Cisco’s casual re-emergence as an artists’ haunt in the desert

By Jared Blackley

Located on the barren, windswept desert plains 45 miles northeast of Moab—just off Interstate 70 between Crescent Junction and Grand Junction, Colo.—the ghost town of Cisco has seen its share of boom and bust since its founding in 1883. But by the time Eileen Muza pulled into town in 2015, it was a graveyard of abandoned cars and RVs. Most of the buildings had collapsed or were in an advanced state of decay, leaning this way or that. Almost all had been tagged with graffiti or vandalized, their windows shot out a long time ago.

Like most visitors who stop in Cisco, Muza was just passing through. An artist, she was on her way to the Great Panel in Horseshoe Canyon. The pictographs there interested her, but there was something else about Cisco that captivated her. Being from the city, it was the first ghost town she had ever experienced.

“I couldn’t believe that all this stuff had been abandoned,” she said. “That can’t be right. Somebody’s gotta be here. I mean that house has a satellite dish on it. I didn’t want to assume it was abandoned, because you never know. You can go to any ‘abandoned’ building in Chicago, and you’ll find squatters. People will live there. I couldn’t understand it.”

While investigating the town, she noticed one dwelling in particular that, though in a state of disrepair, appeared to be structurally sound. It wasn’t for sale, but she was thinking, “Obviously nobody wants it. Or maybe they do care for it, but are too old to keep it up. Who knows what their story is?” Her curiosity led her to find the owner, and she ended up purchasing approximately 2 acres of land, a cabin and several outbuildings, including the original post office, built in 1887, and then moved on joists for over 2 miles when the railroad town was relocated to its current location in 1890, to lie along the standard gauge rail line.

Water was pumped from the Colorado River to Cisco to fill the steam engines, and the town saw its first boom. A motel, a mercantile, a saloon and a school opened. Cattle barons and shepherds in the area used the depot to ship their goods. By 1900, the town had 173 residents. The Goslin brothers of Cisco shipped more than a quarter-million pounds of wool out of the town in 1906. The population peaked at 323 in 1910 before the demand for wool saw a steep decline and the town experienced its first bust. Only 95 citizens remained in 1920.

Over the next several decades, Cisco would experience several other small boom-and-bust cycles. After steam engines became obsolete and trains no longer needed to stop for water, America’s burgeoning fascination with the automobile turned the town into a service center.

An eccentric and unemployed geologist named Charlie Steen lived in Cisco with his family for a couple years in the early 1950s while pursuing an educated hunch that other geologists at the time referred to as “Charlie’s Folly,” about where to find uranium. The tarpaper shack the Steens lived in is still mostly standing and can be seen just off the main road. He was deeply in debt when he lived there and desperate for a grubstake. His kids’ clothes were thread-bare and the family was living primarily on venison when his hunch paid off. He found uranium in July 1952. A year later, he owned the largest house in Moab, which is now the Sunset Grill, and was known for throwing extravagant parties and spending lavishly. Though he eventually died broke, his discovery spurred a rush in mine claims, which continued for nearly two decades.

When I-70 was completed in the 1970s, Cisco was bypassed by five miles, effectively killing it as a service center. It was a foreseeable fate, one that, according to local lore, inspired Johnny Cash’s song “Cisco Clifton’s Fillin’ Station.” The song is said to be about H. Ballard Harris, who still lives in Dewey, 15 miles south of Cisco on State Road 128. This Scenic Byway follows the Colorado River almost the entire way to Moab and is a painfully beautiful drive.

By the mid-90s, the post office shut its doors and, within a few years, the town was effectively vacant. By the time Muza arrived, no one called Cisco home. At the time, she had a seasonal job working for the Park District in Chicago. She spent her winters traveling. Though there was no running water or sewer system, Cisco seemed a good place to spend her winters.

“I was almost 30,” she said. “I was at a point in my life where I was feeling like I needed to do something or make some changes in my life. I thought [moving to Cisco] could definitely change things for me, for better or worse.”

Optimistic about owning land and fairly confident in her ability to use power tools, she worked feverishly to clean the place up and make it comfortable. As often as possible, she would reuse and repurpose items strewn around her property. There’s a fence made out of old box springs. The outhouse uses worn oil barrels to support the posts. The walls are composed of rusty sheet metal.

Her back porch is a leveled amalgamation of several pieces of concrete of varying size and gravel. “It’s a good thing I was super optimistic about this place,” she said. “If I wasn’t, I never would have succeeded. I told myself, ya know, if worse comes to worst, I guess I could just leave it. That’s what everybody else did. But, of course, I had no plans for that. Once I start a project, I gotta keep going until I see it through.”

And she has seen it through. The project has only developed and grown. Muza hasn’t returned to Chicago in a couple years. According to her profile on Airbnb, Muza now lives in a 1950s airstream and is working on a log cabin built in 1932. The original post office and another small cabin can now be rented through Airbnb (no running water but there is electricity, wi-fi and a private outhouse available).

An abandoned bus was given to her by the owner of an adjacent property—he didn’t even know it was there—may also soon be used as rentable space. Large and detailed murals have been painted on either side, and both celebrate the history of the town and its lore. On one side there are two revolvers firing at each other; on the other, a shepherd stands with his coffee and looks into the distance while his sheep wander along the base of the bus and over the wheel wells. An artfully designed wooden camper with Dutch-style gables has been built on the back of an old truck. Muza’s nonprofit organization, Home of the Brave, will host the town’s first semi-annual artist in residence this month. This camper will be the resident’s personal space, and the shell of a refurbished Winnebago with a raised ceiling and added windows for extra lighting sits 15 feet away, to be used as a studio.

“What I really want to do, what I envision,” she said, “is to make this place somewhere artists can come and work year-round. I mean, there would have to be some sort of vetting process, so not just anyone shows up, but I envision there being different places for different types of artists to stay and work. It’s such a great place for creative thinking. You have time to think out here, but you are subject to the weather and a few other hardships. Perhaps that is its own vetting process. Who knows?”

Though this vision has yet to be formally adapted as part of the nonprofit, creative people are already beginning to show up to help with the work and add art of their own. Mike “Marlow” Mewborn, a vagabond friend of Muza’s who camped nearby this summer, said that in his 40-plus years of rambling around the West, he has never been to a place that plays host to so many bohemians and artists. “There are artists showing up all the time,” he said. “They seem to be drawn to this place.”

The fall Artist Residency Program received 61 applications, from artists representing numerous mediums. There is no reason to believe the spring residency will be any less successful, and who’s to say where it will go from there?

“I have a lot of plans still,” Muza said. “I want to build a house on stilts. I’d like to take some of these abandoned cars and use them to build a bridge over that depression across the street. I mean, why not?”

For short-term lodging in Cisco, visit
Information about the application process for the Artist Residency Program and Home of the Brave nonprofit organization can be found at