. As Rebecca Solnit puts it, “Representation had become habitable space.” Those old patterns echo today. Cisco-as-ghost-town is a screen for whatever fragments of Western fantasy people care to cobble together, even as the place itself provides incontrovertible evidence that those fantasies end badly.
Eileen and I lost touch after high school. Like many of my peers with the means, I left town. I headed to Minneapolis, and New York, and Tucson, putting more and more distance between myself and Milwaukee with each move. But the farther away I got, the more I grew convinced, in a way I had trouble describing, that my time in my city’s wastelands explained something bigger than me. I watched the economy collapse, then “recover,” felt myself part of a wave of young people cycling through cities searching for opportunity. Then I heard through the grapevine that Eileen had placed herself in an even more foundational set of ruins — a ghost town in the nuclear west — and I thought, maybe she can tell me what it all means.
In the documentary film The Gleaners and I, director Agnes Varda spends two hours talking with scrappers, salvagers, dumpster divers, and outsider artists about what they are looking for and why. Strictly defined, to glean is to collect the food left over after harvest. Varda’s film asks what might be gained by applying that logic to other kinds of trashpicking.
Eileen bought an acre of land with three cabins, a work shed, a tool shed, an Airstream, a Winnebago, and the town’s shuttered post office — each filled with garbage, or, as she saw it, material.
Eileen could have been one of the subjects. With her shaved head, chunky glasses, and patina of desert grime, she’s a striking character. She’s also resourceful. After high school she tried art school in Chicago but quit after discovering how much debt it required. So she worked as a garlic harvester, airport baggage handler, commuter ferry deckhand, library clerk, postal officer, and snow shoveller. She met people, got strong, collected skills, and saved a little money — though in gentrifying Chicago it didn’t go very far. When a road trip took her through Cisco in 2014, another life suggested itself. She bought a one-acre lot straddling Pumphouse Road that was packed with three cabins, a work shed, a tool shed, an Airstream trailer, a Winnebago trailer, and the town’s shuttered post office. Each building was filled with garbage, or, as Eileen saw it, material. For the next two years, she split time between Chicago and Cisco, alternately earning money and doing salvage work. I showed up at something of a tipping point. The property was spruced up and homey, and the post office, rehabbed as a tourist rental, promised an income stream. Cisco still had no running water and was an hour’s drive from a grocery store, but Eileen was ready to move there full-time.
“You want a tour?” she asked within minutes of my arrival. She seemed more outgoing than I remembered, but then the same was probably true of me. I followed her to the north side of the property, where she had replaced the floor of the post office with a coffee shop sign, and on to the main cabin, south of Pumphouse, whose walls she had insulated with foam pool noodles. Out back, she’d lofted telephone poles into an ingenious shade-screen-and-deck and dragged concrete slabs over from Trash Island to fashion a porch. But the pièce de résistance was the frontyard fence, made from dozens of stacked tires and decorative barbed wire. It opened in the middle into an arbor molded from bent pipes. “That fence took forever,” Eileen said, grimacing at the memory. But it kept drive-by tourists from peeking into her yard.
The next morning I woke to coffee warmed on a camp fire — Eileen had been up for hours — and an overview of the day’s possibilities. We could drill holes in a metal drum, layer it with rocks, and sink it into the ground to construct a drainage system for the Airstream. Or re-weld the oil derrick that held a plastic water barrel for an ad-hoc shower. Or empty and sort through the tool shed, which Eileen hadn’t touched since she bought the place. I’d spent four years of my twenties working as a house cleaner, so I suggested we tackle the shed.
“Ugh, this makes me nervous,” Eileen said, hesitating before she removed the chain holding the shed door shut. It flew open and loosed an avalanche of hoses and shovels and rancid dust. Coughing, we sifted through the objects and sorted them into piles. I am normally good at sorting by form and function, but here the usual taxonomies did not apply. What was that jar filled with? What were those chains for? To what machine did these parts belong? Eileen frowned at a coffee can heaped with ore-flecked rocks. Copper? Gold? She was figuring it out, too.
What was that jar filled with? What were those chains for? To what machine did these parts belong? Eileen was figuring it out, too.
A bit later her friend Joe showed up with a truck and trailer. Joe lived 45 minutes away and had met Eileen when he stopped in Cisco one day to collect scrap metal. True to that first meeting, he recognized a lot of the junk in the shed. As an amateur mining enthusiast, he could guess with fair certainty that the ore was pyrite. He was also a welder and part-time handyman, so when Eileen or I found something we couldn’t name, we’d hand it to Joe and watch him turn the object over in his hands to divine its origins. Really old propane heater. Tractor tire chains. Ventilation ducts for that wood-burning stove. Suddenly everything was less mysterious. Our gleaning now evoked a context.
