Friday, October 12, 2007

el Rancho de las Brujas



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."

7 comments:

murat11 said...

"Weirdly nurturing." The red rock around Sedona has the same effect on me. Here in central Texas, I invariably wear my sunglasses when I'm out in the sun, but in Sedona's environs I find that bordering on sacrilege. There is something about that particular "red" that just "bleeds" right into my eyes: it is immensely soothing. The first time I walked into Oak Creek Canyon above Sedona, I felt that flood of red and had to lie right down on the rock and soak it all in. What is that shade and why is it so physiologically healing?

Lee said...

Oh San! Thank you for that wonderful description of the mountains and valleys. I've read stories set in that part of the country. The desert spirits appeal to the fantasy and spiritual in me. When I was a teenager my folks would take my sister and me backpacking in Colorado. Of course, we went through New Mexico to get there. It was such beautiful country that it always made me feel excited.

I can feel the mystery and spirituality in your photos better than I ever did in O'Keeffe's paintings. I love her work but I love the pre-southwest and music images the best. A long time ago (80s) a traveling exhibit of her paintings came through Dallas and I was fortunate enough to see it. When I looked at all the greens and other vibrant colors in her early works I keep feeling the sensuality of them. The woman could make a corn leaf evoke images of a woman's body. When she started painting skulls and deserts it felt to as if she had suddenly gone through menopause. It went all dead and stark. I was young and probably not ready to relate. I should go and look at her works again to see if things have changed now that it is 20 years later.

Even if I don't relate to O'Keeffe's works from NM I do relate to your sitting peacefully and finding nurture in a stark and scary place. I've shouted from the cliffs of Canyon du Chelly. Yesterday we took my classroom out for a science experiment where they had to sit still and use 4 of their senses. They were to write down everything they saw, heard, felt, and smelled. It was a really neat activity and the kids all enjoyed it. We got some wonderful work from them. Even the substitute and I got into the spirit of it. Total calm! What bliss with 19 third graders!

Peace!

San said...

Murat, you're on to something with regard to that red that bleeds into the eyes and soothes. It's something you feel "in person." When we were descending the trail, Bennie paused to stand and place his hands for a while on one of the big red rocks. He too had to "soak it all in."

Lee, I love reading your memories of trips to the southwest with the family. "Finding nurture in a stark and scary place"--nice! The photos were taken by Bennie and he read your and Murat's comments with much enjoyment. Your take on O'Keeffe's skull paintings is really interesting--makes me want to look more closely at the timeline of her art. Also, I'm curious as to which 4 senses third graders tend to choose when they're assigned to use 4. What do they most often leave out?

Thanks to both of you for such wonderful, evocative comments!

Daphne said...

Leave to me to only want to comment about the food...you're killing me with all of your talk of Spanish inspired food.

Sigh. Oh the envy...

San said...

Daphne, I must admit one of the biggest perks of living in northern New Mexico is the food!

Lisa said...

I found your blog through Paulas. So of course I have to mention the food also. I grew up in northern new mexico and I so miss the food. It is the best in the world. I'm very jealous. Sopapillas - no such thing in denver except for dessert - and they make chile rellenos with egg roll skins - it's criminal!!

I miss the mesas and canyons also. It is amazingly beautiful. I spent hours hiking in those hills as a kid. THanks for bringing back the memories!

San said...

Chile rellenos with egg roll skins. That's a downright sin! Infidels.

I'm so glad to hear from you, Lisa. Visit again and I'll drop over to your place too...