When I visited northern New Mexico last summer, I was in a hurry. I had tickets to the Santa Fe Opera in mid August, and reservations in Port Townsend for the end of August. That’s was a lot of miles to cover in a little over two weeks. So I just hit the highlights, covering all the “must visit” stops.
Still feeling enamored after the opera tribute to Georgia O’Keeffe, “Letters from Georgia,” I wanted to visit her home and studio in Abiquiu, hike in some of the areas such as Plaza Blanca where she found inspiration for her paintings, and take a tour of Ghost Ranch. But it was definitely a speed tour hitting three locations in three hurried days.
This year, I wanted to return and explore it more thoroughly at a slower pace.
It’s often possible when I am out in the boonies to take the “ostrich head in the sand” approach and forget what’s going on. If I check out from the news for a day or two, life seems pretty normal to the point that I can almost forget about COVID closures.
But when I am near some place I have enjoyed in the past, such as the Santa Fe Opera, it’s a haunting reminder of just how messed up things are right now. Driving past the opera house while leaving Santa Fe along Hwy 84, I snap a photo of the magnificent Crosby Theater, the open-air contemporary structure on the hill that sat empty like a haunted house for the entire season. I take the photo to reflect back when we reach happier times and remind myself to never take such pleasures in life for granted. I know opera is not for everyone, but live performances are one of my passions that I dearly miss.
Same for passing the Georgia O’Keeffe Welcome Center in Abiquiu and seeing the parking lot empty. Or walking past her home and studio, seeing signs on the gate announcing closure due to COVID. Impossible not to feel bereft.
It’s also a reminder of how fortunate I have been through this pandemic to have only lost a few hobbies and interests. I still have healthy loved ones. As my brother Don reminds me when things go wrong with the Winnie, “Well, at least it’s not a ventilator!” Nothing like that thought to snap one back into a state of gratitude!
Still, the best way I can describe trying to find joy amidst a pandemic is (please forgive my graphic analogy,) having sex with a condom. Sure we can go through the motions, but the visceral joy of life’s pleasures is missing. This really hit me when I was in Abiquiu. I longed to return to the Riana Campground overlooking beautiful Abiquiu Lake. But once I got there, I was reminded of all the reasons I enjoyed it so much last year, no longer a possibility this year. Visiting O’Keeffe’s home was out, as I expected. But I didn’t anticipate the outdoor areas to also be closed, such as walking around the old pueblo. Or hiking around the Echo Amphitheater. Even the stunning hiking area, Plaza Blanca, was closed because it is located on private land owned by the Dar Al Islam Education Center, whose grounds are closed due to the COVID.
One place that wasn’t closed was Ghost Ranch. The Riana Campground where I was staying closed for the season on October 15th, so I had to find another place to park. While Ghost Ranch was a little more expensive at $35 per night, it also afforded me the opportunity to do a couple of hikes that I didn’t get to do last year due to time constraints, specifically Chimney Rock and Kitchen Mesa.
Ghost Ranch was also the first place I was asked to prove I had done my 14 day quarantine (gas receipt from Cloudcroft in July.) It was also the first place I had my temperature taken, forehead scanned at the entrance gate while sitting in the driver’s seat of the Winnie. Good thing I had the window rolled down on the way in…97.1˚ F
Another memory that has really been “haunting” me this year is the red rocks of southern Utah. Having spent so many late fall seasons in this area over the past eight years, when autumn rolls around, it really begins to call to me. However, I vowed to stick to New Mexico this fall. While I am likely one of the only fools that actually did my 14 day quarantine, since I am a guest in the state I want to respect their governmental mandates. Crossing the state line, even to the four corners states would mean I should quarantine again upon return, so I am going to stay within the state boundaries.
Ghost Ranch was a perfect substitute. And with warm sunny days and crisp cold nights, it made for a very pleasant stay. Being a retreat and conference center, as well as a tourist destination for tours of the area where O’Keeffe painted some of her more famous landscapes, it was busy. And while the more remote campground enabled me to stay out of the fray, governmental mandates meant that I couldn’t visit some of the places I had hoped to spend time, such as the onsite library. Still, the hiking was blissful, and the sun-baked red rocks, rejuvenating.
It’s never lost on me when I get a little help from the Universal Manager. I did the entire hike from the trailhead to the top of Kitchen Mesa without seeing another person. Except for one lone woman, also hiking solo. It was downright spooky that she came out of nowhere the one and only time I was uncertain of the direction of the trail. There’s one really tricky part on the climb up Kitchen Mesa where one must walk along a narrow ledge, then turn up and climb up a “chimney” of sorts for 15 feet. Since the trail is all rock, as people are wont to do, multiple cairns had been stacked indicating different directions. As I stood there on the narrow precipice trying to decide if I was even on the right trail, this woman descended down through the chimney, confirming the correct path. Gone as quickly as she appeared, I was alone for the remainder of the hike, enjoying the solitude, yet grateful for the assist.
Hiking among the red rock mesas, scrambling over the massive sandstone boulders feeling grit beneath my fingertips, being immersed in the colors of umbers and ochres, rust and sage under clear cobalt skies, and planting my shoes up, down and over sticky slickrock was enough to chase away the ghosts of autumns past. At least for another year, hopefully.
“I wish you could see what I see out the window—the earth pink and yellow cliffs to the north—the full pale moon about to go down in an early morning lavender sky . . . pink and purple hills in front and the scrubby fine dull green cedars—and a feeling of much space—It is a very beautiful world.” ~ Georgia O’Keeffe