The glaring white headlights picked up two small rabbits streaking across the highway just in front of us as we drove to the airport at 3 AM. Inwardly I groaned because I am both blessed and cursed with an ability to sense (presentiment) the future. Animals like these rabbits often appear to help me read the landscape while my body acts as a kind of lightening rod or receiver picking up vibrations that are left up to me to interpret. I love rabbits and wonder why seeing two always foreshadows an occurrence of the void experienced in both my mind and body. I almost laughed. I guess I needed another reminder of what I could expect upon my return.
While noting the deeply distressing sign, I also felt child-like excitement rising because during my sojourn to Abiquiu, New Mexico I tracked many small rabbits that crisscrossed the high desert without ever glimpsing one of these elusive animals. Did the rabbits live in the small burrows that were dug into the ground between red rock and sagebrush? I didn’t know but I was delighted to see two in the flesh and to marvel over how slight and delicate these little desert cottontails were.
Ever since I had first seen Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings of the mountains around Abiquiu I had longed to come to this place. A woman I knew had moved into the hills just outside of town offering me the opportunity I longed for.
I made a conscious decision to make this pilgrimage to the high desert at a particularly chaotic time in my life. I put my house up for sale not long after turning 70. I thought I could hear the desert calling me more insistently. On this trip I hoped to gain clarity about where I might go next on this third and last stage of my life’s journey. The desert was a place that had moved me deeply ever since I had first visited it as a young woman. Yet I had adult grandchildren who would probably make their homes on the coast of Maine, and a son who lived in the rolling hills, another place in this state that I loved deeply. If I moved away from Maine how often would I see them? The conflict had split me in two. I also wondered if “the powers of place” would once again determine where I would locate next, or if an unknown self would have to take the lead…
As some of us know, while making a pilgrimage, time stretches out like a rubber band, and once the threshold has been crossed one is catapulted into sacred space where the present becomes all there is. That first morning in Abiquiu I awakened at dawn and ran out into the surrounding desert in my nightgown! The dusty gray sage laden hills were round, peppered with sea green spiked pinion pine, fragrant Juniper and mountain cedar. These beautiful small trees provided a stunning contrast in shape and color to the dusty red Earth. On the peak of a nearby hill I was drawn to a solitary Grandmother Cedar, an ancient gnarled tree whose thick, rough, and wavy gray bark had been shaped by harsh winds and summer rains. Her lace-like fronds were few. Most branches lay dead, strewn around her trunk like bleached bones providing her with nutrients that might be helping her to keep on living long past her time. Startled by her probable age and tenacity, I picked up one of the dead twigs; I saw the shape of the whole tree mirrored in that one branch, just as the sparse but fan -like evergreen “leaves” that still lived reflected the same fractal patterning. I could sense a presence around and within the tree’s ashen body as she bled into me; I was reminded that if she could live on, so could I as I entered old age.
When I returned to the adobe house I was stunned to encounter a wild African collared ring necked dove sitting on a branch of a nearby snag. I am very familiar with these doves because I have one. Lily B has been with me for 23 years. Hundreds of these doves (who are imported because they are such good egg sitting parents for exotic birds) have been released into the wild after they are no longer useful as egg sitters. With a shock I realized that some apparently survive here in Northern New Mexico where temperatures drop well below freezing during the relatively brief winters. I called out to this ring necked dove as I approached him warily, not wanting him to fly away. He cocked his head in what appeared to be curiosity but he didn’t respond to my voice with a song. I was disappointed. Perhaps this dove was a female; females adopt a shorter version of the male’s song but only respond to a call from their mates. I experienced the appearance of this wild ring neck dove as a powerful link with home. After our meeting I reflected on what this sighting might mean for me personally, because I felt so ambivalent about accepting what seemed to be at the time an excellent offer that had been made on my house just the night before I left for New Mexico.
The next morning I awakened to storm – ridden skies, a raven perched on the adobe wall outside my window, and a fine layer of snow that covered round hills and hills stacked with red rock formations. Each ocotillo, cholla, agave, prickly pear, rabbit bush and sagebrush looked wooly! The soft snow highlighted the sharp contrast between the shapes of the wild desert plants.
Captivated by the dramatic shift in weather I sat drinking coffee, watching the snow slowly sink into thirsty ground as cloudy skies turned pale blue at the edge of the eastern horizon. All of the surrounding mountain ranges were white, not just the distant Sangre de Cristos whose name (the blood of Christ) refers to the phenomenon of alpenglow that occurs when the mountains turn pink in the evening light.
As the sun broke through the steel gray clouds the desert turned the palest green, a diaphanous spring veil spread over the landscape. I thought I had never seen anything so beautiful. It was chilly though, and the warmth of the gas fire felt good as I dressed to walk up to the summit of another of the round hills.