After an hour or so, another car rolled in: Farland and her dog Twig, who’d also met Eileen on a salvage mission to Cisco. Wiry in a Fuck Your Fascist Beauty Standards t-shirt, Farland helped us clean the shed while Twig sniffed out Eileen’s dog Cairo. She chatted as she worked, all news and anecdotes and gossip. Her chickens were laying like crazy. The ranchers down the road were expanding. A guy in town had had to be handed his ass. And the tourist rafting season had ended, thank god. Farland was finally done driving trucks strapped with kayaks. She was thinking of walking south to Albuquerque in celebration. Only 400 miles, she shrugged.
Varda’s film invokes another sense of gleaning — to gather information — and observes how trashpickers come to know their homes by digging around in its waste. Likewise, Eileen learned about Cisco from the scraps left behind, and by comparing notes with the part-time neighbors, former residents, and family members who stopped by to chat as she worked in her yard. She met Lou, who owned the land to her west, and Rob and Dave, who owned the land to her east, and Rusty, who used to live near the post office. She heard stories about Ethel, the proprietor of the general store, which toward the end sold only warm Coke and ice cream, and Dan Vanover, a turquoise miner who served as town mayor in the 1960s. She heard about the guy who manufactured counterfeit quarters, and Larry, who surprised his wife Sharon with salvaged gifts, including a clawfoot bathtub. By all accounts Cisco’s residents had made ends meet creatively. You kind of had to, Eileen figured.
For the moment, we were learning about the last owner of Eileen’s land by sorting through his shed. She’d already pieced together a number of facts about Ernie:
- That he, too, came from Wisconsin,
- then bounced around the US,
- doing a stint on the railroad
- and a jail term “for stealing potatoes or something.”
- He kept a Bible and a set of Western dime novels by his bed
- and lived alone.
- Prospecting around Cisco, he found opals, gold, and other minerals —
- enough, at least, to keep a couple motorbikes.
- Neighbors liked to say he buried a fortune in the yard,
- though that was doubtful.
Each object we found added a new dimension to Ernie’s story. The dozen handle-less picks suggested icy winters, scorching summers, and dirt packed like concrete. We didn’t know what to make of the red hand drill, sticky with crude — was that a sign of success or a tease? — but the wall calendar was clear enough. It tracked jobs and nothing else, which told me how to read the dozens of peach pits that littered the shed’s floor and shelves. Small pleasures in a life defined by work.
By the end of the day we had cleared out the shed and drifted to separate corners of the yard. Joe loaded a stove into his trailer while Farland sat on a lawn chair by the Airstream, buffing rescued dishes. Eileen rolled tires to the front yard for her wall, and Cairo trotted back from a long absence down Highway 128. He carried the hoof from some roadkill — pronghorn, maybe — and plopped down to gnaw on it. I stood petting a jealous Twig and feeding unusable wood and cardboard to a fire in an oil drum. Folded in my back pocket was a tractor-engine manual I’d saved to read later. The engine was manufactured by LaRoi, a company once based in Milwaukee. For a moment, it occurred to me to be surprised at how comfortable I felt, but that was wrong. I wasn’t surprised at all. Waving smoke from my eyes, I watched my long-lost friend heft a tire over her head and, biceps flexing, push it into place.
Ruins are the idealized structures of a vaguely defined past; rubble is the aftermath of specific events that people live in, reuse, and form material relationships to.
I didn’t realize it yet, but I’d spent the day gathering the fragments of a thesis — about what might be learned in a place littered with disassembled history. The anthropologist Gastón Gordillo draws a helpful distinction between ruins and rubble. Ruins are the idealized structures of a vaguely defined past, meant for looking but not touching; rubble is the aftermath of specific events that people live in, reuse, and form material relationships to. If treating a place as ruined makes it hard to ask what happened there, paying attention to rubble opens the question up.
And paying attention to rubble, Gordillo says, is a bodily act. After a long day’s work, that seemed right to me. The town’s residues greased my face, and its grit rattled around in my sinuses. When I went to blow my nose, the snot came out charcoal gray.
Back in Tucson, I decided to write about Cisco: another bodily act. My cleaning job had taught me to think of it that way. For four years, I spent my days in other people’s houses, rearranging objects, then went home and did the same thing on the page. When Eileen heard about my project, she began feeding me material, leaving long stories on my voicemail and sending short ones by email. “Tire wall and winnie,” read one subject line. “Rocks n melons,” “Map, kettle, door jamb.” One day Eileen sent a note with the heading “Floor,” as in the new one she was laying in the main cabin. “Hey!” she wrote. “These are the guys who built the house I’m working on.” Attached was a photo of a wood plank marked Pace Bros in blue cursive and, below that, a link to the website Find a Grave.
