In August, recently married and uncertain about where in this precariously divided America we should make a life, my husband and I embarked from our home in Savannah, Ga., on a Western road trip. O’Keeffe’s New Mexico appealed to us not for the usual reasons a tourist might seek out O’Keeffe Country, but because in the life she built there and the reasons she built it, we saw our own hopes (and political anxieties) reflected.
She was no stranger to tumultuous times: O’Keeffe’s 98 years on earth spanned both World Wars, the Great Depression, the Cold War, Vietnam. She was “always afraid,” she wrote, but she refused to let it stop her from building the life of creativity, security, solitude and self-reliance she wanted. She left New York and found what she needed in a quiet adobe village in the painted desert around the Rio Chama river basin — a small but strong community, a farm-to-table food supply, a nuclear fallout shelter — and then she got on with her work.
O’Keeffe relocated from New York full time in 1949, but her New Mexico story begins 20 years earlier, with a visit to a friend’s artist enclave in Taos. Of New Mexico after that trip, she wrote, “There is nothing to say about it except the fact that for me it is the only place.” Traces of her story are everywhere: An uncashed check for $4.95 is proudly tacked to the wall by a shopkeeper at the Taos Pueblo. The tall ponderosa pine still stands as it did a century ago outside the window of writer D.H. Lawrence’s ranch in the mountains north of Taos, which O’Keeffe painted on a visit. The Mabel Dodge Luhan House, known in 1929 as Los Gallos, site of the aforementioned artist enclave, is now a historic 22-room adobe inn.
Taos was the tip of the iceberg for O’Keeffe. From Lawrence’s ranch up the mountain, she first caught sight of the painted desert farther west, near the 18th-century adobe village of Abiquiú, where she would find and restore an adobe ruin, making it her home until shortly before her death in 1986.
Located an hour north of Santa Fe just off Route 84, Abiquiú is small and quiet. Much like O’Keeffe, its residents have always treasured their privacy. So, this past fall, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe opened the O’Keeffe Welcome Center outside the village center on the highway to help mitigate O’Keeffe tourism in the village proper. From the center, tours booked in advance depart by van for the artist’s home a few minutes away. With time before our tour to explore, we bypassed the center and continued along the river, past bright red rock formations, 15 minutes farther to the 21,000-acre Ghost Ranch.
En route, we crested a hill and the horizon opened up. On the left was Cerro Pedernal, the mountain where, per O’Keeffe’s wishes, her ashes were scattered. Its dark, flat-topped silhouette against the sky recalls her signature brimmed hat.
Through the ranch’s pole gates is a wide meadow of grasses and scarlet globe-mallow flowers, grazing goats, colorful cliffs and sandstone spires. The beauty of the landscape hardly differs from when it drew O’Keeffe there for the first time in the 1930s. Now, though, it’s a Presbyterian spiritual retreat and education center with tours and trailheads open to the public. On a summer Wednesday, the parking lots were full. Cars buzzed in and out. At the main house, visitors can purchase a day pass ($5) before joining a guided O’Keeffe landscapes bus tour, strolling the grounds to see the cottage where O’Keeffe painted, or making their way to a trailhead for one of a number of scenic hikes.
Our time at Ghost Ranch was cut short by rain. We sat and watched through the car windows before heading back toward Abiquiú on 84 to another place O’Keeffe painted often: Plaza Blanca, the White Place. It wasn’t raining here — yet. Chalklike limestone pillars carved by time and rainstorms rose out of the red dirt like Gaudí’s cathedral. We met a woman with an easel painting the landscape, and we moved through her space like we were in a museum. The formations at the White Place seem fragile enough that to rest a hand on them, much less hike off the trail, could cause them to crumble. For this reason, signs on the privately owned but generously shared property implore hikers to stay on the trails. Thunder rolled in the distance.
Back near Abiquiú village, the best bet for lunch is Bode’s General Store. It was a favorite of O’Keeffe’s, and no wonder: Same as today, it may have been the only place around to procure provisions or fuel up her beloved Model A Ford. Bode’s does an acclaimed green chile cheeseburger. When we arrived, the grill was shut down for the afternoon, but a crockpot full of hot tamales offered a worthy Plan B.
From Bode’s, we reported to the neighboring Welcome Center. A dozen or so guests — from New York, Houston, Denver, Germany — awaited the 90-minute, 5 p.m. Behind the Scenes Tour. At the property, we were asked not to photograph anything indoors before we paraded down the path between the house and the garden, running our hands over the smooth adobe walls. Open-air courtyards are adorned with cow skulls and collections of worn-smooth stones. There’s not a sharp corner in sight.
In the garden, apple trees and rows of vegetables and herbs are nearly just as O’Keeffe had them 50 years ago. Inside, the home’s sprawling rooms are also nearly just how she left them: Eames chairs, viga and latilla ceilings, the artist’s lone martini glass on the kitchen shelf, leather boots in the closet, original dried herbs in their original jars lined up in the pantry.
In the bedroom, two walls of windows face the Chama. The guide pointed out the centuries-old bronze hand of the Buddha hanging alone on the bedroom wall at the foot of the bed, which O’Keeffe picked up on her travels to Thailand in 1959. Its open palm faces outward in the abhaya (have no fear) mudra, a Buddhist hand gesture to evoke reassurance. It’s the first thing O’Keeffe would have seen upon waking in the morning. And then through the windows, she would have seen the pair of few-foot-tall orange pipes at the edge of the yard. They lead into her fallout shelter — a lead-lined, ventilated underground bunker she commissioned in the early 1960s to help her survive a nuclear attack — and to stave off her worry of one, however unlikely. If only the threats that loom today were so straightforward.
