Ghost Ranch

In the great wide open places, I can see the forever.

The sky enfolds you, and then you are inside it. Whatever small place you came from is no more because you are part of that sky and the big beyond, and the rest isn’t important.

When the Spanish first rode into this valley in northern New Mexico, they called it Piedre Lumbre — the shining stone.

Behind Chimney Rock, looking across the valley towards Cerro Pedernal. Photograph, iStock Photos.

In the great wide open places, I can see the forever.

The sky enfolds you, and then you are inside it. Whatever small place you came from is no more because you are part of that sky and the big beyond, and the rest isn’t important.

When the Spanish first rode into this valley in northern New Mexico, they called it Piedre Lumbre — the shining stone. Ghost Ranch is a part of territory known as the Piedre Lumbre land grant.

In March, I visited Ghost Ranch on a day trip from Santa Fe. I was so immediately taken with the physical beauty of the valley that I stayed two days, then returned a month later for a full week. Once the red rocks are part of you, you will always go back, always seek out these places.

Panoramic view, looking towards the red rock formations at Ghost Ranch.
Panoramic view, looking towards the red rock formations at Ghost Ranch. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

On my first night back, I spent time thinking about where I wanted to shoot at sunrise, and decided on the cabin which has been used in a number of films. I set my alarm for early — then made the mistake of hitting the snooze button. Twice, I think. Then it was rush, rush, rush!  Make quick coffee, grab my gear, and hit it.

Grey morning light, coffee threatening to splash out of the paper cup, and I drive down off the mesa. But I want to see that first warm light break across the grass. To see the light on the little cabin and the Pedernal.

It was a damned cold morning, but you can’t manipulate camera controls with your gloves on. Just doesn’t work. Oddly, after shooting for thirty minutes, my fingers were so frozen they didn’t work anyway. I sat on my hands in the car for a few minutes and drank cold coffee.

I got back out, and went back at it for another twenty minutes before heading to breakfast.

Early morning sun hits the cabin, the mountain Cerro Pedernal in the distance.
Early morning sun hits the cabin, the mountain Cerro Pedernal in the distance. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
City Slickers Cabin on Ghost Ranch at sunrise, Pedernal mountain in the distance.
Here’s the cabin again, this time in color. Photograph, Ann Fisher

This shot was my favorite. I liked the way the cabin’s roof line and chimney ran along with the Pedernal and the mountains lining the horizon.

The black and white version (above) worked best for me, but the color image is good as well, the grass golden in the morning light — and the whole thing seeming much warmer than it felt!

I love the editing process — dumping everything into the computer and having a look in LightRoom.

But here’s the trick. You only get to pick one picture. Maybe two. I remember the days of watching a neighbor’s slide show from a trip. Some of you know what I’m talking about — when you had to sit and watch 200 slides. Seemed like 20,000. Let me slit my wrists with a dull butter knife! No one wants to see all of those pictures — I don’t care where you went! Pick a small group of images that tell the story.

So, what is Ghost Ranch?

It’s surprising how few people know anything about Ghost Ranch.

I was talking to someone the other day who didn’t know who Georgia O’Keeffe was. “I’ve just come back from Ghost Ranch.”

“Was it scary?”

I cocked my head to the side. “No . . . you know — it’s the place that Georgia O’Keeffe lived and painted.”

“Who is Georgia O’Keeffe?”

I blinked. As someone with a degree in Art History, I forget that knowledge of artists, even major ones, isn’t a given. So I told her, and looked up several paintings on my phone so that she could see.

“Oh, yeah. I’ve seen that one before.”

Seen that one before . . .

Ram's Head with Hollyhock-Hills. Georgia O'Keeffe. 1935.
Ram’s Head with Hollyhock-Hills. Georgia O’Keeffe. 1935.

The history of Ghost Ranch is a rich one — whether you want to talk about the dinosaurs that roamed here in the Triassic period, the native peoples who lived here before the arrival of the Spanish, or the murderous, cattle-rustling Archuleta brothers of the late 1800’s when the property was known as the Rancho de los Brujos — Ranch of the Witches.

Ansel Adam's photograph of O'Keeffe painting inside her car on Ghost Ranch.
Georgia O’Keeffe painting in her car at Ghost Ranch. 1937 photograph by Ansel Adams, who was a good friend of O’Keeffe’s.