I clicked through to the entry for Sidney David Pace, born in Payson, Utah in 1858. He migrated to the Moab area in 1885 and became a successful rancher, running about a hundred cattle from bases in Cisco and the canyons. The website supplied further details about his family — wife Rebecca, son Reece — and colorful snippets about who punched whose cows and exactly how the rancher transported the stone and wood for his stately home. Tacked onto the end was this afterthought:
Sid Pace (Old Sid) would turn over his few cattle to the Ute Indians to run for the summer months. The Indians returned them all, and if one had died, they provided proof. Sid trusted the Indians and they were honest.
The citation for that anecdote led me to a 1972 book by the Daughters of Utah Pioneers, where I read further:
The last Indian uprising in Grand County was on September 8, 1906. The Indians resentment was revealed in their slaughtering of deer on the La Sals in an attempt to eliminate all the settlers food. … [But no]t all of the Indians were resentful all the time.
None of the objects floating around Cisco told the Utes’ side of these encounters. All I had were rumors that the Old Spanish Trail had passed through the land where the town was founded. By the time Mormon settlers arrived in the late 1840s, the Utes had spent more than two centuries adapting to ruthless Spanish colonial mores. Those not enslaved to work on Spanish ranches stayed safe by acquiring horses, raiding neighboring tribes, and growing into a powerful trading force that moved goods and people up and down the Trail. The Mormon settlers, who understood little of that history, secured their promised land by massacring indigenous people or running them into the mountains. When Utes responded by sabotaging ranches and towns, the settlers depicted them as monsters while painting their own violence, in the words of one federal surveyor, “in as soft colors as possible.” By the end of the century, tribal bands in the Moab area were removed south to the Ute Mountain reservation or north to the Ouray and Uintah reservation, onto land a Mormon official judged “a vast contiguity of waste.”
It’s also hard to find evidence of the Chinese workers who blasted tunnels through mountains and laid that heavy iron rail that completed the project of colonizing the West. One day a guy named Lyle showed up with a metal detector and found a bronze coin with Chinese characters by the railroad tracks. Eileen sent me a picture, and with the help of the internet I identified it as daoguang tongbao, the currency that circulated under the Daoguang Emperor from 1821 to 1850. That was a brutal time in China, marked by internal rebellions and imperial invasion. A generation later, Chinese migrants to the U.S. made up 90 percent of the workforce that completed the first transcontinental railroad. Some camps leveraged that labor power to secure wage increases, protection from physical abuse, and medical attention from Chinese doctors. In 1867, five thousand workers in California laid down their tools to start the era’s largest strike. The railroad companies cut off food supplies and starved the workers back to the line, but the threat of immigrants’ power endured in white America’s mind. Nativist movements spread in Western states, and Congress passed the first national anti-immigration law, the Chinese Exclusion Act.
Whether they’re remarked on or not, these absences are embedded in the place Cisco has become. To sift through rubble is to bump up against the enormity of what’s left out.
At the corner of South First and East Center in downtown Moab is a two-story brick building with government offices, including the Grand County Recorder. On my second trip to see Eileen, I stopped in to ask about mining claims. Namely, how do you make one? The desk clerk pulled a BLM map from a file cabinet, which indicated the areas where I could stake a claim under the U.S. General Mining Act. Passed in 1872 and hardly amended since, the law facilitates mineral exploration on public land. With just a two-page form and $200 in annual fees, I could access 20 square acres to dig and drill as I please.
In 1952, a prospector renting a tarpaper shack in Cisco drilled into the biggest deposit of uranium ever discovered in the United States.
Next, in a tiny back room lined with planning and property records, the clerk showed me where to look up historical mining claims. I pulled down a volume from 1952, the year Charlie Steen, a Texan prospector renting a tarpaper shack in Cisco, drilled into the biggest deposit of uranium ever discovered in the United States. News of that find, plus $10,000 bonuses from the Atomic Energy Commission, drew thousands of hopeful prospectors to the Colorado Plateau. Moab’s population grew more than fivefold in a year. County recorder Esther Somerville was used to filling one claims ledger annually. At the height of the boom, she went through one a week.
Eileen learned Charlie Steen’s story soon after moving to Cisco. Nobody could say exactly which house was his, but that wasn’t the point. The uranium boom was Eastern Utah’s winningest piece of history, and Steen its winningest protagonist; any proximity was worth a boast. Newspapers from the era reveled in Steen’s rags-to-riches arc and kept tabs on how he spent his new fortune. Steen understood his part in the pageant well: He held a press conference to bronze his prospecting boots and crafted zippy sound bites like “Poverty and I have been friends for a long time, but I’d just as soon keep other company.”
Few prospectors found anything close to Steen’s success. An astonishing 309,380 mining claims were made in four eastern counties between 1946 and 1959, and yet in 1955 there were only 800 active mines across the entire Colorado Plateau. Fewer still produced significant amounts of ore. Uranium was deposited unevenly, for the most part, and successful exploration took money. Though claim fees were cheap, equipment and labor were not. Some prospectors tried to do all the work themselves, digging tiny “dogholes” at the surface and hoping to turn a profit. Many went broke, living in cars or cardboard lean-tos.
