The Art of Asana in Abiquiu’s Ghost Ranch
My partner Jeff and I were mapping out a road trip back west after Christmas, and he noticed that Ghost Ranch, the one-time desert refuge of painter Georgia O’Keeffe, lay directly on our route. Jeff studies famous women’s lives through the lens of astrology on his podcast, Cosmic Cousins, and listeners had unanimously crowned O’Keeffe “Queen of Scorpio.” To us, Ghost Ranch was the physical representation of a woman who lived life utterly on her own terms. Her art transformed inexpressible truths into beautiful forms. We called ahead to ask if rooms were available on New Year’s Eve; they were. What better way to close out the year than isolated in the raw landscapes that inspired her paintings?
Early on December 31, we left Denver, leaving lots of time to get to Abiquiu, the remote locale north of Santa Fe, which in the Tewa language means “wild chokecherry place.” Typically, this drive takes around six hours. But in the middle of winter, depending on whether or not the Rocky Mountain gods are smiling on you, that time is subject to change. Spoiler alert: the gods were not in a happy mood.
Around Colorado Springs, our car began to swerve on the I-25. The road, coated in a thin layer of swirling snow, was practically invisible. All around us we saw more snow blowing down. Any vehicle moving faster than 15 mph begged to go skidding off into the median strip, or worse. We had another 300 miles to go, and the blizzard was just getting started.
Our first reaction was to change our plans. Frantically, we mapped nearby hotels and B&Bs, surrendering to the idea of spending New Year’s Eve in a Holiday Inn in Walsenburg, Colorado.
Then, the roads cleared. The weather seemed to be taunting us. Long stretches would go by with dry tarmac and blue skies and yet all the reports called for a winter storm warning. On the Doppler satellite, a giant swirling blue vortex hovered over central New Mexico. Its trajectory? Straight for Ghost Ranch.
How much do you want to visit this holy ground?
Now, we’re not the kind of travelers who are likely to give up easily. Nor, I imagine, was Georgia O’Keeffe. (“I’ve never let fear keep me from doing a single thing I wanted,” she once said.) Yet it did feel in some way that we were being tested. As if O’Keeffe herself were communicating through the skies. “You want to visit my holy ground? How badly do you want to see it?” she seemed to say. And the answer was: badly.
For weeks, we had built up a glorious vision of ringing in 2019 in the charmed canyon-scape that generated masterpieces like Ram’s Head White Hollyhock and Little Hills. O’Keeffe once boasted of this land, “It belongs to me. God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it.” For its stark beauty, for the extreme mystery of it, we were drawn to the place.
In the car, I inquired about the weather down in Abiquiu with the receptionist at Ghost Ranch. “Look,” he said, “People are leaving work early, they’re saying we might get hit. But we can hold your room. If you make it, your key will be waiting for you in an envelope across from the front desk with your name and room number on it.” I called back to let him know we might need to cancel. Then I called to cancel. Then, the weather improved again so I called to un-cancel.
On tenterhooks, we drove on to Santa Fe where the storm was still in its early stages. In the car, we sipped blood-red hibiscus tea and stared out at the gray scene tensely. Overcast skies, temps in the low 20s, snow falling on adobe. The whole thing would have been romantic, if we weren’t so helpless.
But we drew closer, and the resolution became clear. We had come this far, there was no plan B. We would make it. We followed route 84 north, up through blustery Tesuque, Española, and finally into Abiquiu. Then, as we rounded into red canyon country, as if on cue, the snow stopped.
The surrounding cliffs showed a light dusting of snow. We could feel the altitude’s calming effect (Abiquiu sits 6,080’ above sea level). At the entrance to Ghost Ranch, a sign with O’Keefe’s signature cow skull hung from a wooden post. The test was over. Access granted.
Happy Old Year
Since the 1950s, Ghost Ranch has been owned and operated by the Presbyterian church. More than 300 lectures, workshops, and yes, even weddings, take place each year. But in a former life, this was a wild, volatile place. A band of cattle rustlers hijacked the area in the late 1800s, hoarding stolen livestock and murdering whoever got in their way. Locals stayed as far away as possible, believing that the valley was cursed. They called it Rancho de los Brujos, a reference to the howling winds they heard at night, which they perceived to be the lingering screams of the outlaws’ victims.
An air of foreboding still prevails. Particularly in winter, when the ranch feels desolate, muted. “Happy Old Year,” a ghostly figure greeted us from behind a ski mask, as she drifted past us in the dark.
None of the rooms at Ghost Ranch have telephones or TVs, and there are infinite opportunities for long, solitary strolls among the mesas. Many show up for weeks at a time, to paint, to meditate, to heal. It is the kind of place where you can come with great intentions, or none at all.
Our room was tucked into a frozen courtyard with three sycamore trees. Beyond that was the grand Agape worship hall, the Georgia O’Keeffe library, an arts center, and a museum. Whenever we opened our casita door, all was quiet. The ranch spans a total of 21,000 acres—a former dude ranch sprinkled with the fossils of Archosaurs (ancient crocodiles) that date back 250 million years.
After the tense eight-hour drive, I was in sore need of yoga. A staff member tipped me off to a children’s playroom within walking distance from our room where I could practice asana. Like everywhere else at Ghost Ranch on New Year’s Eve, the room was deserted. Toys were neatly put away, and the gray carpet was spotless. I let myself in, slipped off my boots, and began tuning into my breath.
As I stretched out on the gray carpet—no mat needed—I could feel my muscles, still tense from the long car ride, begin to loosen. None of the comforts of a traditional yoga class were here: but I didn’t need them. The sequence? I made it up. Props? My body was enough. Music? Silence was better. Over the course of nearly two hours, blissfully stretching, curving, folding and twisting my body, I heard the silence give way to something mystical and alive. Amplified by winter’s stillness, fine pulsations rocked the air. The very earth seemed to offer up an ancient rhythm, and if I got quiet enough, I could hear it. I closed my eyes and lay on the floor, entranced. Worry free. Expansive.
Death, Life, and the New Year
I felt like a new person by the time dinner rolled around. There were beef fajitas with guacamole, salad and oven-warm brownies. No party blowers, no novelty sunglasses, no Times Square countdown. (Though we did have a bottle of champagne chilling back in our room.) In the low-key dining room, a few small groups sat talking. Painted red chile peppers adorned the walls, a nod to the state’s emblematic fruit. Joni Mitchell crooned ‘Amelia’ from a radio in the kitchen.
Back in our casita, we did what any sane person does on New Year’s Eve at Ghost Ranch: we discussed the meaning of Death. Jeff pointed out that O’Keeffe was misunderstood. She never viewed the cow skulls as symbols of death. In fact, she enjoyed their “lively” shapes, and made a point to celebrate them for their own sake. In the tarot, Death portrays a moment of transformation, not an ending but a beginning. Violence and suffering once characterized this land—now, it has been made into a place of universal healing. After disaster, life goes on.
In the morning, we stepped out to glistening icicles lining the roof of our casita, which dripped in the warming sun. Even in the dead of winter, the ranch felt unmistakably alive.
For more information about visiting Ghost Ranch, any time of the year, visit: ghostranch.org.