The two museums on the ranch, Florence Hawley Ellis Museum of Anthropology, and Ruth Hall Museum of Paleontology, help tell the stories of the dinosaurs and the native peoples who lived on this land. For the soap-opera stories of the cattle rustlers, you could take the History Tour, or pick up the Ghost Ranch book by Lesley Poling-Kempes from the trading post.

By the time Georgia O’Keeffe first found her way to Ghost Ranch in 1934, it was owned by Arthur Pack and operated as a dude ranch, much to O’Keeffe’s chagrin.

Georgia was so taken with the landscape that she put up with the dudes and dudettes, renting a little cottage the first year, and then the house called Ranchos de los Burros which was further removed from the other guests. O’Keeffe finally bought the house and the few acres around it from Arthur Pack in 1940.

Later in his life, Arthur Pack donated Ghost Ranch (over 21,000 acres) to the Presbyterian Church, and it has operated retreat center for more than fifty-five years.

The House I Live In. Painting, 1937. Georgia O'Keeffe.
The House I Live In. 1937. Georgia O’Keeffe.

So, you’re making a trip to New Mexico, and you want to tour the house where Georgia O’Keeffe lived?

Which one? There is definitely some confusion about the difference between Ghost Ranch, and the O’Keeffe houses.

You can visit O’Keeffe’s house in Abiquiu, but only on a guided tour through the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. If you want to do the Abiquiu house tour, contact the Museum the minute you know you’re going. I’ve been to New Mexico twice in two months, and still have not gotten to see the house.

O’Keeffe’s house at Ghost Ranch is owned by the O’Keeffe museum as well, but is not currently open to the public. At some point in the future, the Museum indicates it will be, but there is no firm date set. You can see her Ghost Ranch house from a distance on one the the O’Keeffe tours.

Photograph of the real landscape O'Keeffe used for Red Hills with Pedernal
O’Keeffe walked through the red hills in her “backyard” almost daily when she lived at Ghost Ranch. Following in the artist’s footsteps is a wonderful experience. Red hills with Pedernal in the background. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
Red Hills with Pedernal, White Clouds. 1936. Georgia O'Keeffe.
Red Hills with Pedernal, White Clouds. 1936. Georgia O’Keeffe.

O’Keeffe Landscape Tours

In 2004, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum put on an exhibition called Georgia O’Keeffe and New Mexico: A Sense of Place. A book by Barbara Buehler Lynes of the same name was also published in 2004.

Public interest in being in the landscapes that the artist painted grew.

Suddenly people were showing up at Ghost Ranch wanting to walk into the painting landscapes, which was both good and bad. Great because Ghost Ranch needs the income that visitors bring, and dangerous in the potential for destroying the red hills O’Keeffe painted.

The solution? Restrict public access to the O’Keeffe portion of the ranch. Why? If thousands of visitors go tromping up, over, around and through O’Keeffe’s red hills, they will no longer look the her hills. Footprints in this dry landscape take months, sometimes years to disappear.

O'Keeffe Landscape tour
Walking into O’Keeffe’s landscapes and having a chance to photograph her painting locations was an amazing experience. This is my favorite tour at Ghost Ranch.

I applaud Ghost Ranch for working to preserve this special place. There are only three ways to see this part of the ranch: on horseback, on a small shuttle bus, or on a walking tour. These tours limit impact by either staying on the gravel road (shuttle bus), or following two standard, single file paths. The walking tour is limited to eight guests, and when I was there, only ran twice a week.

O'Keeffe Landscape tour looking towards yellow cliffs
O’Keeffe Landscape small bus tour at Ghost Ranch. This tour takes you closer to the yellow and white cliffs that O’Keeffe loved so much.

Each tour is a little different — obviously — but so is what you’ll see. I went on the shuttle bus tour three times. Yes, three. The light and clouds were different each time. Then I took the walking tour. Maybe next time, I’ll saddle up and head out on the trail ride . . . Read more about the O’Keeffe Landscape tours and horseback trail riding on the Ghost Ranch web site.

