A pilgrimage to the stark desert landscape that inspired painter Georgia O’Keeffe

Chicago Tribune Traveling 3 weeks ago
At the edge of the Taos Pueblo is the Pueblo cemetery, and in the distance, the ruins of the Spanish colonial Mission San Geronimo, which was destroyed by American cannon fire in the Mexican-American War. (Photo for The Washington Post by Alexandra Marvar)
A short hike into the ponderosa forest above D.H. Lawrence's ranch, friends of Lawrence (including painter and Georgia O'Keeffe confidante Dorothy "Lady" Brett) memorialized the writer with a small shrine. (Photo for The Washington Post by Alexandra Marvar)
The cliffs of Plaza Blanca, or "the White Place," against an overcast sky. (Photo for The Washington Post by Alexandra Marvar)
Georgia O'Keeffe's Abiquiú home and studio, which visitors can tour. (Krysta Jabczenski/Georgia O'Keeffe Museum)
A ram skull in the courtyard of Georgia O'Keeffe's Abiquiú home, which remains much as she left it. (Krysta Jabczenski/Georgia O'Keeffe Museum)

The stretch of desert north of Santa Fe, New Mexico - cut through by the Rio Chama and the Rio Grande - is rich with history. Over centuries, many Native American and Spanish place names have identified its adobe villages and geological formations, and in the late 1980s, the state’s tourism industry gave it yet another title: O’Keeffe Country, after American modernist painter Georgia O’Keeffe. With her New Mexico paintings, she helped introduce the region’s surreal landscapes to the world.

In August, recently married and uncertain about where in this precariously divided America we should make a life, my husband and I embarked from our home in Savannah, Georgia, on a Western road trip. O'Keeffe's New Mexico appealed to us not for the usual reasons a tourist might seek out O'Keeffe Country, but because in the life she built there and the reasons she built it, we saw our own hopes (and political anxieties) reflected.

She was no stranger to tumultuous times: O'Keeffe's 98 years on earth spanned both World Wars, the Great Depression, the Cold War, Vietnam. She was "always afraid," she wrote, but she refused to let it stop her from building the life of creativity, security, solitude and self-reliance she wanted. She left New York and found what she needed in a quiet adobe village in the painted desert around the Rio Chama river basin - a small but strong community, a farm-to-table food supply, a nuclear fallout shelter - and then she got on with her work.

O'Keeffe relocated from New York full time in 1949, but her New Mexico story begins 20 years earlier, with a visit to a friend's artist enclave in Taos. Of New Mexico after that trip, she wrote, "There is nothing to say about it except the fact that for me it is the only place." Traces of her story are everywhere: An uncashed check for $4.95 is proudly tacked to the wall by a shopkeeper at the Taos Pueblo. The tall ponderosa pine still stands as it did a century ago outside the window of writer D.H. Lawrence's ranch in the mountains north of Taos, which O'Keeffe painted on a visit. The Mabel Dodge Luhan House, known in 1929 as Los Gallos, site of the aforementioned artist enclave, is now a historic 22-room adobe inn.

Taos was the tip of the iceberg for O'Keeffe. From Lawrence's ranch up the mountain, she first caught sight of the painted desert farther west, near the 18th century adobe village of Abiquiú, where she would find and restore an adobe ruin, making it her home until shortly before her death in 1986.

Located an hour north of Santa Fe just off Route 84, Abiquiú is small and quiet. Much like O'Keeffe, its residents have always treasured their privacy. So, this past fall, the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe opened the O'Keeffe Welcome Center outside the village center on the highway to help mitigate O'Keeffe tourism in the village proper. From the center, tours booked in advance depart by van for the artist's home a few minutes away. With time before our tour to explore, we bypassed the center and continued along the river, past bright red rock formations, 15 minutes farther to the 21,000-acre Ghost Ranch.