This morning there were coyote tracks that crisscrossed those of the rabbits and hares. Following the coyote tracks that wound through one of the arroyos I climbed to the top of a fantastic rock formation. Even before I reached the summit I saw the den. Glimpsing a shape for an instant I was left with the impression that I had seen someone, perhaps a young coyote? There were smaller tracks around the den that were rapidly disappearing as the snow seeped into dusty ground. Looking inside the triangular hole I could see nothing beyond the fact that this was a large rock cave. Whoever had chosen this place as home had a 360 degree view in every direction! I noted a small pile of juniper berries and clipped cedar twigs just inside the entrance to the den. I was suddenly reminded of the 3000 bears that remained in New Mexico’s high desert, (high desert is defined as an area 2000 feet or more above sea level – Abiquiu is 6000 feet above sea level) and was delighted to see for myself that black bears could really find adequate shelter here, although this particular cave was probably too small for a bear. I returned to this den two more times over the next few days and left offerings of sunflower seeds as part of my desert pilgrimage.
My first trip into Abiquiu village was bewildering because I experienced the winding road as one sinuous red serpent snaking its way down the hill. The clear untroubled Chama River flowed beneath a bridge in front of us as we made our descent to the place where earth met concrete. The cottonwoods were sprouting lime and chartreuse and mountain blue birds and three kinds of doves were singing to each other and perhaps to the sound of the river
(as an avid bird watcher I know how much birds like the sound of moving water). Once across the bridge we stopped and entered the general store/gas station for supplies.
When I visited the Inn and church compound where Georgia O’Keeffe eventually bought and managed her second house, a once abandoned hacienda, I experienced a rush of pure joy. My love of her desert paintings had been part of what had driven me to this place so why was I so surprised that when I opened the wrought iron gates of the courtyard around the church it felt eerily familiar? Georgia had once painted this edifice. I found the fragrant herb Rue growing in the garden and picked some to take into the church with me. Rue is traditionally an herb of protection used by Meso and South American Native peoples to ward off evil. Inside, the lovely chapel had stained glass with lots of traditional Christian images but when I approached the Lily strewn altar I saw to my right a statue of the Virgin, and on the opposite side of the enclave I was stunned to come face to face with the Black Madonna! In Arizona I had found these images outside or behind the churches, usually in little stone grottoes. The country folk come to these places to light candles and pray to an older goddess than the one Christianity knows as the Virgin. The images of the Black Madonna that I had seen in Tucson and other places in the southwest were usually Indian looking; in Europe they are black. This figurine was black and seated, embossed in gold. There was no place to light a candle for Her, this Mother of Us All, so I took a votive candle from the Virgin and lit it in front of the wooden carving. The hair prickled on my arms… After a while I left the church, leaving an offering of Rue at the foot of the Black Madonna’s robe.
Once outside I discovered another relative of the mountain cedar, the eastern red cedar. These are magnificent large, rounded conifers, similar in shape to the northern white cedar (like the one that I planted as a seedling in front of my house and later named the Guardian) but its foliage was much denser, and amazingly when I got up close to the tree I saw almost microscopic exquisite violet and lavender blue flowers on each lace-like twig. Also present were empty seed – pod cases that were painted a dusty but luscious blue on gray. It looked as if each once contained a single seed in its center. I was overjoyed to see that more cedars were growing here by the river because they are my favorite trees, but I also knew that desert landscapes are defined by the presence or absence of water, and this kind of cypress (there are no true cedars on this continent) would not grow in the hills I had already fallen in love with. To plant such a water – guzzling tree even near a river is questionable from a conservationist’s perspective.
When I went to see where Ghost Ranch was located, the first place that Georgia lived, and bought, where she painted many of her landscapes, I was not prepared for the astonishing depth and breadth and the visionary quality of the seemingly endless beauty that surrounded me. Ghost Ranch blended so well with the scenery that I could barely see the whole tucked into the base of one of the cliffs. I spent four hours staring at the austere mountains that changed color every second as clouds passed by and shadows fell in new places highlighting red, ocher, lavender, deep purple and green until the night closed in. The landscape around Georgia’s “homeplace” was so astounding that after my initial experience and attempt to describe it, I decided that O’Keeffe’s mountains must remain as stark impressions in my mind:
Sand, white clay, ivory, buff, orange and yellow ocher, brick, Indian red, peach, rose, violet and purple, gray and black, even a pale moss – all colors running together against a background of Indian red rock and stone. The stillness is deafening and sweet. Fantastic formations, a roaring gorge, and one long deep blue lake – a sand stone floor teaming with life – raging gullies – slippery sands – and layers of clay forming pyramid hills dusted in a multitude of earthen shades. The Great Goddess of the Desert Wilderness was a living presence here; the powers of place rooted me, clasped me in their embrace, and soared above me like great black birds disappearing into the deep blue firmament…
For artists and perhaps mystics, the “value” is in ever changing color and truly this place embodied the Navajo spirit of “Changing Woman.” She continuously shifts clouds and sky, stones, sands and water – arroyos overflow, even reverse directions under thundering rains – the driest cracked red earth is alive with sage, juniper, cedar and pinion pine – all the colors except the red cliffs run together – pastels, each bleeding one into another. Desert Silence is like no other, and at night a bowl of silver stars stretches round the sky from horizon to horizon.
