Posts Tagged ‘Abiquiu’

By Bob Chrisman

Pond at Ghost Ranch, Ghost Ranch, NM, April 2008, photo © 2008 by Bob Chrisman. All rights reserved.
Pond at Ghost Ranch, Ghost Ranch, NM, April 2008, photo © 2008 by Bob Chrisman. All rights reserved.

Who can forget that fateful trip to Abiquiu, New Mexico to visit Ghost Ranch? A brief recounting of the experience appears in Natalie Goldberg’s latest book about writing memoir, Old Friend from Far Away, but I didn’t recognize her account even though we were both on that same trip.

Twenty-four people left Taos in silence for Abiquiu that hot, August morning, drinking lots of water to avoid dehydration. The journey took at least three hours.

At the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge we slow walked to the middle and peered over the railing. Our teacher told us to leap over the short walls of the pedestrian walkway and hurriedly slow walk across the busy highway to the other side. I still can’t figure out why we crossed the road. One side of the Rio Grande Gorge looks pretty much like the other side except for the appliances and cars that people have thrown into it.

We took a “short cut” on a packed dirt road with a washboard surface. Add a few thousand potholes, more dust than you should swallow in a lifetime, and speeds of up to 60 mph. When we reached the highway, one of my kidneys had dislodged and the other one was traumatized.

We stopped at Bode’s where twenty-four overly hydrated people visited the two bathrooms. Twenty-two of the people were women. One women’s bathroom with one stool made for a long line that moved very slowly.

Outside our teacher ordered people into cars for a short trip up the hill to look over the adobe wall of Georgia O’Keeffe’s former home and into her former front yard. O’Keeffe had a nice lawn from what I could see. That whole process must have taken another 45 minutes.

When we arrived at Ghost Ranch we drove past the main buildings to a parking area near a “long house” with no walls, three floor fans, and a soda machine. We piled out of the cars for slow walking to the pond, where we would swim.

As the group disappeared down the trail I noticed a sign: “PLAGUE PRECAUTIONS.” I stopped to read the fine print.

Because plague is endemic in New Mexico and fleas and rodents with plague have been found at Ghost Ranch, we ask you to follow these guidelines when hiking here:

  1. wear insect repellent and dust pets
  2. absolutely stay away from alive, sick, or dead rodents and their burrows
  3. report any sick or dead rodents to the office at Ghost Ranch.

The rest of the sign explained how plague was transmitted and described the symptoms.

Plague Precautions, Ghost Ranch, NM, April 2008, photo © 2008 by Bob Chrisman. All rights reserved.Now, really, I don’t dust my house let alone my pets. Who actually believes that insect repellent works on rodents? And you don’t need to tell me to “absolutely stay away” from rodents in any state of health. I fantasized about how I would report sick or dead ones.

Well, sir, I saw this sick rodent holding its stomach and frothing at the mouth at the cactus about 20 feet past the hogan.

Which cactus?

Well, one of the 6,000 near that place.

I caught up with the group as some members were jumping into the jade green water of the pond. Being from Missouri I do not swim in water where I cannot see the bottom, because unpleasant things live in murky water. I sat on the ground amidst the rodent burrows, and who knows how many sick and dead creatures, to have my lunch, which consisted of a hot plum and a warm pork sandwich. I couldn’t eat. Then someone broke the silence with an ear-piercing scream.

“EKKKKKKK!!! There are big black snakes!!!”

Our teacher calmly said, “Leave them alone and they won’t bother you.” On that note, I abandoned the hike for the shelter of the long house where I joined three other people to await the return of our classmates.

Three or four hours later the happy hikers returned in silence. We made a stop at the Visitors’ Center to use the bathrooms, buy trinkets, and purchase more water for the journey home. We climbed in our cars and waved good-bye to what I will always remember as “Goat Ranch.”

The journey home only took a couple of hours — for some of us. The lead car turned onto the highway and disappeared over the horizon. Since no one else knew how to get back to Taos, we all put the pedal to the metal and caught the leader, temporarily. We lost her again at a critical turn. Three cars turned left and two cars turned right. Those of us who turned left made it back to Taos in an hour. The two cars that turned right wandered in the desert like the ancient Israelites, finally arriving in Taos about two hours later, mad and not speaking to any of the rest of us.

The whole experience left a bad taste in my mouth, or maybe that was the dust. I vowed never to return to the Ranch.


Several weeks ago a writing friend talked me into a stay of a few days at Ghost Ranch. I balked, but she finally convinced me.

I knew this trip would be different when the journey from Taos only took 1½ hours. We stayed in lovely rooms atop a mesa with a panoramic view. We enjoyed quiet meals in the cafeteria. We took pictures. I returned to the plague area to see if it was as bad as I remembered. It wasn’t, but then it was April, the temperatures cooler, the drive not as long, my kidneys weren’t traumatized, and the rodents seemed healthier and, I assumed, less plague-ridden.

I’m glad that I re-visited Ghost Ranch. I have a new feeling about the place — but deep in my heart I will always remember the trip from Hell, the trip to Goat Ranch.

Bob Chrisman is a Kansas City, Missouri writer whose pieces Hands and Growing Older have appeared in red Ravine.

