Facing Ghosts at Ghost Ranch

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.

The Rio Chama, a tributary of the Rio Grande, runs into the Abiquiu Reservoir.

The Rio Chama runs very near O’Keeffe’s home, where she had water rights for irrigating her garden once a week. It also served as inspiration for some of her paintings.

At this time of the year, the Rio Chama is particularly magical, rimmed in golden cottonwoods.

The Penitente Morada, originally built in the 1700s and recently restored, is located up a winding dirt road within the village of Abiquiu.

Beyond this gate lies the ruins of Santa Rosa de Lima, a church within a Spanish settlement built in the 1730’s.

The church of Santa Rosa de Lima was in use up until the 1930’s. It is now on the National Register of Historic Places. Visible through this window are the banks of the Rio Chama.

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!

From my campsite in Riana Campground on Abiquiu Lake, I have a nice view of Cerro Pedernal, the subject of many O’Keeffe paintings.

Levels in Abiquiu Lake are very low this season. To the left is the spillway from the dam.

Unfortunately Riana Campground closed for the season on 15th Oct, so I moved over to Ghost Ranch. A view of their campground from the Chimney Rock trail.

The golden spell of cottonwoods maintains its hold over me at Ghost Ranch.

There is a stream that runs back of the ranch that offers lots of golden splendor.

Even the pathways are lined with gold. I love that someone dragged a folding chair out here to enjoy the surroundings.

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

The most popular hike at Ghost Ranch is Chimney Rock. Since the trail is near the campground, I go in late evening and don’t encounter anyone else along the trail.

The Chimney Rock trail is only 3 miles, but it affords stunning views in all directions.

This basin is known as Piedra Lumbre, or Shining Rock. With the low angle of the sun, it’s easy to see why.

While this vantage point would be the perfect place to watch the sunset, I am reminded that it’s likely time to change the batteries in my headlamp. So time to head back to the Ranch.

Looking back east from the trail.

The clouds make me think of smoke from the chimney.

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.

Another hike I had on my list to do while at Ghost Ranch was “Kitchen Mesa,” a five mile hike to the top of this mesa.

I had read about this hike on Karen of Sock Monkey Trekkers’ blog.

While the Kitchen Mesa hike is a five mile RT hike from the trailhead, the campground commute adds another mile each direction.

To reach the top of the mesa, there is a bit of elevation gain.

The hike is easy except for this one sketchy part, made more so because I am hiking alone with no cell signal. It’s a 15 ft scramble up a “chimney” of sorts. While I do have the Garmin Inreach, if I fall and crack my skull and can’t push the SOS button, it doesn’t do much good.

I know I am nearing the top of the mesa when I start to see these patches of white appear, as the entire cap of the mesa is white.

This whitish-grey layer that tops the cliffs is known as “Todilto Formation.” It lies above the orange and yellow cliffs, and is formed of saline sediments deposited by an inland sea that flooded the Southwest in the late Middle Jurassic period.

View of Chimney Rock from atop Kitchen Mesa.

The mesa also affords a nice view of Abiquiu Reservoir and Cerro Pedernal.

Note in the upper right third of the photo, there is a green can with a white stripe. The Forest Svc has used these painted cans to mark most of the Kitchen Mesa trail. While not as natural as rock cairns, they leave no question as to direction.

While there are only a couple of marked trails in this area, I see lots of possibilities.

It’s a fantastic view all around coming back down the trail!

This is now one of my favorite trails in New Mexico. Thanks to “Sock Monkey Trekker” Karen for recommending it!

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.

View of Ghost Ranch and Chimney Rock taken from the Continental Divide trail.

Easy to see how O’Keeffe was inspired to paint here with the multiple layers of orange and yellow cliffs from Entrada Formation layered on top of the rosy-colored Chinle Formation at the base of the cliffs, deposited over a 25 million year period. In this area, many Coelophysis fossils have been located. This small dinosaur grew 6-10 ft long and weighed 50 to 100 lbs. It walked and ran on its hind legs, similar to a very large bird.

Edge of the Echo Amphitheater. Unfortunately the entire area including the small campground is closed due to COVID.

“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

20 thoughts on “Facing Ghosts at Ghost Ranch

  1. Another beautiful post! Thanks so much for the positive thoughts! I see NM is going into another lockdown, I dont fault them at all! I hope you are someplace you can enjoy for the next two weeks!

    • Hi, Jim. I wonder how a “lock down” differs from a quarantine? As you know, I did quarantine in the forest outside of Cloudcroft last summer. I stocked up with enough food and surplus water to last two weeks, and didn’t move the Winnie or the Tracker for the whole two weeks. But in reading the mandate, this sounds like more of a “Stay at Home” order as I see it. Would you agree?