En route, we crested a hill and the horizon opened up. On the left was Cerro Pedernal, the mountain where, per O'Keeffe's wishes, her ashes were scattered. Its dark, flat-topped silhouette against the sky recalls her signature brimmed hat.

Through the ranch's pole gates is a wide meadow of grasses and scarlet globe-mallow flowers, grazing goats, colorful cliffs and sandstone spires. The beauty of the landscape hardly differs from when it drew O'Keeffe there for the first time in the 1930s. Now, though, it's a Presbyterian spiritual retreat and education center with tours and trailheads open to the public. On a summer Wednesday, the parking lots were full. Cars buzzed in and out. At the main house, visitors can purchase a day pass ($5) before joining a guided O'Keeffe landscapes bus tour, strolling the grounds to see the cottage where O'Keeffe painted, or making their way to a trailhead for one of a number of scenic hikes.

Our time at Ghost Ranch was cut short by rain. We sat and watched through the car windows before heading back toward Abiquiú on 84 to another place O'Keeffe painted often: Plaza Blanca, the White Place. It wasn't raining here - yet. Chalklike limestone pillars carved by time and rainstorms rose out of the red dirt like Gaudí's cathedral. We met a woman with an easel painting the landscape, and we moved through her space like we were in a museum. The formations at the White Place seem fragile enough that to rest a hand on them, much less hike off the trail, could cause them to crumble. For this reason, signs on the privately owned but generously shared property implore hikers to stay on the trails. Thunder rolled in the distance.

Back near Abiquiú village, the best bet for lunch is Bode's General Store. It was a favorite of O'Keeffe's, and no wonder: Same as today, it may have been the only place around to procure provisions or fuel up her beloved Model A Ford. Bode's does an acclaimed green chile cheeseburger. When we arrived, the grill was shut down for the afternoon, but a crockpot full of hot tamales offered a worthy Plan B.

From Bode's, we reported to the neighboring Welcome Center. A dozen or so guests - from New York, Houston, Denver, Germany - awaited the 90-minute, 5 p.m. Behind the ScenesTour. At the property, we were asked not to photograph anything indoors before we paraded down the path between the house and the garden, running our hands over the smooth adobe walls. Open-air courtyards are adorned with cow skulls and collections of worn-smooth stones. There's not a sharp corner in sight.

In the garden, apple trees and rows of vegetables and herbs are nearly just as O'Keeffe had them 50 years ago. Inside, the home's sprawling rooms are also nearly just how she left them: Eames chairs, viga and latilla ceilings, the artist's lone martini glass on the kitchen shelf, leather boots in the closet, original dried herbs in their original jars lined up in the pantry.

In the bedroom, two walls of windows face the Chama. The guide pointed out the centuries-old bronze hand of the Buddha hanging alone on the bedroom wall at the foot of the bed, which O'Keeffe picked up on her travels to Thailand in 1959. Its open palm faces outward in the abhaya (have no fear) mudra, a Buddhist hand gesture to evoke reassurance. It's the first thing O'Keeffe would have seen upon waking in the morning. And then through the windows, she would have seen the pair of few-foot-tall orange pipes at the edge of the yard. They lead into her fallout shelter - a lead-lined, ventilated underground bunker she commissioned in the early 1960s to help her survive a nuclear attack - and to stave off her worry of one, however unlikely. If only the threats that loom today were so straightforward.

In the bronze hand of Buddha, the bunker, the back-to-the-land, farm-to-table existence the artist built in New Mexico, travelers might see a pertinent new layer of her life, a different kind of inspiration to take from O’Keeffe Country. After our Abiquiú sojourn, we drove the hour back to Santa Fe in time for mole at Cafe Pasqual’s. The next day, visiting the definitive collection of her work at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, we could bring our own meaning to her gracefully abstracted renderings of these places we now recognized: Ghost Ranch, the White Place, Cerro Pedernal, the black door in the courtyard that she painted religiously. After taking in how O’Keeffe worked to create a space for her creativity to unfurl, seeing the work she made there felt like a celebration.

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