Company mine workers had it harder. Some spent their days absorbing the shock of pneumatic drills; others stooped in dig spaces too small to stand. Nearly all breathed radioactive gas and dust in poorly ventilated tunnels and shafts. Wages rose for higher grade uranium, so good pay often meant more concentrated exposure. Radiation levels at Steen’s mine, Mi Vida, were lower than the industry average, but 600 workers still got sick or were killed. Indigenous people faced the worst conditions. On the Navajo Nation, outside operators won contracts by promising to share profits with the tribe, and then reneged. Some mines lacked basic amenities like toilets, drinking water, and changing rooms. One air sample taken by the U.S. Public Health Service registered radiation 4750 times above levels then considered safe. Navajo towns like Red Valley lost a whole generation of men to cancer.
And the boom loosed other damage. Moab’s streets and schools strained to support the swelling population. A wild market in fake uranium penny stocks drained investors across the state and the country of their savings.
I think about all that when I read claim names like
with their cheery gamblers’ take on the uranium rush. You could call it naiveté, but that’s too easy. Some prospectors had participated in other extractive projects and seen the damage they caused firsthand. The mine names were a sign of something more complicated than ignorance, like people’s capacity to salvage an emotional consolation prize from a venture more likely to wreck them than make them rich.
Back in Cisco, Eileen told me more about Ernie, the former owner of her land. From a cookie tin reserved for her most delicate finds, she pulled a stack of grimy papers that incorporated his mineral exploration company. She had his bedside Bible, too, and we flipped through and saw he’d marked out the Parable of the Talents. Maybe that was Ernie’s consolation for his hustle. Cisco old-timers say he taught himself to do a little of everything — prospecting, digging, dynamiting, promoting stocks — and caught work whenever he could.
What did all that labor get him? One afternoon I let myself into the workshed, where I’d stashed some bread and cheese in Eileen’s mini-fridge. On the bottom shelf of a table piled with tools was a lumpy package tied up in string. Nosily, I opened it and recognized the contents instantly: pitchblende, the gray rock that indicates patches of really good ore. For a moment I just stared at it, unsure of what to do next. Then I wrapped that ugly package back up and went to go eat.
Weary of the way so much U.S. Western history is conveyed — in tales marked by silence and violent boosterism — I began looking for another narrative mode. The scope of my uranium research grew. One way to counter myth, I thought, was to let stories be as sprawling as they are in real life. Back in Tucson, I read about mill workers, downwinders, waste sites, war sites, and present-day production. I got buried in books and browser tabs: Uranium, Being Nuclear, The Doomsday Machine, Canaries on the Rim, photo essays on Hiroshima, articles about cluster bombs made from nuclear waste, and updates from the Ute-led political action committee fighting a new uranium land-grab at Bears Ears. When Eileen called from Cisco, I’d go off on a screed, offloading whatever I was reading to keep my head above the text.
I grew sympathetic to Annie McClanahan’s suggestion that we tell metonymic histories. The lit theorist proposed the idea while defending a book of photos of abandoned Detroit factories published in the wake of the 2008 financial crash. Critics panned the collection as ruin porn; you couldn’t just swap out one economic disaster for another, they complained. McClanahan countered that in the big picture the same deregulatory forces had made post-industrial landscapes and the foreclosure crisis. Place the two side by side, she argued, and a viewer is encouraged to remember how that’s so.
It was like gleaning, I decided. Pluck a fragment from the heap and place it alongside a second and third, narrating connections as you go. A metonymic history of Utah’s uranium rush might put
the uranium tailings mixed into homes, sidewalks, and open land in Monticello, Utah — leftovers from the mill where many residents worked
documents from failed lawsuits brought by sick Monticello workers who couldn’t prove their illness to the satisfaction of the courts
radioactive traces in the cells of anyone born in the U.S. after 1951
the peak size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal: 33,000 warheads
nuclear “allergy”: the casual phrase used by Cold War planners to describe Japanese unwillingness to host nuclear weapons on U.S. military bases 15 years after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs
and continue on to
the closed Shinkolobwe mine in the Congo, a country which produced more uranium for the U.S. than any other and today produces conflict minerals like niobium for smartphones
the culturally disorienting legal procedures by which Aboriginal people make claims to hold off mining projects as Australia becomes a leader in global uranium production
a jar of the radioactive sludge spilled by a truck headed to the last U.S. uranium mill, in the Ute community of White Mesa
a sign from a recent White Mesa Mill protest: We Like Our Water Without Uranium
non-existent glass from the vitrification plant at the Hanford site in Washington state, which is supposed to turn nuclear waste into solid cylinders but, billions of dollars later, doesn’t.
