Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Ghost Town of Cisco, Utah

     On October 25th, we left Des Moines to remake our pilgrimage to the Southwest.  I had to do everything possible to go back and get the pictures that were stolen from me in Kingman.  It was a tough few months getting everything together but it was worth it.  It's always worth it to be out on the road.  

     We spent the entire first day driving the 1,000 miles to Grand Junction so that the next morning our adventure in Utah could officially begin.  

     Just before sunrise on Friday, October 26th we turned off of Interstate 70 and headed South on Highway 6.  This is also known as Crescent to Cisco East Road.  We were heading to Arches National Park and decided to take the most obscure path to get there.  Tiny and rolling, Highway 6 was empty as air.  It was 20 degrees that morning and just as the sun started to pierce above the horizon, the deserted little town of Cisco popped right up in front of our eyes, mysterious and unexpected.   

     We parked right next to this sign which was adjacent to a set of railroad tracks:

     This building was so dilapidated it was hard to really tell what it might be, but the old pump right outside makes me wonder if it was a gas station:

     The sun, just starting to rise was shining right through this old gas pump.  I was enchanted by the light of it.

     A view through a glassless window.  Beyond is Highway 6 and the remaining set of railroad tracks that first brought life to Cisco.

     There seemed to be more broken down cars than houses.  So many that it made me wonder which ones were original to the town and which ones were dropped off here as an afterthought.  I loved this old school bus.  

     In a book about Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, I read that a photographer either sees in black and white or color.  There are only a small lucky few that see both ways.  This resonated with me as I have struggled in my black and white film class for months and color has not only come naturally to me, I'm constantly craving it.  But in this ghost town I was surprised to find myself seeing in black and white.

      Maybe it was the light that morning, or the lovely color that remained in such a long abandoned place, or the mirroring shape of the slanted buildings, but I found Cisco to be absolutely gorgeous.  I understand that everyone will have a different experience here.   Some will look around and see tragedy, ugliness.  Others will feel strange, sad, or even haunted.  But the whole time I was there I was running from one sunrise-lit spot to the next thinking this is so beautiful.  

    This might sound strange but I love abandoned things.  Their untold stories, their stillness.  I have always loved them.  I grew up in a small town that had its heyday back in the early 1900’s, leaving behind a broken downtown that made for endless adventures.  I was a good kid but I was curious.  If a door or window opened, I went in.  An old movie theatre with a caved in ceiling but seats perfectly intact and lined up as though waiting for the show to start.  A schoolhouse built at the turn of the century whose third floor lockers still had papers and books in them.  Apartments left quiet decades ago with clothes still  hanging in closets and dishes in the cupboards.  

     Cisco was just like that.  You could walk right up to the windows of the houses and see the way these people lived.  Clothes hanging in tatters over the backs of chairs, appliances and furniture, bottles and cans, shelves holding knickknacks.  Looters have been through these buildings throughout the years, and time and weather has taken its toll as well, but the desert has a way of preserving all that it can.  Cisco is like a town inside a bell jar.   

     When I got home, I had to research Cisco.  As it turns out, it has been in three movies.  A 70’s film Vanishing Point had a very dramatic end here.  In 2005,  Don't Come Knocking took place in the General Store.   And a scene from Thelma and Louise was filmed here as well.  Johnny Cash wrote a song about a man who lived here called Cisco Clifton's Filling Station.  
    Here is the general store.  It is the only building in the town that is behind a fence, and its door looks somewhat new, so it makes me wonder if this building is occupied.  It certainly looked deserted that day, but you never can tell who might be coming and going in these peculiar ghost towns.

     A tourist train called the California Zephyr still glides by on the tracks that run adjacent to the town but it no longer stops.   

     Cisco was once a place of tremendous growth and prosperity.  It was built in the 1880’s as a railroad town, served the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad, and was a stop for travelers and workers alike.  It was a successful ranch at the turn of the century and became the biggest shipping point for wool in the entire state of Utah.  In the 1920’s oil was discovered in Cisco and for a time it was the premium producing site for the state.  After World War II, when people were testing the strength of their beloved cars, many tourists dropped by for a look or to stay for a spell.  In the 50's uranium was discovered there, and it became a mining town.  

     If legends are accurate, this was a true and quintessential Old West town, a place of saloons, drinking, bootlegging, infamous characters and gun fights in the streets.  People got off the train in Cisco and tried their luck at the many facets that made the town what it was.  Some were successful and some just stayed and died along with their dreams.

     Cisco stood proudly in the relentless desert sun for decades, but like so many other railroad and mining towns in the West, it fell victim to the Interstates.  I-70 was built just north of Cisco, bypassing it completely while taking travelers, tourists, and businesses quickly on by.  After the big years, Cisco faded into nothing more than a small town and eventually into a ghost town.  There is something special about this place though.  Through its emptiness, a sharp charisma remains.  Its charm manages to radiate through all the rubble somehow.

     Though Cisco appears to be clearly uninhabited, there were a couple of trailers and new(er) cars that were dirty and rusty but still made me speculate.  I wouldn’t be terribly surprised to know that a few people were still there, making the place home.  Descendants of the original cowboys with the Wild West in their blood, people wanting a simple and quiet life, people that need to hide, or an old-timer that is just too stubborn to leave.  These are the people that might stay, so that their town might never be forgotten.
     If you’re in the Moab area or if you’re on Interstate 70 rushing towards a certain destination and you want a change of pace, get on the “old road” and visit a place that embodies Westward Expansion: stop by for a look at Cisco.  It’s run down and it’s not what most would call pretty, but I’m willing to bet it will invoke something in you.  Something like pride or nostalgia or at the very least, a sense of wonder.

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