In the Footsteps of Georgia O'Keeffe: A Walking Tour of Northern New Mexico


Georgia O’Keeffe has been quoted as saying “If you ever go to New Mexico, it will itch you for the rest of your life.” Artists can be prone to exaggeration, but on this point I tend to agree with the lady. There is a magic at work here, a subtle yet powerful influence that is more than the high desert light. 

A friend in Santa Fe says that she “lives to leave.” I’ll never understand that, for my heart sings when I’m in New Mexico in a way that’s hard to talk about without sounding foolish, annoyingly evangelical, or like a lowlander high on altitude. So, in the spirit of full disclosure let me say this: I am not an impartial journalist writing about a New Mexico walking vacationI’m a twelve-year resident head over my cowgirl boots in love with the big sky, adobe charms and quirky characters of my adopted homeland.

Chimney Rock Trail, Ghost Ranch, Abiquiu, New Mexico.

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“I had no idea,” says Maria, a well-traveled executive from Chicago, and one of seven vacationers joining this mid-September walk with The Wayfarers. “Of course, I’d heard of Santa Fe, but I’m blown away by the natural beauty, diversity and history of this place.”

I know what she means. The first summer I spent in New Mexico, I felt like I’d landed in a foreign country. The low-slung mud brick architecture, the melodic rhythm of Native and Hispanic languages, mañana mind-set and dramatic landscape were alien to my suburban life back East. Vast and exotic, New Mexico is a land of wild places and ancient cultures teeming with authenticity (not multitudes) where pristine light, towering mountains and a combination of cultures, history and landscape exists unlike anywhere else. 

We spend our first two days in Santa Fe, alternately browsing museums and art galleries and hiking the piñon and juniper dotted hillsides that surround the town, and, higher up, into the lush aspen, ponderosa and spruce forests of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains that tower above it. 

“I don’t breathe this hard at home. What gives?” says Lisa, a fit IBM systems architect from Connecticut. “Altitude,” responds Wayfarers walk leader, Monique Schoustra. “Santa Fe sits at 7,000-feet and we’re probably 2,000-feet above that,” she says as we huff-and-puff our way up Big Tesuque Trail near the Santa Fe ski area. The air is thin up here, or so I tell myself to assuage the lingering effects of indulging in Santa Fe’s legendary cuisine.  

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from three walking vacations with The Wayfarers it is that I won’t go hungry. Memorable meals are as much a part of their winning formula as the magnificent scenery, elegant accommodations and warm welcome of locals you meet along the way. Fusing the flavors of Old Spain, the New World and indigenous peoples into a cuisine all its own, New Mexico is fresh and exciting culinary territory. This trip is quintessential New Mexico, full of unpretentious food and eccentric characters of the kind you only find when you’ve really gotten away. Case in point: At the remote Café Abiquiu (60 miles from anywhere) we delve into Portobello enchiladas with sautéed onions, roasted bell peppers & melted asadero cheese, chipotle trout lightly dusted with blue corn meal, and grilled lamb chops glazed with a blend of Middle East and New Mexico flavors.

On a hilltop overlooking the Café, a crouched adobe hacienda claims the celebrated view of the surrounding hillsides and Chama river valley that captured the imagination of Abiquiu’s most famous inhabitant: artist Georgia O’Keeffe.

“It fit me exactly,” she is quoted as saying of the desert landscape and stark beauty of northern New Mexico. And touring her Abiquiu home and studio, it is obvious just how close the fit was.  Framed by huge picture windows are the eroded hills, graceful cottonwoods, Rio Chama Valley, and bleached badlands of the ‘White Place,’ that formed her work and indelibly linked the artist to New Mexico.

Like O’Keeffe, we spend much of our time in Abiquiu at the Ghost Ranch, twelve miles northwest of town, where the artist painted for fifty years.  “We just don’t see sky like this at home,” says Jim, a gastroenterologist from Iowa. It’s early morning and the play of sunlight against the stark desert landscape has Jim and me stopped in our tracks as we attempt to capture the rich array of colors in the water, land, rock and sky of our surroundings with our cameras. The group scrambles by us on the dusty trail leading to Chimney Rock, one of the most prominent geological features at Ghost Ranch.

The trail twists and turns, winding its way to the cliff top mesa where we celebrate the climb and photograph one another looking sweaty and tired and jubilant all at once. Eventually we settle down and the blazing sun and solemn beauty of the space transforms our chatter into a silent reverence.

Wayfarers walk leader Monique Schoustra, view from Chimney Rock trail, Ghost Ranch, Abiquiu, New Mexico.

“May I read you a poem?” asks Monique as she pulls a folded, well-thumbed slip of paper from her pant pocket. Seated in our stone amphitheater beneath a curtain of blue sky, we nod our collective consent. “This is by the poet Mary Oliver. A friend shared it with me and I’d like to share it with you.”

Messenger

by Mary Oliver

 

My work is loving the world.

Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird—

equal seekers of sweetness.

Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.

Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

 

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?

Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me

keep my mind on what matters,

which is my work,

 

which is mostly standing still and learning to be

astonished.

The phoebe, the delphinium.

The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.

Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,

 

which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart

and these body-clothes,

a mouth with which to give shouts of joy

to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,

telling them all, over and over, how it is

that we live forever.

 

I think of this poem the next day as I walk with Mary and David Saunders, a convivial Canadian couple enjoying their 16th Wayfarers walk, among the ancient tuff and basaltic lava cliffs, ancestral pueblo homes, kivas (ceremonial structures), rock paintings and petroglyphs of Bandelier National Monument. We’re blissfully tired. We’ve walked hard these past few days. We stop to rest and listen to the rush of cascading water from the Upper Falls, deep in the cool shade of Frijoles Canyon. The Rio Grande glistens in the far distance. Together we stand still and learn to be astonished.


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About The Wayfarers:

Named by National Geographic Traveler as a provider of one of the “50 Tours of a Lifetime” and by National Geographic Adventure as one of the “Best Hiking Companies,” The Wayfarers offers an eco-aware walking holiday of both culture and fitness in 14 countries with 85 Walks.  www.thewayfarers.com; 800- 249-4620. The New Mexico itinerary includes time in Santa Fe, Abiquiu, and Bandelier National Monument.


 

 

 

 

 


You might also like these articles and radio broadcasts featuring the Wayfarers:

Discovering Dordogne

Pure Pleasure in Provence

A Conversation with Michael West of The Wayfarers

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Ellen Barone has been creating words and images for travel and tourism since 1998. She co-founded and publishes the travel blog YourLifeIsATrip.com and is currently at work on her first book "I Could Live Here".