If you are only at Ghost Ranch for the day, the bus tour or the trail ride are your best options, since they run every day, and in the busy season, several times a day. On the bus tour, guests get out at several stops to take photographs

Georgia O’Keeffe and her relationship with her lover/mentor/husband/promoter Alfred Stieglitz is a fascinating part of the artist’s life.

Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O'Keeffe. c. 1939. Ansel Adams
Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe. c. 1939. Ansel Adams

If you don’t know much O’Keeffe and Stieglitz, there are a couple O’Keeffe biographies from which to choose. Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O’Keeffe by Laurie Lisle is my favorite. Another to consider is Full Bloom by Hunter Drohojowska-Philp; this one a very full biography, but I find the writing style dull.

I also recommend watching the 2009 film Georgia O’Keeffe, starring Joan Allen as O’Keeffe and Jeremy Irons as Alfred Stieglitz, and partially filmed at Ghost Ranch. It is as well done as a two hour bio-pic could be, in my opinion. O’Keeffe lived to be nearly one hundred years old, and this film would arguably have made a better mini-series to do justice to her life. I found Jeremy Irons particularly brilliant as Stieglitz.

Joan Allen as O'Keeffe and Jeremy Irons as Stieglitz in the 2009 film, Georgia O'Keeffe.
Joan Allen as O’Keeffe and Jeremy Irons as Stieglitz in the 2009 film, Georgia O’Keeffe.

Ghost Ranch Goes Hollywood

If you think that parts of Ghost Ranch seem familiar to you, well, you’re probably right.

Between 1985 and 2016, ten major motion pictures filmed in New Mexico used Ghost Ranch as a filming location. This doesn’t mean the entirety of each film was shot here; the amount of Ghost Ranch footage varies in each picture.

Movie Poster from all the movies filmed at Ghost Ranch
Ghost Ranch is a popular filming location. Here are the movie posters for Silverado, Young Guns, City Slickers, Wyatt Earp, All the Pretty Horses, Missing, 310 to Yuma, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Cowboys and Aliens, and The Magnificent Seven.
Byung-hun Lee at the Ghost Ranch City Slickers Cabin. Magnificent 7 film.
South Korean star Byung-hun Lee, shows off his mad knife throwing skills in The Magnificent Seven. Note the Ghost Ranch cabin in the background.

Movies that used Ghost Ranch as a location for for scenes include: Silverado (1985), Young Guns (1988), City Slickers (1991),Wyatt Earp (1994), All the Pretty Horses (2000), Missing (2003),  310 to Yuma (2007), Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), Cowboys & Aliens (2010), The Magnificent Seven (2016).

If you’re a movie buff, Ghost Ranch does give a Movie Location Tour, but it is by reservation only. Be sure to call a week or more before your visit to make the arrangements so you don’t miss out while you’re there. Summer is Ghost Ranch’s busiest season, so I’d plan even further even out if that’s when you are going to visit.

You do not need to go on the Movie Location Tour to see the City Slickers cabin (in the photographs above). That site is right off the dirt road leading into Ghost Ranch — so very easy access.

Day Trip

Ghost Ranch makes a great day trip from either Santa Fe or from Taos. I warn you, it’s very hard to leave Ghost Ranch after spending a single day, but it’s better than not seeing this beautiful place at all. From Santa Fe, it took me about one hour and fifteen minutes to reach Ghost Ranch. Google Maps show a drive time of 1.5 hours from Taos to Ghost Ranch. You’ll pay a $5 Conservation fee at the Welcome Center that gives you access to the ranch and the museums.

I’d plan on a full day. Read about the hikes, tours, and museums, and call ahead to reserve space if you choose to do a tour. Plan to have lunch (12:00 – 1:00) at the ranch, and possibly dinner as well, to give you as much time as possible to explore this special place.

View toward Kitchen Mesa from the Matrimonial Mesa hike at sunset, Ghost Ranch New Mexico
View toward Kitchen Mesa from the Matrimonial Mesa hike at sunset. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Hiking

Hiking at Ghost Ranch is a favorite past time for many people. Read about the different hiking trails on ranch’s website, and choose one that suits your abilities and time. Use the sign in sheet at the Welcome Center before you go and after you return. Borrow a walking stick.

Retreats and Workshops

Ghost Ranch has a full set of retreat and workshop offerings that run all year long. Whether you’re interested in spiritual retreats, an art, photography, or writing workshops, outdoor adventure, you almost certain to find one that you’d enjoy.