Each one of these histories demands deep engagement, to be sure. But it’s also true there is no depth without scope. In the fields north of Cisco’s train tracks sits a giant red oil tank blown out of town years ago by a strong wind. Eileen calls it her Beating Red Heart, and she hikes out to visit whenever life around Trash Island gets to be too much. She throws a rope ladder over the top, and, balancing carefully so the tank doesn’t start rolling, hoists herself up. For Eileen, who knows Cisco with an often-claustrophobic intimacy, this zoomed-out view isn’t abstract. It helps her see the relationship between this house and that water tank, the way two trucks make a fence and the road disappears into scrub. She can ask in a more layered way what the hell she’s gotten herself into, even if the answer will never be a whole.
The more time you spend picking through the rubble, the more you are forced to reckon with the limits of clean-up. Often the lesson presents itself plainly, like the morning Eileen woke up, went outside to pee, and saw a thick sheet of oil seeping across the lot next door. The owner, Lou, lived in Salt Lake City but kept an oil rig in Cisco that had apparently sprung a leak. Eileen called Lou’s business partner, Jim, and asked what to do. Jim said he had recently retired and told her to call the oil company. Eileen, who on most days is an accommodating neighbor, hung up and dialed the EPA instead.
At first, cleanup looked like one oil company worker with two five-gallon plastic buckets ladling what oil he could back into the tank beside the rig. The next day it looked like a group of company men with guns negotiating with a meek EPA representative. When Eileen went over to get details about when the spill would be gone, the higher-ups screamed at her to go away. She flipped and screamed back, and the exchange spiraled. The EPA rep just gawked.
Eventually “remediation” did occur: Backhoes dug up some federally mandated quantum of soil, and dump trucks hauled it away. It’s like nothing ever happened, Eileen told me, and she laughed, blackly.
Oil and gas development isn’t just a part of Cisco’s past, then. East of town on Highway 128, a sign announces the arrival of the CISCO INDUSTRIAL CENTER with the unsettling tagline, HYDROCARBON HEAVEN. Whatever this extractive era shares with previous ones, it is different, too. Companies dig deeper, frack harder, and drill at crazier angles to find profitable flows. They also produce a lot of the chemical-laced water used to clean and stimulate wells and blast open rock. Around Cisco this wastewater is disposed at Danish Flats, a ghost town resurrected to host 14 evaporation ponds. In theory, the harmful compounds will be separated out and recycled, but the process is poorly understood and poorly regulated. Utah doesn’t presently require the sort of groundwater monitoring that might catch leaks, and, though airborne emissions are monitored, the state does a lax job of it.
Fracking wastewater is disposed at Danish Flats, a ghost town resurrected to host 14 evaporation ponds.
This is handy for companies trying to profit from oil and gas waste. For eight years after opening, the Danish Flats facility claimed emissions so low the state didn’t require filtering equipment; later, data suggested the ponds were emitting tens of tons of volatile compounds a year. Danish Flats Environmental Services was fined $80,000, negotiated the penalty down to $50,000, and began slowly installing a filtration system. But before the system was operational, the property was sold to a Texas company, Oilfield Water Logistics, which promptly asked regulators for permission to recalculate the emissions levels. And so the pollution continued. “They’re still trying to figure out what their emissions are,” a program manager at the Utah Department of Air Quality told a Moab journalist, in 2016. “It’s going to take time and some thinking and some procedures.”
What do you do when the place you live is contaminated? Everyday acts of living, breathing, and relating become uncertain. In response, geographer Shiloh Krupar recommends thinking transnaturally — getting to know a place by tracking the way people, plants, animals, objects, and land have been made into garbage, or brought together amidst waste. When I adopt that approach in Cisco, I think about:
Heavy industrial, the zoning designation for most land south of Pumphouse Road. A reminder of Cisco’s toxic soil, a reason not to plant vegetables, and, as Eileen discovered in a letter from the Grand County planning department, a designation that made half her homestead illegal. She later got a second letter incriminating the other half. The county was cracking down on Airbnb rentals, and until Eileen could get a business license and convince inspectors to waive the many building codes she was violating, her main source of income was moot.
Rusty’s estimation of what Sharon would do if she heard that Eileen had been charging $60 per night for a stay in the post office: “shit and turn blue.” Rusty said it matter-of-factly, without ire, on a visit she otherwise spent marveling at Eileen’s salvaging skills. Sharon lives in Moab but was once Ernie’s tenant and left behind enough of her belongings that Eileen wondered if the move was actually a choice. Sharon can come by anytime, Eileen told Rusty, a possibility Rusty made politely clear was probably not in the cards.
The butchering parties held occasionally when Rusty and Sharon lived in Cisco. Back then a farmer-neighbor would come around bearing old hens for residents to eat, and though it wasn’t commercial grade meat, no one ever turned up their noses at the gift. In fact they had fun with it: When a batch came in, everyone met at the town bar, got drunk, and, collectively, slaughtered the chickens.
