Before I arrived in Abiquiu I made a list of places, most corresponding to Georgia O’Keeffe’s landscapes, which I wanted to see. While background reading had provided details of O'Keeffe's intense relationship with this land, I ultimately made a poor pilgrim: as my historical appreciation for the area increased, my preoccupation with O'Keeffe's particular vision of it diminished. My quest seemed a sterile and academic exercise, especially when the land presented itself so vividly before me. I remembered, too, what O''Keeffe had once told an artist who had sought her advice: "Find out for yourself," she replied with an enigmatic smile.
There proved to be more history -- and more poetry -- in and around Abiquiu than I had imagined. Perhaps the explanation lies in the Pueblo Indian belief that a person''s very thoughts and emotions are absorbed by the landscape. Thus, echoes of the distant past can resonate even into the present. Or perhaps I was merely susceptible to the suggestion that this could be so. In either case, certain places near Abiquiu harbor echoes from the past.
To the non-archaeological eye, Poshuoinge (po-shoe-WIN-gay) looks unprepossessing. Unlike the well-tended Ancestral Pueblo ruins at places such as Mesa Verde and Bandelier, there is little to commemorate this as the site of a once-thriving village. Yet a hike to the mesa top site reveals what is not evident at ground level: the defensive advantages of this location. At the time it was built, nomadic Athapaskan tribes (ancestors of the Apaches and Navajos) were already making incursions into northern New Mexico. It was probably such an attack on the pueblo which caused its inhabitants to suddenly flee, abandoning even their most precious possessions. They left behind a legacy, however: present-day farmers near the mesa still use the acequias (irrigation ditches) dug centuries ago by the ancient community.
To find Poshuoinge, keep a sharp eye out for a small sign on the left side of the road heading north to Abiquiu. The ruins are near the roadside about a mile south of the old settlement of Santa Rosa di Lima di Abiquiu. A short trail winds around the side of a mesa to its top, where there is an interpretive sign showing an artist''s rendition of what the site may have once looked like. The mesa vantage point provides memorable views of the Chama River Valley, with the dark backdrop of Monte Negro beyond.
SANTA ROSA DI LIMA DI ABIQUIU
Less than a mile from Poshuoinge along Rt. 84 are the ruins of first settlement at Abiquiu, Santa Rosa di Lima. All that remains are the thick walls of the church which once doubled as a refuge. Outposts such as Abiquiu were under constant attack from marauding bands of Navajos, Apaches, Utes, and Comanches, who raided the settlement for supplies, horses, and slaves. Abiquiu was a poor community, consisting largely of Genízeros (Pueblo Indians living alongside the Spanish). The first settlement was not a success. The settlement and its church, constructed in the 1740''s, had to be abandoned during the 1750''s when especially fierce raids forced the villagers to retreat to the more defensible position at the site of present-day Abiquiu. The ruins stand as a poignant reminder of the hardships these early settlers endured.
PLAZA BLANCA - "THE WHITE PLACE"
Tucked back into the folds of the land, Plaza Blanca is an eerie geological formation of luminous gray stone formed from volcanic ash some sixty million years ago. The soft rock has eroded into stately tapered mounds, which seem like sentinels guarding the canyon’s entrance. The wind- and water-worn forms are pale versions of the sandstone hoodoos seen in places such as Canyonlands National Park in Utah. Getting to this quiet, unearthly place requires driving along unpaved County Road 155 for several miles, bearing right at the fork in the road after about four miles. Walk back toward the rock formations and then down alongside them for the best views. In the shimmering heat of mid-day, the profound stillness of Plaza Blanca is uncanny; it is little wonder that O’Keeffe came here often to paint the White Place.
DAR AL ISLAM
Before the fork in the road leading to Plaza Blanca is the entrance to Dar ar Islam Mosque, which was originally meant to be the center of an ideal Moslem community set in the New Mexican desert. While the grander designs of the community never came to pass, the mosque and madressa (school) that were built are exquisite, the sole examples in the U.S. of a North African style masjid. It is said that the construction techniques used date back to Egypt’s ancient Valley of the Kings. The mosque, which was built of hand-made adobe brick, faces East towards Mecca. Set against the gently rolling hills and dark juniper-studded mountains, the Dar al Islam mosque seems far removed from the materialistic concerns of the secular world, existing in harmony with its austere surroundings.
O’Keeffe painted this winding river time and again, most notably in her Blue River series. Just north of Abiquiu, Rt. 84 climbs upward flanking a steep cliff. At the apex, there’s a pull-out on the left which overlooks the Chama River. It is here that artists set up their easels to paint the famous view of the river flowing through the surprisingly green bottomlands of the valley. Flanked by the soft forms of water-loving cottonwoods, the river emerges from the red foothills, meandering seductively on its way toward the village.
Cerro Pedernal (Flint Mountain) is sacred to several Native American tribes of the Southwest. With an almost sentient presence, its distinct, flat-topped shape presides watchfully over Abiquiu. Georgia O’Keeffe was obsessed with Pedernal, painting it over and over again. "It''s my private mountain," she used to say. "God told me if I painted it often enough I could have it."
The view of the mountain from the shores Abiquiu Lake is particularly fine, though it is sadly ironic that when the Army Corps of Engineers built Abiquiu Dam, they flooded an area rich in prehistoric sites in order to create a lake that virtually no one in Abiquiu wanted.
What can be said of the Piedra Lumbre, or Valley of the Shining Stone, other than that it is most fittingly named? Some ten miles north of Abiquiu, the cliffs running alongside Rt. 84 suddenly explode in dramatic crests of fiery red, dusky purple, and honey yellow stone. The rugged cliffs, spires, and stone formations of the Piedra Lumbre present an almost complete geological record of this area, from ancient Chinle sandstone formed some 200 million years ago upwards through the Jurassic, Cretaceous, and Mesozoic eras. The scenic pull-out for Piedra Lumbre along highway 84 proved too distant a view for my liking, so I parked on the steep shoulder of the road near the most towering formations, which rose like the skeletal backbone of some terrestrial leviathan from the face of the earth.
Ghost Ranch is a bewitching place – literally. Once believed to be the haunt of malevolent witches, the ranch sits on a broad llano (grassy, almost treeless plain), ringed by the dramatic red and yellow cliffs so often painted by O’Keeffe on one side and the chain of mountains that includes Pedernal on the other. The ranch is well suited for its present use as a retreat and center for paleontological and anthropological study, though its winding canyons retain a wild, almost forbidding atmosphere.
The last, and perhaps most appropriate, destination in this timeless land is Echo Canyon Amphitheater, a striking geological formation set in a massive, tricolored cliff some 17 miles north of Abiquiu. The cliff’s strata each represent a different sedimentary layer: the top layer is limestone and gypsum of the Toldito formation; the middle layer is composed of Entrada sandstone; and the bottom layer is crumbly red Chinle sandstone and siltstone. The amphitheater was formed by the collapse of the rock face which left an immense hollow cavity. A ten-minute walk on a well-paved path takes the visitor to a viewing platform set at the base of the cliff. From this vantage point the immense size of the amphitheater is better appreciated, but the real draw is the incredible echoing of even the smallest of sounds.
White-throated swifts nest in the cliff face crevices, their high-pitched calls ringing through the canyon as they flit endlessly back and forth. It doesn’t seem terribly extravagant to imagine that the resulting echoes are the responses of ancestral swifts from long, long ago.