Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) first lay eyes on the “Land of Enchantment” in 1929 at the age of 41. It cast a spell on her that nothing but death could break – if that: “When I think of death, I only regret that I will not be able to see this beautiful country anymore, unless the Indians are right and my spirit will walk here after I’m gone.”
Whenever her tumultuous marriage to noted photographer and art dealer, Alfred Stieglitz, and her blossoming career in New York City as America’s foremost abstract painter allowed, she escaped to the remote reaches of New Mexico’s little known and less developed desertscapes. Like many artists, she came at the behest of Mabel Dodge Luhan, legendary Taos patroness of the arts. Unlike many, she kept returning, and after her husband’s death in 1946, relocated there permanently. She possessed a house-cum-studio in the town of Abiquiú as well as a small parcel of land and cabin on the Ghost Ranch, located 14 miles farther west. Privately owned until 1955, the ranch has since been administered by the Presbyterian Church as a spiritual retreat center, and continues to profit from its lengthy association with the painter who kept returning as long as her health permitted.
Away from throngs and distractions, Georgia O’Keeffe, often portrayed as a recluse, was able to forget the noise of the East Coast, drink deeply of the silence, partake of the colors, shapes and silhouettes of a sere, stark land, and capture its soul on canvas like few artists before or since. When exploring this region and sensing its heartbeat today, it is easy to relate to the urge to evoke its essence through brush – or pen. We saw O’Keeffe’s house in Abiquiú only from the outside (tours are offered, but must be prescheduled), and tread only on portions of the Ghost Ranch property open to the public which did not include her refuge, but everywhere we encountered motifs she immortalized.
Our visit coincided with a string of astonishingly auspicious autumn days during which we eagerly absorbed the sun’s warming rays like the local lizards. The color of cottonwood trees lining the rare but vital waterways set the desert ablaze, while competing with a riot of multi-hued rocks.
For eight nights in a row, we slept in our tent without a rainfly, gazing at the same star-studded firmament and milky ribbon that Georgia would have peered at. Coyote songs serenaded our slumber, the no less moving melodies of birds our waking hours.
Like Georgia O’Keeffe we were fortunate to set foot on this sunbaked and sandy earth, and like her, we fell under its spell.
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