Eileen’s dog Cairo, who led an exuberant life in Cisco before getting run down by a car speeding through on Highway 128. It was a hit-and-run, and though several friends were in town, no one saw the driver or the vehicle. But Eileen claims to recognize the combination of recklessness and social irresponsibility. As far as she’s concerned, it was an adventure outfitter’s van carrying rafters from Moab to the Colorado River.
The tree planted by settlers to stabilize the Colorado’s banks, now flourishing everywhere in dense groves. Tamarisks love a salty soil, and Eastern Utah has plenty of it, thanks to upriver dams and farming runoff. The trees, which pull salt up through their roots and concentrate it at the soil surface when their leaves fall, are blamed for choking out other plants and hogging water. But not all these charges are true, and the aggressive tactics deployed against the “invasive” trees — bulldozing, beetles — have had harmful side effects. The tamarisk is made a monster, while the ongoing destructiveness of commonplace farming practices goes unremarked.
The forests that catch fire in neighboring states and send waves of smoke rolling though Eastern Utah. As the world heats up, Cisco will have more days like those during the Cortez blaze, when the smoke was so thick it blocked out the sun.
Ron Wriston, the sheep rancher who passed through one hazy day looking for a business partner to help him sell the chert and cantaloupes heaped in the passenger seat of his station wagon. Rocks and melons, he nudged Eileen, could be a good side hustle. She declined but made Ron her friend, and he did what he does for friends: brought her 7-11 pizzas and taught her about sheep herding. Used to be Basque herders did a lot of the work, a fact corroborated by another plank Eileen found in her cabin, carved in a mixture of Spanish and Basque. Now it’s mostly Central American herders who keep sheep ranches running, though the latest xenophobic resurgence threatens that arrangement.
The list of things a sheepherder might encounter in the desert fields. Antique bottles, rotting mattresses, cows and pronghorn bones, old hitching posts snagged with fur from bears scratching their backs. It’s desolate. “This place is wide open country,” said Raymond Best. “Nothing but sagebrush. Anybody could die in here, and they will never find his body.” For four months in 1943, Best ran the Moab Isolation Center, where Japanese-Americans deemed “troublesome” at other internment camps were held, until the War Relocation Administration once again changed its mind and sent the prisoners to a site on the Navajo Nation.
The suitcase standing handle-up on a hill near Eileen’s, ready to be carried off. Stuffed with bills, contracts, and personal correspondence, it was a rude file cabinet whose contents included a letter from a former resident complaining about an oilman who managed the fields east of town. The oilman had bragged that he kept his workers docile by paying them partially in drugs. Addicts are manipulable, after all. And the oilman’s point in explaining this to a neighbor with no stake in his field? Not just a boast but a threat.
The 100-lb bags of bentonite kept in a storage container in Lou’s yard. Oil and gas workers add the chalky clay to their drilling fluid to lubricate equipment and prevent blowouts. It’s also used as a sealant in landfills. This particular bentonite was mined in Wyoming and bears a motto that the owners of the Black Hills Bentonite Co. assume customers will approve: AS REGULATIONS GROW, FREEDOM DIES.
The airstrip cut just beyond Lou’s land to give quick access to the oil fields. The strip is abandoned now, but one day an old man landed there in a single-seat plane he’d taken out for a spin. Lest this seem charming or cinematic, the trip nearly killed him when the wind threatened to tangle the plane in some telephone wires. Eileen said hi and got a picture, and the pilot took off again, reluctantly.
Whatever the two drunk guys thought they were asserting or defending when they unloaded their guns at Eileen for an entire afternoon. They parked down Pumphouse in a white truck, watching Eileen repair the tire wall, and suddenly bullets whizzed around her shoulders and head. She ducked out of the way, retreated to the Airstream, made a sandwich, and, after a half hour, headed back outside. Again the bullets came whizzing, and again she retreated to the trailer, waited, and returned to the front yard. And still, more bullets, aimed not to kill but to terrify, and this time Eileen stayed put as they rang past, continuing her work until the men got bored and started up the truck. They whipped it around and drove past, staring her down. Eileen wore clip-on sunglasses and, shaking, flipped them up to stare back.
When toxic systems are dismantled right in front of you, it seems best not to rush the reassembly.
Maybe Krupar’s transnatural thinking is more than a response to contamination. Maybe it begins to suggest a different way of inhabiting place. For two centuries the American West has been held together by lies about the supposed separation between people and animals, living and nonliving, bodies and land, and the heroic human actor who rises out of it all to master history. What’s left after busting open these categories, I’m not sure. When toxic systems are dismantled right in front of you, it seems best not to rush the reassembly. It’s too easy to accidentally build the same thing all over again.
