After 5 days in the Albuquerque area, we headed to Georgia O’Keeffe country in northern New Mexico. We stopped first at the Tire Pros and they fixed the two slow leaks. They were so nice and fast and they even pulled the RV in and out, and lined it up for us to hitch up and drive away!
We camped a few miles north of Abiquiu at a Core of Engineers campground perched above the man-made Abiquiu Lake, surrounded by a dramatic, 360° sky and towering red rock hills and canyons.
At dusk, after the sun fell behind the stands of red rock, the whole of the sky was ringed in fiery pink clouds, not just in the west where the sun was setting, but all around, like a cloud campfire.
And I wondered what someone from New York City must feel when they experience this for the first time. Does the expansive landscape make them feel vulnerable and lonely, is the silence painful to their ears, are they in awe that this much open space exists outside of their big city world?
This is what I love about the west. The wide open sky, the panoramic views, being able to look out to some distant spot on a faraway cliff and wonder if anyone has ever walked there.
We came here specifically to tour Georgia O’Keeffe’s studio and home, situated above the Chama River and the irrigated patches of farm land below. As Barbara, our tour guide, pointed to the cottonwood trees and then to a photograph of an O’Keeffe painting, I began to see the landscape through O’Keeffe’s eyes: the layers of shapes and textures, colors and shadows, flattened out but somehow, still in perspective.
We spent the next half-day at Ghost Ranch, an education and research center with a history that includes bandits, Charles Lindburgh, and of course, Georgia O’Keeffe. So many of the visitors come to hike to the stunning mesas. I enjoyed the labyrinth and the walking history tour, and connecting with a friend of a friend who is a volunteer there.
In the evenings, when the temperature cooled, we took the dogs down to the river side of the Abiquiu Dam for some free running and marveled at the sheer canyon walls. Unlike the Grand Canyon, that was formed by millions of years of river erosion, the canyons here in New Mexico are formed by fast and torrential rains. Entire chunks of the sedimentary rock break off, dry river beds flood and the landscape is forever changed.
On our last night we drove out to the White Plaza, a place that O’Keeffe painted many times. We drove down a dirt road, past the Al Islam Mosque to a stand of towering white spires, similar to the hoodoos in Utah, but so tall and so white. Cody and I hiked toward them and they were like a magnet, pulling me closer. But the sun was setting and the thunder was rolling in the distance, so we headed back to the car. We got home in time for an amazing sunset of golds and oranges, pinks and reds spread out over the lake, across the distant canyons, filling the entire sky.
And then the rains that had been all around us finally found us, and we enjoyed the sounds of our first real rain storm on the RV roof, a steady tapping, like pebbles, accented by flashes of bright lightning streaking the sky over the lake.
On Sunday morning we packed up and headed toward Santa Fe for two nights. After being in Georgia O’Keeffe’s landscape, we couldn’t NOT go to the museum. And we needed to restock the pantries and do laundry. I found a reasonably priced private 55+ park that fit the bill, and the bus stop was right there to take us to the plaza in Santa Fe if we didn’t want to deal with parking!
On the drive down from Abiquiu, my eyes were drawn to the horizon line and the snow still capping the tops of the mountains more than a hundred miles away. The foreground filled with the expanse of the valley, the line of electric towers that looked like giant Native American symbols, and the lush rows of cottonwood trees along the muddy Chama River. Closer still, fluffs of cotton blew toward the RV’s windshield, and a white butterfly fed on the wildflowers growing along the side of the road.
To see far and near, to rest in the middle space. This is what traveling is. This is what life is.
The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum was amazing. We spent the morning in the first three galleries with her early pastels, charcoals and watercolors from east Texas, and her series of watercolor nudes. On the docent-led tour we learned about her early life in Wisconsin, and heard more stories about her wry sense of humor. Then we had to take a break for lunch, to soak it all in.
After a shared BLT, we returned to view O’Keeffe’s New Mexico landscapes. There were only three other people in the large gallery so I could get close to the work and then step back to see them from a distance.
I recognized all of the places we had visited, the trees we had seen, the angles and rounds of the mountains and skies. There were the spires of White Plaza, the flat top of El Pedernal, even the floating pink clouds before last night’s storm. I cried, all full of some kind of heart connection because I saw what she saw and I saw it the WAY she saw it, as shapes and colors in their own dance of perspective.
Marika and I stood in front of the Cottonwood Trees for a long time, remembering how they looked when we stood outside, in front of the clear pane windows of O’Keeffe’s studio, seeing exactly what she had seen – the Chama River, the fertile green valley, and those same cottonwood trees.
We went to the gift shop. We never buy things at the gift shop, but Marika wanted to see if they had a miniature of her favorite piece, the watercolor of people sitting out on the stoop in Texas. And I wanted to get a biography and knew they’d have the most authentic selection.
I also looked through the T-shirts and really liked one with five thin horizontal lines, 4 white and one gold, in the shape of El Pedernal. It fit well, and I loved the soft brown fabric, but I decided the book was enough.
I was showing the shirt to Marika when a petite blonde woman in her 40’s said, “Oh, I’m the artist, Christina.” “Well, that must be a sign,” I said. We took a selfie and I bought the shirt, too.
That evening I was flipping through the photographs in the book, and said, “I’d love to come back here, but when it’s much cooler.” “Me too,” Marika said. And so we will, because that, too, is what travel is all about.