The fifteen – mile drive in to the Benedictine monastery requires both courage and focus on an unbelievably narrow winding dirt road that slithers its way above an impossibly deep gorge on one side and meanders around flaming orange cliffs or towering rotund sandstone castles on the other. The roundness of these Sandstone Beings, sculpted and curved by wind and time seemed infinitely wise and the sight of them left me dumbstruck. How could stone be chiseled and smoothed into such a fantastic myriad of shapes? I felt as if I needed eyes in the back of my head to take in all this wonder.
I was actually relieved to reach the monastery, which was tucked under its own mountain, shaded and sheltered by many surrounding cliffs; rich red soil had already been turned for spring planting. I thought I recognized the church… Walking into the chapel for vespers stunned me. Above all the usual ecclesiastical images on the altar there was a huge bowed window that stretched across the front of the church and reached the top of the building. This giant window was angled like the prow of a ship and opened directly on a towering burnt sienna cliff with a solitary mountain cedar rooted to its pinnacle. I let out an involuntary gasp as the golden sunlight streamed into the church and lit up the room. Whoever had done this architectural work clearly understood that the Stone People were the first earth beings. The image of the stupendous cliff turning crimson, orange, and gold in the setting sun was so breathtaking that I was speechless. It’s impossible to write more about this place beyond stating that it must be experienced.
On the last day I spent in Abiquiu I went to see an adobe house for sale, one without soul. As I walked around the barren ground I spied a bone and was delighted to have found a cow skull similar in size to those that Georgia had painted. Just afterwards I picked two of the tiniest yellow and fuchsia colored wildflowers, the first I’d seen since my arrival, and placed one flower in each of the eyes of the skull.
Later I walked around another area in the hills that I loved. From the top of a craggy red rock another solitary raven crowed. Because this was virgin desert I didn’t expect to find a creative homemade wood and tin birdhouse lying on the desert floor. Yet one more undecipherable message about home? I picked up the bird -house and decided to keep it.
The sparse and spiky vegetation suggested that this area was a bit drier and I wondered how much water was left in the underground aquifiers. The average home well was 400 – 500 feet down. Masses of juniper, cedar and a few pinion pines provided some protection from the wind and the dirt road wound its way up the mountain. Nature sculpted circular sandstone paintings on the rough stone eroding on the ground. There was a steep red gully that ran through the west part of the rolling hills and across from that gully stood another group of sandstone Desert Beings. I imagined I could hear the water tumbling down the crevice during the summer rains. Birds of all kinds flew in and out of the holes of these cliffs. To the north a nearby softly rounded mountain range speckled with pinion and juniper rose in silence. To the east the imposing snow covered peaks of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range stretched over the horizon as far as I could see. I wondered which peak was 14 thousand feet high since all seemed equally immense. To the south I saw another blue mountain range with its solitary mesa or Pedernal rising in the middle. Georgia had painted this configuration of rock with its flattened top, and her ashes were scattered on the top of the mesa. The contours of the land rose and fell, flowed over gullies and shallow arroyos. The Earth seemed to be whispering to me in an ancient language that flowed out of stone into thin air. Late that afternoon I wandered back to this higher terrain and eventually ended up at the crest of the mountain where I witnessed a miraculous sunset on fire.
Early dawn would find me at the airport headed for Maine. I reflected upon the particulars that stood out from the whole shifting my perceptions: the mountain cedar, the brief appearance of a ring necked dove, the coyote’s den, the Black Madonna, flaming cliffs and the prow of a ship, the skull, the birdhouse, and the sense that Georgia in some magical way had accompanied me throughout this entire journey. I sensed that a potentially discernable pattern might be emerging…
During my pilgrimage I learned from individual desert sightings that I needed to ask more questions about what home might mean for me in the future, and I learned from the whole experience that I needed to cultivate the kind of patience that the Stone People possess. I also understood that what I needed most was more time to be in “the space in between” to be with “Changing Woman” in myself.
The high desert mirrors my life through wild beauty and my fatal attraction to it, through song and scarcity, tenacity, loneliness, and death, my need for silence, wonder, thorns, bones, and briefly, for flowers. When I looked at the pictures I had taken after I got home I was initially disappointed because the life force of the desert seemed strangely absent, but now when I look at those same pictures it’s as if I see through them. The images are alive, having cut through my mind and settled into my body, finding solace and sanctity. A part of me belongs to this place…
This last photo is taken from the hills where I stayed. In the distance to the left stands the Pedernal, the mesa where Georgia’s ashes were scattered, and the place where Changing Woman was born.
***O’Keeffe’s Painting: Ram’s Head White Hollyhock and Little Hills