History of Ghost Ranch
following excerpt from Witness to creation -- and destruction by Christopher Reynolds

At its highest points, Ghost Ranch rises as a set of chalky red slopes, slopes that you know you've seen somewhere before. At its lowest points, along the Chama River, a thousand cottonwoods wear their fall robes of gold.

The place is high-desert gorgeous, and the Presbyterian Church, which owns it, has been running it for nearly 50 years as a conference center: about 50 acres of buildings and a whole lot of open space.

"Thirty square miles," says Jean Richardson, the Ghost Ranch development director. "We're the size of Manhattan."

But there are unseen layers here, and skeletons in the closet.

Skeletons and skulls. This is where painter Georgia O'Keeffe came every summer from the 1930s to the 1980s. Its steer skull logo came from her, and her red-sloped mountainscapes came from it. But that's only half of why I'm here.

As a Spanish land grant, this corner of northern New Mexico was called Piedra Lumbre (Shining Stone). Its reputation as a spiritually charged territory was in place long before O'Keeffe ever headed west from New York. In the 18th century, settlers and Indians whispered about the sorcerers and witches thought to control this valley. In the late 19th century, when the Archuleta brothers ran it as a cattle ranch, the whispers turned to stolen cattle and murdered travelers — and then one brother murdered the other.

"It was sort of like the 'Silence of the Lambs' Ranch," says Richardson.

Once new owners came in and set the property up as a dude ranch, the spooky reputation died down. And then O'Keeffe turned up, first as a renter, then owner of a seven-acre plot.

Living alone in a low-slung adobe, O'Keeffe painted the hills, bones and antlers, the cottonwoods in all seasons, the yucca and cactus blossoms in lurid bloom.

She was, they say, as difficult as her work was inviting. In 1955, when Ghost Ranch owner Arthur Pack told her he'd donated most of the ranch to the Presbyterian Church, O'Keeffe threw a tantrum and told him he should have given it to her instead.

Give Pack credit for aiming higher; he hoped the scenery would turn a visitor's thoughts toward God and help promote peace. And give the Presbyterians credit for shouldering a load. Along with its lodgings and conference rooms, the ranch has grown to include two small museums (anthropology and paleontology), a library, a pool, a couple of campgrounds and a roster of secular and spiritual courses — including multicultural congregational leadership and the theology of Harry Potter.

It gets about 20,000 visitors a year, some Presbyterian, some not, and has a smaller sibling facility in Santa Fe. Faced with expenses of about $4 million a year and dwindling support from the church, management is looking to lure more visitors, especially younger ones, especially in the cold, lonely weeks between October and April.


In early 1942, back when O'Keeffe was on the scene, a team of FBI agents turned up. They interviewed the Packs and all the other regulars. Soon after, new guests began arriving. Secret guests, with assumed names. These were the atomic scientists of the Manhattan Project in nearby Los Alamos, and the ranch became their off-campus retreat.

They mostly kept to themselves, writes ranch historian Lesley Poling-Kempes in "Valley of Shining Stone: The Story of Abiquiu." But after the 1945 bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Pack family learned that the guys talking physics in the dining hall included Richard Feynman, Edward Teller and J. Robert Oppenheimer.

O'Keeffe's blooms and Oppenheimer's booms — all made possible, at least in part, by these same hills at the same time.

So you wonder. In their strolls, did the physicists pass a squinting, sun-worn artist? Did she grumble? Flirt? Did they glimpse, on her easel, an ominous skull, or one of her strange desert skies, all crowded with clouds?


The painter, the physicists, the pretty panoramas: They all connect. And the next time you come across a thoughtful hiker in the middle of some vast landscape, just think: Creation, destruction, inspiration, hubris — there's no end to what might be starting there.
9/13/2006 12:32:00 AM  
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Quick Facts

Dates: Oct 23/24 - Oct 26, 2008

Place: Ghost Ranch-Abiquiu, NM

Cost: $300 double occupancy

Skill: basic knitting and up

Hostess: Lauren M. Baldwin


Cost and registration
Driving Directions
Knitting at the Ranch


Abquiu Inn
Bode's General Merchandise
Ghost Ranch
Monestary of Christ in the Desert
Tierra Wools
Yahoo Local for Abiquiu