Accommodations and Food

You can stay at Ghost Ranch overnight — which I heartily recommend. There are a range of room types, some with shared restrooms, many with private restrooms. They also have a campground with spaces for both RVs and tents.

Room in the Coyote building on the upper mesa at Ghost Ranch.
Room in the Coyote building on the upper mesa at Ghost Ranch.

What are the rooms like? They are basic, but clean and comfortable. You need to remember this is a retreat center, not a hotel, and certainly not a resort. There are no televisions or in-room phones, and the only wi-fi at Ghost Ranch is in the Library. When you come here, it is to be with and in the amazing landscape.

One important thing to note: the rooms have heaters, but are NOT air-conditioned. In the summer, temperatures in the day are hot, but cool down to around 60 °F (15.5 °C) the evening (check average temperatures and rainfall for Abiquiu here).

What did I think about the rooms? I stayed two nights in March (Aspen building), and loved Ghost Ranch so much I returned for a full week in April (Coyote building, upper mesa). I had a sitting room and a bedroom. I was very comfortable, and I loved sitting outside my room in Coyote on the upper mesa and watching the sun go down while I had a drink. I will certainly return and stay again.

View of the Coyote building on upper mesa, Ghost Ranch.
View of the Coyote building on upper mesa, walking back up from breakfast. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Personally, I would have a difficult time handling the heat in the summer. I like to retreat to my room during the afternoon, particularly in hot climates, to read, edit pictures, and write. I couldn’t do this here in the summer. I think the evenings would be fine, since the temperatures drop to near 60 °F, the windows are screened, and there are small fans. If lack of AC is a problem for you, then consider staying at the Abiquiu Inn.

The Dining Hall at Ghost Ranch serves three meals a day in a cafeteria set up. The menu changes daily. You buy meal tickets at the Welcome Center, and you can eat at the Dining Hall, even if you’re just at Ghost Ranch for a day trip. Meals are served for ONE hour only. Be sure you get the schedule at the Welcome Center, and be there, or be square!

The food is good, and there is plenty of it. The menus change daily. At dinner, the hot food line includes two main meal offerings, one of which is always vegetarian, along with vegetables. If you have problems with gluten or soy, or are vegan, please call Ghost Ranch directly to find out what options there are. At lunch, the main food line may have sandwich makings, or it may be a hot meal. There is always a good salad bar, and I saw vegetable proteins and cheese available each day I was there.  At breakfast, the hot food line may feature an egg dish, or perhaps pancakes. There is always oatmeal, and cold cereal. At breakfast, the salad bar turns into a fruit bar that also has yogurt.


What more can I say? I found Ghost Ranch to be one of the most beautiful parts of New Mexico. I know I’ll return many times to this special place.

View towards the mountain Pedernal from the Kitchen Mesa hike at. Ghost Ranch. Photograph, Erin Vanelle
View towards the mountain Pedernal from the Kitchen Mesa hike at. Ghost Ranch. Photograph, Erin Vanella.

** It’s important to note that while the Presbyterian Church owns Ghost Ranch, it no longer contributes financially to support it. The Ghost Ranch Foundation is now responsible for care, preservation, and maintenance of the ranch and its facilities. Through out this article, I have linked to books at the Ghost Ranch trading post. If you are thinking about purchasing books on Ghost Ranch or Georgia O’Keeffe, please consider buying from the ranch website. To find out more about the Ghost Ranch Foundation, link here.

Embracing Santa Fe

Each time I return to New Mexico, my affection for this state grows . . . Doc looked like he came straight out of central casting. Film order: we need a quirky old man to play a part in a Coen brothers film set it Santa Fe.

Doc Murray of Santa Fe
I met Doc on my first trip to Santa Fe in 2009. He was a kind and quirky man, and we had a wonderful afternoon with good coffee and interesting conversation. RIP Doc. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Each time I return to New Mexico, my affection for this state grows.

It really started on my second trip in 2009, when I visited Santa Fe and did many of the standard things one does around the square. Saw the Cathedral, had lunch, hit the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.

During one long summer afternoon, I tucked into a coffee shop to get out of the noon-day heat and to do some writing. I was the only customer there, and before long, I was visiting with the barista who looked to be in his late thirties, a native American named De.

