Yesterday Bennie and the kids and I drove up to Ghost Ranch, or el Rancho de las Brujas (Witch Ranch.) Those of you familiar with northern New Mexico will know that this is Georgia O'Keeffe country and that photographs simply do not begin to capture the vastness of the spirit of this land. People around here speak of "those northern New Mexico spirits." Sometimes they're referring to las brujas, the witches from Spanish folklore. Sometimes the reference is to Native American spirits such as Changing Woman and Spider Woman, felt by some to inhabit this area. Others may be thinking of the ghosts of cattle rustlers who were murdered here when this was an actual ranch. And some refer to the dinosaurs whose fossils reside here.
To whatever source you attribute the power of el Rancho de las Brujas, its visible bones and harder-to-see spirits of the past, no one can be unmoved by it. It is wide-open, red-rocked, stark, and weirdly nurturing. Once I read that all of the major religions of the earth were founded in desert regions. Easy to believe when standing at the base of Kitchen Mesa. Look up and you can see three layers of geological history, a huge puzzle assembled by weather and time. It seems the most natural impulse to wonder--where do I fit in this puzzle?
Begin to ascend the trail to the top, as we did, and the already thin air--at the bottom, we're 6400 feet up--thins a bit more. Follow the red clay trail round and round the walls of the mesa, and you can look down and see where you were. It looks a lot like where you are now, just a little nearer the ground. Climb a bit higher, and the trail gradually becomes steeper and rockier. Then suddenly it turns into rock climbing. We didn't make it to the top, although my three companions went a little farther than I did. I've never been great with heights and neither my feet nor my lungs seemed up to the task.
Instead, I enjoyed a few minutes of solitude perched on a rock more than three-quarters of the way up. It was here that I felt that weird nurturing thing I mentioned earlier. I sat down really slowly, prepared to feel completely uneasy with the height and the dryness and the rockiness. But instead of feeling at odds with it all, I felt very much at peace and taken care of. A quiet breeze blew my way and a few little insects began to visit. The sagebrush whispered. I looked at the steep walls across the canyon and was reminded of how people used to go to such places to vision quest. You could do some serious questing here, I thought.
Then I heard Bennie and the kids coming back down. They said they didn't feel quite confident about the rock climbing that began about 250 feet above my station and so they came back to join me for the slow, careful walk back down to the car parked near the yellow cottonwoods.
When we got to the car, we looked at the clock and saw we'd been hiking for more than three hours. Strange. It felt like much less time. We drove north to Echo Amphitheater, where we shouted our names into the rocks. They kept repeating themselves until they dissolved into silence. Oakley...Oakley...Oakley...Oak... Flannery...Flannery...Flannery...Flan...
Hearing ourselves resonate into nothingness made us very hungry, so we headed back to Espanola where we had enchiladas, chile rellenos, and stuffed sopapillas, all of it smothered in green chile. We also had amazing posole, laden with chunks of delicately seasoned pork. Flannery said, "Northern New Mexico food is real comfort food. I miss northern New Mexico. I like Albuquerque, but Albuquerque feels like a regular place. Northern New Mexico isn't a regular place."