“Why didn’t you shoot back?” asked Eileen’s neighbor Rob, who lives in Colorado and keeps a Cisco house for getaways. “Those guys are assholes.” He should know: One of them is his second cousin. The day Eileen got shot at, Rob received a phone call from a Moab police officer who said the alarm on his house had been tripped. After some investigating, he and the officer sussed out the culprits. The officer paid them a warning visit, and Rob told them not to come to town anymore.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about that story, debating how much to worry. For her part Eileen prefers to put it out of mind. Utah is an open-carry state, and most days she does so with a bulky 9 mm on her hip. Word gets around. On a trip to the Moab dump, Eileen heard a story from her friend Curt, who’d heard it from two men who stopped in Cisco to ogle an old Ford shortbed. They were met by a tough guy who swaggered over with a 9 and told them to get the hell off his property. Tickled by this description of Eileen, Curt shut his mouth and let the gender mystification stand.
My favorite Eileen-with-a-gun story is immortalized on Cisco’s Trip Advisor page. “BEWARE of the angry gun-wielding residents,” reads one review. The town only looks abandoned, the reviewer warns, before describing a run-in with a woman with a gun “attached to her belt” who told him he’d get his head blown off if he trespassed. Other neighbors weren’t so judicious on the trigger. “If you want to leave alive, be smart,” the review concludes. The experience earned Cisco three out of a possible five stars.
Stereotypes can be useful, then. Besides the gun, Eileen relies on isolationist décor to give herself breathing room. She isn’t attached to the idea of private property, but she does need privacy, and the tourists often take that away. “It’s like living in the zoo and you’re the only monkey left,” she told me. “Everyone wants to bother you about something.” They disgorge from yellow tour buses to putter through Eileen’s yard. They veer offroad, flipping donuts and squealing around and freaking her out. They stop their cars in front of the cabin, roll down the window, snap a photo, and speed away. And so she protects the land with a surveillance camera, barbed wire, rubber rats, and hand-painted signs. Fucc Off! in curly script. Achtung!!!! with skulls. She’s hung other signs — Keep Out, You Will Be Punished By God & Man — at strategic spots around town to scare people away.
The efficacy of this tactic is mixed. For some people, the signs make Cisco more fascinating. A couple years back, the subreddit abandonedporn hosted a 164-post thread discussing a message Eileen had painted on a conked-out RV: TAKE NOTHING BUT PICTURES. BE RESPECTFUL FOR FUCKS SAKE. The commenters debated the abstract merits of taking things or not, and, after the major points had been rehearsed, began trading travel stories. “I was just there last week!” wrote one redditor, to which another replied, “Nice. I was there last Tuesday.” “Literally just drove through an hour ago,” reported a third; “[m]y favorite ghost town I’ve visited,” went a fourth. And a fifth, summing up the rest: “If you’re an abandonedporn fan Cisco is a gold mine.”
And so the garbage gaze hovers, haunts, returns. Eileen and Cisco have been featured in an absurd number of media, including but not limited to a feature-length documentary, a New York podcast, a public radio segment, a travel show, a Dutch game show, a rock music video, a Utah Jazz commercial, a fashion magazine interview, an environmental magazine cover story with hand-drawn illustrations, a bunch of little articles, a bunch of little blogs, and countless social media mentions. Sometimes the representations are serious, sometimes cheap, sometimes confused, sometimes sweet. The documentary explores both Eileen’s project and Utah mining history. The podcast introduces Cisco with whistling music straight out of Olde-Saloon central casting. The music video stages a mixed-genre hillbilly zombie scene. The Jazz ad watches Eileen playing basketball with her new dog, Rima, on a homemade basketball hoop. The Cisco that emerges is a hodgepodge of pioneer symbolism, real historical tidbits, dystopian backdrop, garbage laboratory, and quirky/grim/hopeful stewardship.
If the tourists tend to misunderstand what happened here, they also misunderstand what is happening: ongoing oil and gas development, renewed attempts to steal Ute land…
Sifting through these stories, I think of Krupar’s warning about spectacle, how it can obscure “lingering toxicity … and the way the past still shapes the present not just theoretically but materially.” If the tourists tend to misunderstand what happened in and around Cisco, they also misunderstand what is happening: ongoing oil and gas development, renewed attempts to steal Ute land, and the way their gaze is never as harmless as they think. A year after Eileen moved in full-time, a scout came by Cisco to ask about shooting for Adventure Capitalists. The reality show puts star investors in thrilling locations, where they meet entrepreneurs hoping to sell outdoor fitness and lifestyle gear. In the end the producers chose Moab instead, and the episodes emphasized the landscape’s useable, leisurely features — the things you can climb, swim, boat on, play atop, or motor over. Southeastern Utah is depicted as an ideal place for what anthropologist Anna Tsing calls salvage accumulation: “the conversion of stuff with other histories of social relations (human and not human) into capitalist wealth.” Meanwhile 70 percent of Moab residents and temporary migrants work seasonal, low-wage jobs serving tourists. A third go without health insurance; all face a housing market dominated by expensive short-term rentals and fancy vacation homes. And city services — sewage, garbage, recycling — are badly burdened by the waste visitors leave behind.
