Through Abiquiu

A few weeks ago I left our little utopia known as Ithaca behind and set off on a solo hiking/art trip to northern New Mexico. Turns out Georgia O’Keeffe, aka The Mother of American Modernism, beat me to it when 84 years ago in 1929 she left NYC behind on her first painting visit to New Mexico. Prior to this journey I didn’t know much about New Mexico or O’Keeffe. Thanks to a generous time allotment of three plane rides required to reach Albuquerque from Ithaca and the book Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O’Keeffe by Laurie Lisle, I got a verbal introduction to this serene landscape and this not-always-serene artist.  Despite the title, the Kindle version of this book had no pictures. But the descriptions of O’Keeffe’s attraction to the landscape, combined with my own fond memories of a short trip through White Rock, NM ~20 years ago, left me eager to explore. O’Keeffe liked the place so much that for most of the second half of her 98 year long life she ditched the modern conveniences of the Big Apple for a rugged, rural lifestyle near Abiquiu (three syllables, last one rhymes with “through”).

Once I arrived and experienced these places for myself I completely got why O’Keeffe moved here.  I was enthralled, entranced…and encouraged to soak it all in as inspiration for my own art. Hiking I encountered an all encompassing solitude extending out over a vast flow of subtle and salient colors of crisp, crumbling textures. I’m now painting from my memory of the feel of the place. A quick piece I painted after returning from Abiquiu:

After Abiquiu, a painting by Alison Shull, pastel on paper

I took photos while hiking, but I don’t refer to my photos while I’m painting (helps keep my mind open and away from analytical thinking). Lately I’ve been enjoying browsing through my photos as a way of mentally re-hiking this beautiful area. Below and in my next few posts you too can get a glimpse into this vast and varied landscape via a www-style tag along with me on my explorations.  But be warned: reduced to the small size of your screen, these photos only begin to resemble the awesome nature of this space.

Ghost Ranch

Let’s start with the first hike I went on: The Kitchen Mesa Trail. This is one of the hiking trails at Ghost Ranch. O’Keeffe first went to Ghost Ranch in the summer of 1934 and painted there for the next ~50 years.  Here’s what her buddy the photographer Ansel Adams had to say about hiking at Ghost Ranch:

“…The skies and land are so enormous, and the detail so precise and exquisite that wherever you are you are isolated in a glowing world between the macro and the micro.”

– Ansel Adams

Unlike Adams, who had to schelp his large format camera on these hikes, I snapped the photos below with my iPhone5 (usually in HDR mode). Since I hiked solo and passed by very few other hikers there’s a scarcity of humans in these pics. Hope you aren’t disoriented without people for scale – just think VAST for the vistas and cliffs and boulders and sky and clouds and…

Kitchen Mesa Trail

In this ~5 mile hike I set off up and over a hill then down across the floor of a box canyon (ie steep walls on three sides) to the end of the box where I hand-over-foot-climb boulders up a hidden (until I find it) slot to the top of the canyon.

Kitchen Mesa Trail at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, photo by Alison Shull
Can you spot the slot for the climb to the top?
Kitchen Mesa Trail at Ghost Ranch, photo by Alison Shull
In the slot, almost up to the top…
Kitchen Mesa Trail at Ghost Ranch, photograph by Alison Shull
View mid-climb looking back over the way in
Kitchen Mesa Trail at Ghost Ranch
A little higher now…view upon emerging atop the slot climb

From here I hike out along the rim of the canyon (left side above), soaking in the views off to the other side, which include Abiquiu Lake and a handsome mesa named Cerro Pedernal. The latter was a favorite subject of O’Keeffe’s and she’s quoted as saying “I painted it often enough thinking that, if I did so, God would give it to me”. She likely would’ve painted the stunning aqua lake as well, but it didn’t exist yet (the dam which created this reservoir fed by the Rio Chama is a more recent creation of the Army Corp of Engineers).

Kitchen Mesa Trail at Ghost Ranch, photography by Alison Shull
In the distance: Abiquiu Lake and Cerro Perdernal

The trail ends at the top of the front end of the box canyon – the Kitchen Mesa – which is covered in sparkling white gypsum rock. It’s the closest I’ve been to feeling like I’m standing on the surface of the moon.

Kitchen Mesa Trail at Ghost Ranch, photography by Alison Shull
On Kitchen Mesa

To return simply enjoy it all over again in reverse,

Kitchen Mesa Trail at Ghost Ranch, photography by Alison Shull
On the edge
Kitchen Mesa Trail at Ghost Ranch, Abiquiu, New Mexico
From along the floor of the box canyon, returning towards the trailhead
Kitchen Mesa Trail at Ghost Ranch, Abiquiu, New Mexico
Desert with a bloom: the first, last and only cactus bloom along the trail

with the view near the end extending far off to another breath-taking hike – Chimney Rock Trail.

Chimney Rock at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico
View of Chimney Rock from Kitchen Mesa Trail

And finally, a sampling of “the micro” along this Kitchen Mesa Trail at Ghost Ranch:

Kitchen Mesa Trail at Ghost Ranch, photography by Alison Shull

If all this leaves you feeling artistically inspired, itching to travel, and you’re into hiking & photography workshops, an Ansel Adams Photography Workshop is offered at Ghost Ranch this September. Just sayin’. Or, skip the trip for now and keep on www-style tagging along with me – we’ve got Chimney Rock, Tent Rocks, Tsankawi and a quick, quirky jaunt through Santa Fe on the way…

Alison Shull is an artist who, next trip to New Mexico, will definitely pack her hiking boots. View her on-line gallery at


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