My dear friend Shannon is a strong, independent woman so when she announced she was getting married this year, a ‘bachelorette trip’ (she is also American) to the Santa Fe area of New Mexico, adopted home of the feisty, pioneering and extremely successful artist Georgia O’Keefe was just the thing. Despite O’Keeffe being notoriously protective of her privacy, Shannon had actually met her and been invited into her studio back in the ’80s while on a summer choir camp at the ranch, painting an added coat of piquancy onto the trip.
After a scenic drive from Denver through the beautifully green and tranquil San Isabel and Carson National Forests, we arrived in Abiquiu, and like many tourists before us, began our visit on the dusty, terracotta square. Now famous for being the location for an episode of cult TV series Breaking Bad, this sleepy village has a long history, including being the site of one of Georgia O’Keeffe’s homes. The Church of Santo Tomas El Apostle nestles quietly here, with its peaceful, rounded lines of adobe. Diagonally across from the church is a weathered wooden building labelled ‘Tourist Information’, but actually the home of local expert Napoleon Garcia, who has lived in the village for most of his 86 years and for many (not entirely harmonious) years worked for O’Keeffe. Nicknamed ‘the storyteller’, unfortunately we weren’t treated to any of his tales. But he helpfully directed us to our own home for the night, the comfortable Abiquiu Inn, and also charmingly sold us his book and an issue of New Mexico magazine featuring a flattering feature about him. The article labels him ‘the answer man’ and describes him as an ambassador between eras, and even cultures, which makes a lot of sense when you consider he has lived his life in a village that prides itself on its traditionalism, yet he constantly meets people from around the world and is connected to many of them through the internet.
O’Keeffe spent decades of her own life in New Mexico, in Santa Fe (where she died in 1986, aged 99), at her house in Abiquiu and on Ghost Ranch, eventually buying a home on the estate after first visiting the original ‘dude ranch’, where rich holiday makers went to experience the cowboy lifestyle, in 1917. We made three visits there: at sunset, sunrise and for a daytime landscape tour given by volunteer guide Wendy and driver Kate. The latter had worked at Ghost Ranch for 51 years and even the brief encounter we had with this terrain was enough to give us a glimpse of the stark, ethereal beauty that had captivated O’Keeffe, and Kate, so strongly. Huge expressive skies hover over layer cake rocks of burnt orange, sienna, terracotta, gold and white. Geometrically straight mesas compete with the flat-topped table of O’Keefe’s beloved Mount Pedernal. She was so captivated by this feature that she declared: “It’s my private mountain. It belongs to me. God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it.”
At dawn and dusk the rapidly strengthening or softening rays of the sun tint the rocks with a palette of reds, whitewashed yellows, glowing coppers and melting golds. The evening we arrived was tempestuously cloudy and thunder grumbled across the scrub-speckled plains. Under a purple sky we gazed on as the sun defiantly glazed the mesas in light and dusted the horizon with a ragged fiery halo. Peeping from an angry red soil were twisted juniper and piñon trees alongside, thanks to unusually heavy summer rainfall, clumps of hardy green grass and delicate yellow sunflowers, which haven’t appeared for seven years. The following morning, sunrise scattered reams of delicate snowdrop white clouds across a blue expanse of sky and breathed colourful life into the landscape, highlighting the astonishing range of hues and textures once more. The countryside is bleak and harsh, full of razor-edged ridges, weird chimneys, slumping slopes and bulbous outcrops. Yet it is also bewitching. In the soaring heat of the day, Kate and Wendy took us to some of the sites O’Keeffe had painted, so that we could see the same vistas the artist had gazed on, seared pure and fresh but also radiating a heady timeless quality. The colours that burned our eyes were livid browns, parched oranges and spiky creams under a flagrantly blue sky. Adding a mellowing edge to this was a liberal dusting of a whole palette of greens – allegedly O’Keeffe mixed over 200 shades of green in attempt to capture the shifting shades of the earth and its vegetation.
The place was mesmerising, but eventually we had to wrench ourselves away from the pull of this enchanting land and head to Santa Fe, where the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, a performance of Rigoletto at the stunning Santa Fe Opera House, meeting wonderful potter Heidi, margaritas and much eating and frivolity awaited us. This was my first visit to Ghost Ranch, but I have a feeling it won’t be my last.