Southeastern Utah is depicted as an ideal place for salvage accumulation: ‘the conversion of stuff with other histories of social relations (human and not human) into capitalist wealth.’
So I feel protective of Eileen when people make their imaginative claims on Cisco. She’s one of the least judgmental people I know, and often really bad at saying no. She might complain she’s wary of a journalist and still give that journalist hours of her time. She might tell me, when I ask whether arts grants might help sustain her work, that she doesn’t want to turn Cisco into an “elite art colony,” but then start a residency program at the encouragement of her sisters and watch squirmingly when one trumpets the project on VICE. She might resent it when an acquaintance comes to town and stays without contributing work or food, but she rarely tells them so. This past Christmas, two years after reconnecting, Eileen and I met up in Milwaukee. We hung out in our friend Lauren’s parents’ living room, warming up by the fireplace. Eileen had just eaten four bowls of Lauren’s mom’s noodles and looked cleaner than I’d seen her since high school. She also looked very, very tired. A bunch of sorta-friends had invited themselves for a free vacation in August, she said with a sigh. There goes two summer weeks. “You know, you can tell them no,” I said, uncharacteristically blunt. “You have a right to say no. They seem like a stupid distraction, but they end up shaping what Cisco’s about.”
Later, home in Tucson, I called and apologized. Who was I to tell her what to do? I had my own traveler tendencies to reckon with. But Eileen hadn’t thought to be mad. “No,” she said, “that was good advice. I do have control. If people wanna come, I could say no.” She paused and added, “But I won’t.”
Boundaries are their own fantasy, of course, and maybe Eileen’s lack of them opens something up. One day a woman named Carrie arrived in town to take photos. Eileen struck up a conversation, and Carrie explained that the photos were part of a larger art project about how, as a young woman, she’d been raped. At the time, few people in her conservative Southern hometown gave much support. Now, several decades later, she was compiling images of the people and places and objects she had turned to in the years after the assault. One of those comforts had been Thelma and Louise, which includes a scene shot in Cisco, with Ernie in a supporting role.
Boundaries are their own fantasy, of course, and maybe Eileen’s lack of them opens something up.
As they talked, Carrie and Eileen connected, so much so that before Carrie left she gave Eileen one of her project’s ur-objects: a pamphlet with the feminist raised-fist Venus symbol and block letters reading YOU ARE NOT ALONE. Touched, Eileen framed the pamphlet and hung it in a prominent spot in the Airstream. A month later she was working out in the yard when she noticed a dented van spray-painted with activist slogans parked next to the tire wall. Disconcerted, she surveyed the yard and found a stranger poking around by the Airstream. The young woman told Eileen she’d entered the yard to give Rima some water. She was frail with facial piercings that looked infected; she fidgeted and had a blank stare. Later, after the woman had driven away, Eileen checked the Airstream and found that, while nothing else was missing, the pamphlet was gone.
She must have needed it, Carrie said, when Eileen called with the news. After her anger passed, Eileen agreed that was probably true. So she decided to think of the theft as a gift. That wasn’t an act of generosity; Eileen was just acknowledging the way she is porous to everyone and everything that passes through Cisco, whether she has chosen to be or not. It’s hard to be a purist amongst the rubble.
On a recent phone call, Eileen caught me up on the post-holiday news. Weirdly enough, she’d been invited to give a talk to a group of historic preservationists who wanted to know what she was doing in Cisco. Weirder still, after living there for two full-time years, she sort of knew the answer. “I have plans to build things that are reminiscent of all eras,” she told me. “And I want it to be a patchwork, because that’s what it is anyway. That’s what it always was.” The line fell silent. “How do I explain that to them?”
Eileen doesn’t necessarily expect things to work out in Cisco. The tourists could make it unbearable. So could oil drilling or climate change or any number of issues with money. But she considers her relative success a small thing in the grand scheme of the place. On the phone she told me she’d just been to Moab to meet with the planning department, hoping to resolve her infractions, and had heard they were kicking people out of their trailers. In Grand County you can’t live in a trailer unless it’s in an RV park. “And you know why people are staying in trailers in Moab. Because it’s too expensive to live there,” Eileen said, disgusted. “It’s like, come on, people are just trying to live and work here—”
“Whoa, dude!” she yelled suddenly, interrupting herself. “There’s a helicopter — it’s flying so low —” Her voice trailed off, and then she muttered, “That is so scary.” Apparently, someone was taking a joyride down Highway 128 as if the helicopter were a car. “Why is he doing that?!” I asked. The question was mostly rhetorical, the answer bigger than Cisco.
“I don’t know,” Eileen said, “but I want him to stop.”