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It finally cooled down here in Ghost Ranch. The temperature hit at least 100 a couple of days ago (that’s what the thermometer in my car said, although someone today told me that a meteorologist here told her it hit 106). At this altitude (around 6,000 feet) the air is thin and the sun deadly. Rain came from thunderclouds that appeared in the late afternoon, and now a pattern is starting to form. Cool mornings, the day’s high reaching somewhere in the low 80s, then thunderheads in the late afternoon and light showers before dinner.

Last night’s talent show was one of the highlights of the week. I was telling someone it can start to feel homogenous here at Ghost Ranch. People of a certain age, many Presbyterians, many married couples. But the Coffee House, which is what the talent show is called, is where everyone else shows up. Transgendered, gay, single, Latino, young. Creative people of every stripe and age. I’ll post the poetry of one writer in the coming days.

Today I took time off from painting to visit with my in-laws, who came for the day, and to take Em swimming. We also went to watch Dee do the high ropes course. I’m afraid of heights, so it was awesome watching Dee walk a high wire that looked at least three stories and maybe four high, scramble up the climbing wall, and as a finale climb up a 50-foot telephone pole for something called the “Leap of Faith.” She didn’t jump once she got to the top; she ended up looking down and then had to talk herself in to continuing on. She sat on the very top and then finally grabbed her rope and half slid-half jumped off. But man, I couldn’t even imagine giving it a try. I’m so proud of her!

Most days I’m painting all day long. I can hardly pull myself away from the work I’m doing. Painting with other artists, too, is powerful. We mostly sit without talking, although every now and then quiet conversations take place among different people in the class. Several folks spend all their free time painting in the workshop space, even though they could be out hiking or taking side trips or even resting. It’s a dedicated group. In fact, I bet they’re up at the studio painting right now, which I’d be doing, too, except I have three girls asleep in the room (one for a “sleepover”) and I figure I’d better get to bed myself.

-Related to post A Taste Of Ghost Ranch, NM

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Kitchen Mesa at Sunset, photo © 2007 by ybonesy, all rights reservedThis is the second year in a row (which I suppose is long enough to call a tradition) that my daughters and I are spending a week at Ghost Ranch. I lived 44 years in New Mexico before ever laying eyes on Kitchen Mesa. I don’t know what took me so long to get here, except New Mexico has many beautiful places, several of which I guess kept me away. But here I am now, so late on the 4th of July that the night is turning to morning.

Here’s how my day went today. I got up with the girls at about 7. We’re staying in a block of rooms built in a U-shape around a grassy courtyard, sleeping with doors and windows open. There aren’t locks or keys at Ghost Ranch. I took a shower while Dee and Em headed out to breakfast. Dee’s friend from last year spent the night with us; her parents are in a different set of buildings on the ranch. (BTW, it’s called a ranch, and it has 21,000 acres, some set aside for cattle-grazing, but the main area where we are looks and feels more like a retreat center. Which it also is. Picture lots of adobe-style buildings scattered throughout a green valley surrounded by red-and-yellow cliffs.)

I made it to breakfast, sat with folks I knew from last year. There are maybe 200 people here this week. Lots of families and older folks. Ghost Ranch is owned by the Presbyterian Church, and while there are plenty of Presbyterians here, there is not an overly religious feel to the place. Spiritual, yes. But the religious make-up of the retreat attendees is eclectic.

For me, Ghost Ranch is about being able to take art classes (although there’s so much more than art classes) in a remarkable terrain with remarkable instructors while having my daughters with me. I get to nurture my soul yet do so without spending time away from them. Not many places where I can do that.

I know I should go into some of the history of the place, but besides mentioning that Georgia O’Keeffe had eight acres here and was inspired by the sandstone cliffs and the bleached skulls and whatever else she saw, I can’t do justice. Besides, I’m tired.

After breakfast I had a class in Hebrew Scripture and retablos, which I’ll talk more about over the next several days. Just know that my teachers are a rabbi and a Catholic santero. We’re studying the female figures from the Old Testament, starting yesterday with Sarai (Sarah) and then today Rebecca. Our class started at 9a, and we studied for about one hour and then moved into painting. Took a break at lunch, then had time off until dinner. Back again together at 7 until 8:30p.

My girls were in their own classes — Em in a youth camp, Dee paleontology — that mirror, from a time standpoint, my course. Which means we sleep and eat together plus have a big chunk of time during the day where we can do whatever we want together. Except my girls are into running wild around the place being independent. Today during the afternoon off Em went to Echo Canyon with friends, and Dee made dinosaur eggs. So I ended up painting in the studio and finishing my second retablo.

Today culiminated with a 4th of July parade where the kids rode in floats they made in their classes. Dee’s had a smoking volcano; Em’s was called “The Fuzzies.” There was a fireworks display late; it didn’t start until 9:30 or so.

So much more I’d like to say about the place; I’ll only be able to do so by posting it in snippets. Nothing terribly polished or thought out. But that’s how Ghost Ranch is. It’s so beautiful and grand, you can’t feed it all at once else it comes out like water from a fire hose. It has to be experienced in small pieces. This is what I offer, for starters.

Kitchen Mesa at Sunset and Sun Setting on Chimney Rock, photos taken July 4, 2007, photos © 2007 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.

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