An old man swung in through the door.

“Hi, Doc. How’s the day?”

“Good enough, De. But I’m wanting some coffee.”

Doc looked like he came straight out of central casting. Film order: we need a quirky old man to play a part in a Coen brothers film set it Santa Fe.

Check. Enter Doc Murray.

Doc’s grey-and-white beard was lush and his eyebrows had a life of their own. He wore a neat chambray shirt and jeans. A wide leather bracelet on his left wrist was secured with three buckled straps, and he had heavy silver rings on his fingers. A fur hat-band and a tail adorned his felt hat. It may have been a fox’s tail. I don’t remember, and it doesn’t really matter anymore anyway.

He paused and tipped his hat to me. “Seems the neighborhood is improving.”

“We’ve been invaded,” De said. “She’s from Texas.”

I laughed, shook his hand, and introduced myself.

We passed a couple of hours talking about the state of the world, Texas, and New Mexico. About tourism and Santa Fe, and how the city had changed over Doc’s lifetime. About De, working as a barista to make some extra cash, and what he might do next, and about the difficulties that came along with being Native American.

Doc and I had another coffee, and De joined in. The two told me about the best route to drive to Taos, and talked about the high mountain meadows, and how pretty they’d be covered in grass flowers.

Near the end of our visit, Doc turned his head to look at someone passing on the street, and I saw the picture — his profile lit.

I have a hard time asking people to pose. But I did ask, and Doc, quite accommodating, looked at me and smiled. I have that picture, and it’s not bad. But then I asked him to turn just slightly towards the window and to hold very, very still.

So here is my Doc Murray. On a quiet afternoon in the heat of the summer, there was this moment, and I was honored to capture it.

By the end of the afternoon, Doc and De said I’d be welcome to move to Santa Fe anytime I wanted. And they wouldn’t even hold it against me that I was a Texan.

I found the wildflowers on my way to Taos.

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Santa Fe, Again

I might have stayed in many places in Santa Fe. I chose to stay in a Tiny House in an RV park, right next to my good friend Joyce.

I’ve been to Santa Fe before and done the whole nice-hotel-near-the-square thing. For this trip, I looked at renting a casita near the square through VRBO — and there are some lovely ones . . . but in the end, I wanted to visit with my friend above anything else. Besides, I’ve been intrigued with the whole Tiny House movement, and I thought it would be fun.

My cabin at the Los Suenos RV Park. Always fun to try something new.
My cabin at the Los Suenos RV Park. Always fun to try something new. So, what did I think? The cabin was cute and comfortable, and the folks at Los Suenos were friendly. Here’s the thing, though. If you are planning to stay in Santa Fe for a month, the rate is very good. Anything less than that, and frankly, I would rent a house in closer to the square. You can get something more interesting for the same price.

Joyce and I cooked, visiting back and forth in our tiny houses. We tried new recipes out on one another. I rose early in my tiny house to write while she slept late in hers. Then  we would convene for a museum visit or a ramble downtown, followed by a great meal. I love green chile sauce.

We spent two days on Museum Hill, exploring the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian and the Museum of International Folk Art. Both of these museums were outstanding: great collections beautifully displayed. We had two meals at the Museum Hill Cafe that were outstanding — and what beautiful views across the valley towards the mountains!

What was I most excited about? Returning to the Georgia O’Keeffe museum.

I See You

Tony Vaccaro’s 1960 photograph of Georgia O’Keeffe, holding her Pelvis Series, Red and Yellow, painted in 1945.

“Art can die of overfamiliarity.” — Jay Tolson

What happens when we can no longer see a painting, because it has become as common as the McDonald’s logo?

In a 2005 article for U.S. News and World Report, Jay Tolson makes the point that O’Keeffe’s flowers and skulls are “images that have been ‘posterized’ to the point of invisibility.”

Humans filter out noise – both visual and aural. We have to — otherwise we’d be overwhelmed. O’Keeffe’s flowers and skulls, Monet’s bridge at Giverny, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa . . . pick any over-reproduced work of art you’d like — all of them can turn into background wallpaper.

I was guilty of this with Georgia O’Keeffe’s work.

In an undergraduate class in 20th century American art, I had studied several of her paintings, but I didn’t know very much about her. Frankly, I wasn’t that interested.

