Truly Unforgettable Character

To paraphrase (and liberally re-interpret) Dickens, “We shot the best of beauty and the maybe-not-the-worst-but-nowhere-near-the-best-of-beauty”. And all in one day.

I joined friends Mark and Linda at a three-day workshop in Moab, Utah, put on by the excellent landscape photographer Dan Ballard ( We went seriously off-roading near Moab, taking some one-lane jeep roads that had we truly gone off-the-road we’d still be tumbling down the side of a canyon. Traveling in and near Canyonlands National Park, we witnessed some of the most spectacular scenery in the West not called “the Grand Canyon”. We even remembered to take out our cameras out now and then (see below).

morning vista

(For more Utah trip landscape photos go to the Portfolio section and click on the Landscape-Variety gallery)

But it was the last day that yielded our biggest surprises, some of which translated into visual images. The workshop ended early on a Sunday and none of us had commitments until at least Monday so we decided to take Highway 128, the more scenic of the two possible routes, back to I-70. We stopped and shot along the way and then decided to see what the supposed ghost town of Cisco, Utah, had to offer.

Now, this would not be the first time I’ve shot vacant ghost town buildings. Linda and I spent part of a day last November shooting in St. Elmo, a ghost town in Colorado. But there was a certain “sanitary cleanliness” to the town as the buildings were tended to by the local historical society. We quickly discovered that this would not be an issue in Cisco with no apparent tea-clutching old ladies of an historical society raising funds for upkeep. Well, maybe except for an historical society of one – more about that later.


Cisco is a place where abandoned derelict vehicles go to be buried next to rotting timber and sofas that even bedbugs won’t roost in. The town “welcome” sign is an abandoned mobile home spray-painted to say “TAKE NOTHINQ (sic) BUT PICTURES. BE RESPECTFUL FOR FUCKS SAKE.”

welcome sign

Well, at least whoever wrote that sign gave us permission to photograph. Or we tepidly assumed that all the while being quiet (and respectful per the sign) and constantly peering over our shoulders. At one point Mark declared, “We’re done here” with a look of panic in his eyes. Hey, not so fast, Mark. Linda and I live for photographing degenerative buildings so we agreed to make one more sweep down “Main Street” to check out the abandoned post office.

Letters painted in free-hand, asymmetrical print announced this is the “Howard Burnett Memorial Post Office”. Was it really officially named that? Maybe there is a historical society here after all but they just can’t afford a stencil pattern.

howard burnett memorial post office

As we began to approach the building, we were startled by a real live human being sawing away at a piece of plywood next to it. Ah, renovations! Volunteers from that historical society hard at work!

Emboldened as if we were true photographic journalists (we are not) we decided to talk to the guy. But when he stood up, we were surprised by two things: 1) he was a she; and 2) she was quite obviously packing heat. No, not the portable hand-warmer type; more so the “girl-with-a-Glock” type.

As if we had encountered an angry pit bull, we tried not to show any fear. And reacting exactly as we would to an angry pit bull, we did. “H-h-h-h-h-I”, we stammered. Brilliant start, huh? Gina (not her real name) was more eloquent than us and was happy to share the details of her current construction project while we resumed breathing. Holding up the plywood, she explained that his was to be a “two-seater”. Fortunately my years of spending weekends in cabins with no running water in Wisconsin taught me this was an outhouse accessory for two people to use at the same time (no, I never used it with anyone else!). The reason for the two-seater, Gina proclaimed, was that she felt she’d never be able to rent her soon-to-be renovated cabin without the luxury of a two-seater outhouse adjacent to the Howard Burnett Memorial Post Office.

Sensing our “huh? vibe”, Gina explained that she was renovating a “house” (term used loosely here) into a one-room cabin as a writer’s getaway that would be advertised on Airbnb. Since there was no running water in town she realized her marketing material would have to include an outhouse and surely a two-seater would be the pull for that writer’s partner to join her or him. I wasn’t as sure as Gina but I certainly went with the flow.

She exhorted us to look into the existing pit upon which the new two-seater lid would sit as if she wanted a second opinion from us. Now, this pit was only about five feet deepbut we stood farther back from that edge than we did the thousand foot drop ledge the day before where one unexpected gust of wind would carry you away forever. Linda remarked that the semi-finished and laddered walls gave the pit an appearance of a “torture chamber” to which Gina proudly held up a portion of a handcuff she had found at the bottom of the pit earlier and joyfully exclaimed, “I think it was!”

Saying she needed a break anyway, Gina walked us to her Air Stream and sat on the deck for a smoke where she proceeded to tell us her life story, at least the part of how/why she is now Cisco’s only full-time resident. As a young Midwestern woman, she had come through Cisco before and fell in love with it. There is indeed a high-desert beauty to the area but that scenery is shared with the passing vehicles on nearby I-70, which also become her only “neighbors”.

Feeling a bit more comfortable that Gina was more pioneer than unabomber, we asked for permission to photograph her and her surroundings. At first she warily queried, “Are you all with National Geographic?”. After we assured her that expensive camera equipment doesn’t alone put someone into the National Geographic category (and we are living proof of that), she acquiesced. Neither posing nor recoiling, she continued her story, even giving us a tour of a few more buildings.

At one point she saw that I was startled looking at a laptop in the writer’s-getaway-to-be cabin that appeared to be playing a movie. “Yeah”, she replied, I was watching Netflix” as if that were a perfectly natural occurrence for that setting. I never did ask how in the world she got Netflix out there. Biggest regret of my trip.

Eventually feeling like we were leaving an old friend, we said our good-byes while each giving her a $20 bill to help with the town’s restoration. Genuinely appreciative, Gina welcomed as to come back any time. “You sure you aren’t from National Geographic?” she asked one more time. This time she seemed to answer her own question with the conclusion we were simply on our way through.

Oh, and Howard Burnett? He was the old postman for the town and Gina had painted the sign after he passed away. She especially wanted us to photograph it so that his legacy would be remembered through photos for years to come. And that “Welcome” sign? Gina painted that, too. Something tells me Dickens would have loved both signs.