Building a Life in Someone Else’s Ghost Town

AP Photo/The Deseret News, Geoff Liesik

The American desert can teach you many things. One important lesson is that the desert isn’t empty. Life thrives out there. Another lesson is that one person’s desolation is another person’s paradise.

For High Country News, Sarah Gilman profiles a modern-day pioneer: 34 year old Eileen Muza, who chose to settle in a tiny desert town of rubble and mostly abandoned buildings that outsiders treat as if it were public property. A gardener, explorer, scrapper, and individualist, Muza bought an inexpensive house there to, in Gilman’s words, “make a life, for less than a used car.” Muza is also searching for what the desert can teach her. To survive, she knows she has to be as tough as the plants. Her parents approve of her decision, but they worry about her safety and that the loneliness might drive her crazy.

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.

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