I hadn’t looked closer – I’d just written her off.

Verandah of the Adobe and Pines Inn in Taos New Mexico
I sat for hours on the verandah at the Adobe and Pines in reading the O’Keeffe biography. Photograph, Ann Fisher

My first visit to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum changed my perception and understanding of the artist — and made me come into her work in a visceral and meaningful way I had not anticipated.

That first day in the O’Keeffe Museum, it was her abstract paintings that were the initial hook in for me. I simply and suddenly saw all of her work with new eyes, and I was excited.

I left the museum with Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O’Keeffe, which I took to Taos and read for long hours. This book by Laurie Lisle is well-written and an easy read, and I found myself immersed in the stormy and passionate relationship between O’Keeffe and Stieglitz.

I realized that I had never really known Georgia O’Keeffe. And the woman I came to know, I like so very much.

I feel a kinship with her, with her passionate feelings about the big, western landscape of Ghost Ranch, seeing in it all of the feelings I’ve had out in Big Bend west Texas — a compulsion that drove me out to the big sky time and again over the last twenty-five years.

It was a great joy to return to the Georgia O’Keefe Museum, which is an intimate space, all simple white.

When it opened in 1997, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum owned fewer than 100 works by the artist. In 2006, the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation dissolved and transferred all of its artwork to the museum. The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum now owns 1,149 works by O’Keeffe, which represents more than half of her artistic output, as well as 1,840 works by other artists and photographers. Only a fraction of the collection is on display at any time.

Additionally, the museum owns both of her houses — the house at Abiquiu, and the house at Ghost Ranch. Visitors can see O’Keeffe’s house at Abiquiu, but only by reserving space on a limited number of tours. The house at Ghost Ranch is not currently open to the public, but will be at some point in the future. Those wanting to see the house at Abiquiu MUST plan ahead; go to Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Tickets and Tours to read about the three different options.

Georgia O'Keeffe in chemise, 1918. Photograph, Alfred Stieglitz.
Georgia O’Keeffe in chemise, 1918. Photograph, Alfred Stieglitz.
Two galleries at the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum
The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum owns more than half of all work created by the artist. Photographs, Ann Fisher.


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Finding Ghost Ranch

We took a day trip to Ghost Ranch, and I got my foot caught in the door —  I had arrived at one of those unexpected places that just blew me away and that I didn’t want to leave.

When we dropped down from the plateau at Abiquiu, the Pedernal lay to my left, quiet and blue. An orange, yellow, and purple rockscape stretched in front of me. Before we reached the gravel road for the ranch, the road turned us through towering red rock cliffs.

Cerro Pedernal Abiqui New Mexico

It caught my breath. My heart expanded and I thought I might cry.

When we stopped at the Visitor’s Center at Ghost Ranch, I immediately booked a room for later in the week. Before we left, I stopped again and asked if I could stay two nights instead of just one.

Panoramic view, looking towards the red rock formations at Ghost Ranch.
Panoramic view, looking towards the red rock formations at Ghost Ranch. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

At the end of my two days, I was not ready to leave, but the clock was ticking.

I had reached my furthest point out, that point where you can go no further, stay no longer, and still make it back in time. In time for whatever holds you.

All road trips have those points.

With Ghost Ranch in my rearview mirror, I began my way back, then stopped in the post office in Abiquiu and sent a tiny O’Keeffe to a friend.

O'Keeffe Gift Card

 


Ghost Ranch is an Education and Retreat Center that has been owned by the Presbyterian Church for over 55 years. They offer many different kinds of workshops and retreats, but visitors can also simply book a room. There are two museums, trail riding, hiking trails, and guided tours — one of my favorites being a tour through many of the landscapes Georgia O’Keeffe painted.

My return is already planned. I go back to Ghost Ranch in seven days, and yes, I will share that visit with you in my third article on New Mexico, focused on Ghost Ranch.

Embracing Santa Fe is the second in a series of three posts on New Mexico.

The first is Road Trip to New Mexico:

Screenshot of post Road trip to New Mexico

And you’ll find the third part in the series here:


Ann in Castolon in Big Bend National Park. Photograph, Jim Stevens

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Road Trip to New Mexico

One of my best friends is living in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for several months to complete a project — and I thought, what a perfect excuse for a road trip!