      Does a “lock down” mean the same as a quarantine? Or only to “stay home?” And how does one define what “Stay at Home” means to a person whose only home is on wheels? Does that mean my wheels must not roll for two weeks? If so, how does that change things? I still must go into the Walmart once a week to resupply, it’s just a different Walmart. And how is it better to visit the same Walmart versus one on the other side of town? 50 miles away? Again, living in a home on wheels leaves a lot to interpretation.

      It’s frustrating because the “rules” are vague. I have taken to wearing two masks as double-coverage, while people here in Silver City, NM think wearing it as a “chin sling” is good enough.

      I haven’t been to a dine-in restaurant. Only patio dining 3 or 4 times over the past 6 months, and then only when I could find a table where no one else was around. I haven’t been within six feet of another human, let alone touched anyone since I left my mother last July. The only places I have been are the repair shop (hopefully viewed as a “necessity” whether in TX or NM.) and the hiking trail, at which time I hit the ditch when I see the shadow of another person. So whether I am in Anthony, New Mexico or 2 miles across the state line in El Paso, TX, my “hierarchy of needs” is the same.

      I will likely drive back across the State Line lest my license plate cause anyone to feel uncomfortable. Otherwise, I can’t really get much more “at home” than I already am, unless I return to my Mom’s driveway, at which time I risk additional exposure to what she already has set up.

      I’d be curious to hear a non-full timers perspective on this…

      • NM resident here. The health department order closes places where people congregate and tries to limit private gatherings. I can’t see that what you’re doing unnecessarily endangers yourself or others, and since you aren’t interacting with anyone here having out of state plates shouldn’t be an issue.

        • Thanks so much, Creigh. That helps put my mind at ease. I have reviewed the mandate several times, and I just can’t see how I can do more than I am already doing, other than park in place. But like I said, I don’t see how that would change things, as I still would need to get out for the same reasons. I am being so cautious that I will not even go into a public restroom right now! And I don’t know a soul in NM, so it’s not like I can congregate. So I will keep doing what I am doing until someone with state authority tells me I shouldn’t. Thanks again!

      • Suzanne ,
        For some “strange reason ” it seems my country , the USA, has no real leadership or direction in this crisis? What I say to the people who seem concerned for others and themselves is to limit any exposure or movement you can. Mathematically the more locations you are in, however briefly, the more opportunities you have to be exposed. I wouldnt worry about the Texas plates and I do know that generally New Mexico is taking this more seriously than Texas. As we used to say here in Central Texas, but with a wholly different meaning,
        Onward Through The Fog!
        Jim
        I’m sure you are aware there are miles and miles and miles of hiking as well as hot springs in the Gila Wilderness!

  2. Once again your prose has made an area I was unaware of truly attractive, thanks Suzanne. I was unaware of the motivating factor of the geography on Georgia’s art. Please take a helmet for the chimney climbing.

  3. Glorious! Thanks for sharing………..

    Here in SMA, we have regressed to “orange” and now anyone coming to SMA on the highways from all directions must prove residency or show a restaurant or hotel reservation for access! It is a 3 day weekend in honor of the Mexican Revolution but as in the past, no celebrations or parades!
    Can you imagine SMA with no festivals? It is still startling even after eight months of this.
    Take care

  4. The two words which came to mind, repeatedly, as I was reading this post were:

    1) amble…”to move in an easy gait”, and
    2) saunter…”to walk about idly”

    I can’t imagine heaven to be more attractive than where you were and what you did in surrounding Abiquiu! The golden cottonwoods looked, indeed, magical…especially in the reflection of the Rio Chama. As an avid saunterer in life I particularly enjoyed walking these hikes alongside you. Lovely!

    With your mention of Silver City I find myself wondering if the Tranquil Buzz Coffee House is still in business there (if not…Covid, be doubly damned!). I enjoyed a lovely Sunday afternoon hanging out in that place two years ago listening to Danny Cordova (local musician) saunter his way through delightful guitar pickings. I hope you were able to amble your way to that cool little place, as well. 🙂

  5. I always look forward to your posts, Suzanne. This one was especially enjoyable since my husband and I explored the same area three years ago. Seeing your beautiful pictures has triggered memories of that beautiful trip – we were there at the same time of year, and it was magical.

  6. This post caused such a surge of wanderlust. There’s nothing I can say that hasn’t already been said…just wanted to say hello so you know I am always thrilled when I can read about another of your adventures. I loved the Georgia O’Keeffe quote. Stay safe, Suzanne and I hope your holidays are as full of peace and happiness as is possible.

  7. “…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.”

    I was two days out from a nice fall ride down to the Land of Enchantment, when I heard on the news NM was quarantining Colorado visitors, requiring said 14 day isolation. While I thought about throwing caution to the wind -it’s my nature to mask up and safely distance from others anyway- my better self won out. Thanks for probably being the only other person entering New Mexico that took that mandate seriously.

    PS: My understanding was to self-isolate for 14 days. “How” is another matter entirely. Could I accomplish that in a hotel? My decision to forego a fall trip this year was a small sacrifice. It’s not like being told I couldn’t go to Sturgis this year(irony).

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