New Mexico’s Ghost Ranch and Georgia O’Keeffe

“It’s perfectly mad looking country— hills and cliffs and washes too crazy to imagine and thrown up into the air by God and let tumble where they would. It was certainly as spectacular as anything I have ever seen.” Georgia O’Keeffe on Ghost Ranch in 1937

The welcome sign to Ghost Ranch, which is located about 15 miles north of Abiquiu. The cow skull in the middle is based on a painting by Georgia O’Keeffe.
The cow skull is the logo for the ranch.
It was appropriate that we found this skull on one of the cabins.

The connection between Ghost Ranch and Georgia O’Keeffe is a strong one. I suspect that most people who are aware of the area associate it with the artist. But Ghost Ranch has its own history before, during and after Georgia made it her summer escape from the eastern US, New York and her husband. Once upon a very long time ago during the Triassic era (think 200 million years), it was located near the equator and home to a small dinosaur, Coelophysis. Over 1000 have been found on the property. You probably wouldn’t want to encounter one. It stood approximately nine feet tall, was carnivorous, and ran very fast— probably in packs. “If the left one don’t a-get you, the right one will.” (My apologies to Tennessee Ernie Ford and 16 Tons.) 

A small museum featuring Coelophysis is found on the ranch.
This rendition of the small dinosaur was shown on the State fossil site. Now imagine a herd of them!

In more modern times, circa 1880, the Archuleta brothers took up residence at the ranch. They were outlaws, cattle rustlers to be more specific. They liked the ranch because it was remote, had water, and was known as “El Rancho de los Brujos,” The Ranch of the Witches. The latter was important because it kept the local folks who were superstitious, i.e. almost everyone, away from their operation. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on how you regard such things, one of the brothers killed the other in a dispute over gold. A posse showed up and hung the remaining brother and any of the other outlaws who hadn’t skedaddled, adding to the ranch’s dark reputation. 

I wondered if this was the cottonwood where the Archuleta gang met their doom.

Jumping forward to 1928, Roy Pfaffle won the ranch in a poker game and his wife, Carol Stanley, a woman who obviously thought ahead, registered the ranch in her name. She also decided to call it Ghost Ranch, given its history. Two years later, waving goodbye to her now ex, she moved to the ranch with high hopes of making a living by establishing a high-end dude ranch for wealthy people. They came, but there wasn’t quite enough income to make ends meet. She sold the property to Arthur Stack in 1935, one of the wealthy guests and an early conservationist. He maintained it as a dude ranch up until 1955 when he donated it to the Presbyterian Church as a retreat center, which it continues to serve as today.

This just about brings us to O’Keeffe, but not quite. In the early to mid-40s some mysterious strangers showed up on weekends using alias names who either wouldn’t or couldn’t talk about what they did or their past. Turns out that among these guests were the likes of Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi and Niels Bohr, who just happened to be building the world’s first atomic bomb south of the ranch at Los Alamos. 

Also of note, Hollywood had discovered Ghost Ranch. Peggy and I found a list of movies that had portions filmed there in the Visitors’ Center. Among them were City Slickers, Young Guns, Wyatt Earp, All the Pretty Horses, Cowboys and Aliens, the 2013 version of the Lone Ranger and the 2016 version of The Magnificent Seven. Do you see a certain trend here? Ride’em cowboy.

This old log cabin seemed perfect to represent the Old West side of Ghost Ranch. Actually it was built for the movie” City Slickers.”
As was this corral!
This wagon certainly spoke to Old West character of Ghost Ranch. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Georgia O’Keeffe made her first visit to Ghost Ranch in 1934 and immediately fell in love with its wild beauty. Not so much the fact that it was a dude ranch. She liked to work alone; her art demanded solitude. It wasn’t that she was opposed to having the occasional dude around, but lots of dudes riding horses were counterproductive. None-the-less, she rented a cabin from Stack and when a long-term rental became available due to an illness, she stayed there all summer, beginning a tradition that would last up until she moved into her house in Abiquiu in 1949.

It wasn’t long before she persuaded Arthur Stack to rent her his house, Ranchos de los Burros. It came with more isolation and scenic views. And a great piano. I found a story where O’Keeffe and several friends showed up off-season and found the house locked up tight. They proceeded to break in and spend the evening lying around listening to Ansel Adams knock out tunes on the piano. If I could do time travel, it’s an event that I would travel back to!

Once, when she showed up for her usual summer stay, she found the house occupied and went ballistic. When Stack pointed out that the house didn’t actually belong to her, she insisted on buying it. She was also irritated when Stack gave Ghost Ranch to the Presbyterians rather than selling it to her. The Presbyterians respected her privacy, however, and she eventually developed a good relationship with them. 

I’ll start my main photo section today with a painting by Georgia O’Keeffe of her “private mountain,” the Cerro Pedernal. As she said, “It belongs to me. God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it.” So, she painted it over 20 times and requested that her ashes be scattered on the mountain when she died. When I first read about her passion for the mountain, I thought of the post-impressionist French painter Paul Cézanne and his ‘holy mountain,’ Mount Sainte-Victoire, which he could see from his home in Aix and painted some 60 times. 

One of 20 some paintings O’Keeffe did of Cerro Pedernal.
Peggy and I decided that since Georgia had painted Cerro Pedernal so many times, we should honor it by taking its photo several times. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
Another perspective of Cerro Pedernal.
And a final shot.
A small wayside just before you reach Ghost Ranch features superb views of the Chinle formation that O’Keeffe loved to paint.
A close up. The Chinle Formation is what gives the Painted Desert its colors and is also located in Petrified Forest National Park. It’s also where the remains of Coelophysis are found.
Georgia O’Keeffe painting of a Chinle Formation at Ghost Ranch.
This is another impressive rock formation we saw on our way to Ghost Ranch.
And this.
And now several photos from within Ghost Ranch that fit Georgia’s observation of “perfectly mad looking country” that inspired her to paint. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
Photo by Peggy Mekemson.
I’ll conclude my final post on Georgia O’Keeffe with one last photo of her ‘mountain’ Cerro Pedernal.

NEXT POST: A journey into the world of shamans and petroglyphs. The start of a new series.

15 thoughts on “New Mexico’s Ghost Ranch and Georgia O’Keeffe

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