“I was surprised, as always, by how easy the act of leaving was, and how good it felt. The world was suddenly rich with possibility.” — Jack Kerouac, On the Road

One of my best friends is living in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for several months to complete a project — and I thought, what a perfect excuse for a road trip!

“I was surprised, as always, by how easy the act of leaving was, and how good it felt. The world was suddenly rich with possibility.”  — Jack Kerouac, On the Road

The first day was a long one, taking me from Houston and the coastal plains of Texas up to the Panhandle and Amarillo. It’s easy to write off this part of Texas — vast flat fields that stretch on forever, but it was magical that afternoon in the failing light.

Tractor in field at sunset
Fields at sunset. Photograph, Allou, iStock Photos.

Driving through Chillicothe and Quanah, Childress and Memphis became a de-and-re-acceleration rhythm of 60 miles per hour then 50 — 40 — 35, a stop at a traffic light, then 40 — 50 — 60, and back up to a cruising speed of 75. In each small town, grain silos shown in the slanting sun, first silvery, then golden orange.

The Mercedes ate up the miles and as I left Goodnight, Texas, there was another forty minutes to my hotel in Amarillo.

Outside of Clarendon, I passed two tractors in line, close to the highway, kicking up dust that trailed out far behind them. Many times meadow larks flew dead-straight towards the car, then corrected their flightpaths for several wingbeats to fly alongside me, before abruptly veering off, back into the fields.

When the sun hung low on the horizon, I passed fields of harvested cotton, where the angle of the light caught the spent plants, turning them golden.

As I came closer and closer to Amarillo, there were not many clouds, just a few wisps in front of me as the sun set to my left. Behind me the sky turned indigo at the horizon, edged with magenta above, then both deepening to purple.

Travel My Way, Take the Highway that’s the Best

I slowed down on Interstate 40 to get off into the towns and find a little of old Route 66 in Amarillo, then in Tucumcari and Santa Rosa, New Mexico.

Cadillac Ranch at sunrise, with photographer's shadow
Up early on the morning of my birthday, shooting images at Cadillac Ranch. Photograph, Ann Fisher

I made my visit to Cadillac Ranch in a cold field post-dawn at the edge of Amarillo.

Only one other person there — a guy about my age with his phone and a selfie stick. We danced around one another to get pictures without the other in them. It was a companionable time — exchange of a few words, hand signals, and a final salute as we left the ten Cadillacs behind.

There are many famous American road trip routes — Highway 1 in California certainly comes to mind — but none can eclipse the Mother Road as the nostalgic icon of the freedom to roam America.

Route 66 was born November 11, 1926, when the Federal Government officially established Highway 66, leading from Chicago to Los Angeles. By the following year, road signs were up all along the way, even as states worked on paving their sections.

In the 1930’s, Route 66 provided a way west for desperate families fleeing the Dustbowl; John Steinbeck chronicles the migration along Highway 66 in his novel, The Grapes of Wrath, describing the flow of people “into 66 from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks and rutted country roads. 66 is the mother road, the road of flight.”

Then when World War II ended, and fuel rationing ended, Americans were free to drive again, and they took to Route 66 in droves.

Our affair with the car blossomed; we did EVERYTHING in our cars — ate, watched movies, made love.  It was the age of motor courts, roadside hamburger joints, and drive-in movies. In 1946, Nat King Cole recorded the Bobby Troup song, (Get Your Kicks On) Route 66,  — the anthem of the Mother Road.

Martin Milner (right) and George Maharis, in the CBS TV show, Route 66.
Martin Milner (right) and George Maharis, in the CBS TV show, Route 66.

Then in 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act into law. It was the death knell for Route 66 — but it would take almost thirty years to be buried.

In the meantime, the highway became even more famous in pop culture with the CBS television show, Route 66, which ran from 1960 to 1964 for a total of 116 episodes.

Gradually more sections of the highway were replaced with super-roads, until in 1985, Highway 66 was officially decommissioned. Of course it lives on — kept alive by those who make the Route 66 pilgrimage each year. A 2011 study showed the direct impact of Route 66 as $132 million annually.