In the bronze hand of Buddha, the bunker, the back-to-the-land, farm-to-table existence the artist built in New Mexico, travelers might see a pertinent new layer of her life, a different kind of inspiration to take from O’Keeffe Country. After our Abiquiú sojourn, we drove the hour back to Santa Fe in time for mole at Cafe Pasqual’s. The next day, visiting the definitive collection of her work at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, we could bring our own meaning to her gracefully abstracted renderings of these places we now recognized: Ghost Ranch, the White Place, Cerro Pedernal, the black door in the courtyard that she painted religiously. After taking in how O’Keeffe worked to create a space for her creativity to unfurl, seeing the work she made there felt like a celebration.
Marvar is a writer based in Savannah, Ga. Her website is alexmarvar.com.
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If you go
Where to stay
21120 Route 84, Abiquiú
Overnight lodging in rooms, suites and adobe casitas with a lush courtyard and discounted rates for O’Keeffe Welcome Center visitors, plus a restaurant and a gift shop. Casitas from $109 per night.
Mabel Dodge Luhan House
240 Morada Lane, Taos
The 22-room adobe estate to which O’Keeffe’s friend Mabel Dodge Luhan invited artists such as O’Keeffe, D.H. Lawrence and Ansel Adams. It would later be purchased by Dennis Hopper, and today, it’s a historic inn. Rooms from $116 per night.
Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi
113 Washington Ave., Santa Fe
An elegant boutique hotel in Santa Fe’s historic center, just off Santa Fe Plaza and blocks from the O’Keeffe Museum and the New Mexico Museum of Art. Rooms from $217 per night.
Where to eat
Bode’s General Store
21196 Route 84, Abiquiú
A gas station, grocer and breakfast-lunch cafe with an acclaimed green chile cheeseburger. Counter service Monday through Thursday 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. for breakfast and lunch and Friday through Sunday until 7 p.m. for dinner. Sandwiches from $8.95, burgers from $9.95.
121 Don Gaspar Ave., Santa Fe
Excellent Mexican fare in a fun, cozy room at the heart of an ancient adobe. Try the mole enchiladas ($29). Open daily 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. for breakfast and lunch, nightly for dinner from 5:30 p.m. Entrees from $18.
228 E. Palace Ave., Santa Fe
Try the five-course tasting menu devoted to the food O’Keeffe grew and cooked at her Abiquiú home at this upscale restaurant inside the Drury Plaza Hotel. Open for lunch Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; nightly dinner 5:30 to 10 p.m.; and Sunday brunch 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Entrees from $24.
724 Canyon Rd., Santa Fe
Top-notch New American fine dining in a circa-1756 adobe home on Santa Fe’s gallery-lined Canyon Road. Open Monday through Thursday 5 to 9 p.m. and Friday through Sunday until 9:30 p.m. Entrees from $26.
What to do
O’Keeffe Welcome Center
21120 Route 84, Abiquiú
Visit the center for a museum store (with replicas of the bronze “fear not” hand, $59), classroom facilities and restrooms, and to check in for the Abiquiú Home and Studio Tour or the more in-depth, 90-minute Behind the Scenes Tour, which includes a visit to the fallout shelter. Open daily 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tours require booking in advance online, as they may sell out. Abiquiú Home and Studio Tour $40 per person, $35 members and students ages 6 to 18. Behind the Scenes Tour $65 per person.
1708 Route 84, Abiquiú
At O’Keeffe’s former summer painting retreat, now managed by the Presbyterian Church as an education and retreat center, check in for a day pass at the main house and find maps of the trailheads or join a history tour on foot or a Georgia O’Keeffe Landscape Tour by bus. Welcome Center open daily 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Check website for tour pricing and schedules. Tours from $39 per person.
About 2½ miles down County Road 0155, between Route 84 mile markers 213 and 214
Now on land privately owned by the Dar al Islam Mosque and generously open to the public, the White Place (as it translates from Spanish) makes for a beautiful hike on delicate terrain; visitors should ensure they stay on the trails and leave no trace. Free.
Proceed on Route 84 to Ghost Ranch. As you crest the hill a few miles out of Abiquiú, you’ll see on your left, in the distance, the looming, flat-topped peak that was long a muse to O’Keeffe. It was the subject of many of her paintings and inspired her to say: “It’s my private mountain. It belongs to me. God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it.” Free.
120 Veterans Hwy., Taos
This 1,000-year-old Pueblan adobe community is a UNESCO World Heritage site, where guided walking tours are offered seven days a week. Shop for silver and turquoise or try traditional bread baked in adobe brick ovens. Open Monday through Saturday 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Sunday 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Adult admission $16, students and seniors $14, children 10 and under free.
D.H. Lawrence Ranch
506 D.H. Lawrence Ranch Rd., Taos
About 14 miles north of Taos on Route 522 and another fives miles up a mountain on the one-lane dirt D.H. Lawrence Ranch Road, follow the signs to find the quirky, rustic ranch, once owned by writer D.H. Lawrence and his wife, now managed by the University of New Mexico and occasionally employed for student retreats. During visiting hours, the groundskeeper greets guests and gives a generous introduction to the property. The rest of the experience is self-guided. Open Thursday and Friday 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Saturday until 4 p.m. Free.
Georgia O’Keeffe Museum
217 Johnson St., Santa Fe
At the edge of historic downtown Santa Fe, the museum houses artwork, artifacts and media from O’Keeffe’s life. Curators are prepping a 2020 exhibition that will feature a study of works from O’Keeffe’s extensive travels. Open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Fridays until 7 p.m. General admission $13, children and students 17 and under free.
For the author’s full list of recommendations for New Mexico, visit wapo.st/travel