On this trip, I only traveled the Mother Road for 250 odd miles before I turned north, headed to Santa Fe. But I’ll be back. I see a full Route pilgrimage in my future . . .

Cadillac Grill with Route 66 sign blended into image
I stopped at the Auto Museum in Santa Rosa, New Mexico and photographed many of the thirty classic cars — here is my love note to Santa Rosa.

The Great American Road Trip

Road trips exist as a key part of our country’s psyche. Two formidable road trip books from the 1957 and 1962 come to mind: Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, and John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley: In Search of America.

Here is a classic excerpt from On the Road:

“I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn’t know who I was – I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I’d never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn’t know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I wasn’t scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost.”

Never mind that neither of these books is exactly what it purports to be — they are both good stories, stories that caught the public’s imagination and entered the collective American consciousness. Even if you haven’t read them, you are likely familiar with them.

The On the Road legend is that Kerouac wrote the book in three weeks on one continuous 120 foot scroll of paper.

Kerouac's scroll manuscript of On the Road.
Legend: Kerouac wrote On the Road in three weeks on a 120 foot continuous scroll.

“Kerouac cultivated this myth that he was this spontaneous prose man, and that everything that he ever put down was never changed, and that’s not true,” Kerouac scholar Paul Marion says. “He was really a supreme craftsman, and devoted to writing and the writing process.”

The truth is that Kerouac created six different drafts of On the Road between 1951 and 1957 as he worked hard to get past multiple rejections to have the manuscript accepted with a publisher.

Viking Press marketed Travels with Charley as a true account of Steinbeck’s three month solo trip around America with his poodle, Charley.

Bill Steigerwald spent weeks traveling Steinbeck’s route, and then nine months fact-checking and came to the conclusion that very little of the book  represents Steinbeck’s actual journey and experiences:

  • Steinbeck was almost never alone. His wife Elaine accompanied him for 45 days of the 75 day trip.
  • Another 17 days of the trip he stayed in motels or camped on friends’ property.
  • He almost never camped out at all. He spent many evenings in motor courts, and often on the trip he and Elaine stayed in very fine hotels.
  • Many of the people who he wrote about meeting were fabricated.

The truth is that at 58, Steinbeck was in poor health, but he longed to take another epic solo journey into America.  The reality: he took a long trip with his wife and his dog and visited friends. He came home with few notes, but penned a book that Americans still love. I think I can cut him some slack.

In the end, it doesn’t make any difference whether we shelve Charley with Steinbeck’s fiction, because Steinbeck and his poodle will always drive the blue highways of the American consciousness in a travel camper named Rocinante.

The end of my journey outward . . .

At the end of a second day on the road, I pulled into Los Suenos RV Park — to the cutest little cabin I’ve seen in a long time. A Tiny Home for my home away . . . and it was so great to find my friend Joyce and head out for margaritas and classic New Mexican enchiladas with green chile sauce!

More to come on my New Mexican rambles . . .   Here, a look down the road towards Ghost Ranch.

On Highway 84 in New Mexico, looking towards Ghost Ranch.
On Highway 84 in New Mexico, looking towards Ghost Ranch. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Hi — this is the first of three posts on my trip to New Mexico. You’ll find the second part, Embracing Santa Fe, here:

 


Ann in Castolon in Big Bend National Park. Photograph, Jim Stevens

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Sources for those interested in reading further.

Listokin, D., and D. Stanek. Route 66 Economic Impact Study: Synthesis of Findings. Rep. N.p.: Rutgers, 2011. Print.

Mcgrath, Charles. “A Reality Check for Steinbeck and Charley.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 03 Apr. 2011. Web. 11 Mar. 2017. <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/04/books/steinbecks-travels-with-charley-gets-a-fact-checking.html&gt;.

Payne, Adam A., and Douglas A. Hurt. “Narratives of the Mother Road: Geographic Themes Along Route 66.” Geographical Review 105.3 (2015): 283-303. Web.

Shea, Andrea. “Jack Kerouac’s Famous Scroll, ‘On the Road’ Again.” NPR. NPR, 05 July 2007. Web. 11 Mar. 2017. <http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=11709924&gt;.

Steigerwald, Bill. “Sorry, Charley.” Reason 42.11 (2011): 58-62. EBSCOhost. Web. 11 Mar. 2017.