The Best Place in the World

Shortly before I retired from flying, there was an article in Life Magazine about Georgia O’Keeffe. The photos were mostly of her, but her sensibility, and the one piece of her art that was shown, captivated me. I was surprised that in any of my flights to Albuquerque, I’d never heard of her. This was before Google, so I was limited to visits to museums hoping to see her art, or the occasional magazine article showing her work. The most memorable exhibition I’ve seen was a collection of her work at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1989.

Over the years my son lived in New Mexico, I visited the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe several times. Each time the museum exhibited different pieces of her art. Now, I am eager to visit again to see the familiar, and the different.

When I enter, the museum is hushed, the way a church is. I stand in front of her paintings and notice how smooth the paint is, how precise the lines. I sit at a distance on a bench to absorb what I see and feel.

Today I learn that she was influenced by Zen principles. It reflected in the way she lived, as well as her art. She was inspired by Arthur Wesley Dow’s innovative concepts based on principles of design and composition in Japanese art. She traveled the world, most of which she did in her sixties and later.

Above the Clouds, a series of paintings she made between 1961-1962 of clouds seen from airplanes.
Pond in the Woods 1922 Pastel on Paper
A replica of the banquette with rattlesnake skeleton beneath glass in Georgia O’Keeffe’s home

I drive through Abiqui, a sliver of a town, and through red clay canyons as majestic as the Grand Canyon. It’s as if I’m driving through O’Keeffe’s paintings.

Up ahead a dark cloud looms, lightning flashing in the sky, sometimes striking the ground. The cloud seems to rush forward. There’s a burst of rain, the windshield wipers going as fast as they can and then, about four car lengths ahead, a bolt of lightning to the road. I’m awestruck and wish I had the gift to be able to paint what I see.

A few minutes later, I turn into Ghost Ranch. There’s no indication of the storm on the parched road to the Welcome Center. I check in and drive to the cabin where I will stay. There is a woman sitting on the porch. Her name is Kalika Antao. She’s staying in the other room of the cabin. Over the weekend we go on hikes and take our meals together in the dining hall. She recently bought a truck and is experimenting with camping on her own. Talking with her, I realize that is the best way to travel for the experiences I’d prefer.

I once had a Volkswagen van. We took out the back seat, built a platform for the bed with storage underneath. We did a lot of traveling in that van, but it usually involved parking the van and backpacking to a lake somewhere near the top of a mountain. Only one trip, to Mexico, involved staying at campsites. Kalika gave me something to think about. Now all I need is the courage to drive a truck. Maybe another camper van is the answer.

Kalika is a talented artist. If you’d like to view her work, you can find it at

Kalika Antao kayaking at Ghost Ranch

Ghost Ranch has an interesting history, beginning with the Archuleta brothers who were cattle and horse thieves. They hid their stolen stock in the Box Canyon below the Camposanto Mesa, and kept the curious and angry out by saying that the ranch was haunted. Anyone who suspected that their missing livestock was there, found human remains. They didn’t stay long, one way or another. The brothers also told tales of a flying dragon that haunted the hills.

After an argument over hidden gold, one brother killed the other and held his wife and daughter hostage, hoping they’d tell the whereabouts of the gold. The women escaped at night to the San Juan Pueblo. The men of the Pueblo rode to the ranch and hanged the remaining brother and his gang from a cottonwood tree that still stands near one of the casitas. It became known as El Rancho de los Brujos, Ranch of the Witches.

The ranch remained uninhabited for thirty years, until Carol Bishop Stanley moved in. Stanley was born in Boston, MA into a prosperous family. She was a classical pianist, and in her thirties fell in love with a musician. He did not meet her parents’ approval, so they sent her away to the southwest to get over it. She spent a couple of years on a horseback excursion around the Four Corners, and married a cowboy she met on the trail, Roy Pfaffle. Roy was a gambler and won the deed to El Rancho de los Brujos in a card game. Stanley recorded the deed to the ranch in her name, and when they divorced in 1931, she moved there and named it Ghost Ranch. She built guest casitas and turned it into a dude ranch. It was visited by wealthy and creative people of the time.

In the summer of 1934, a woman drove up in a Model A. She’d read in Nature Magazine that this was the best place in the world. It was unusual because guests came by invitation. However, the woman was Georgia O’Keeffe, and accommodations were found for her. She discovered that it was indeed the best place in the world and lived and painted there the rest of her life.

Stanley had married another gambling cowboy, and struggled financially. In 1935 she sold the ranch to Arthur Pack, writer and editor of Nature Magazine. In 1945 Pack sold a seven acre parcel near Chimney Rock to O’Keeffe.

As Pack grew older, he was concerned with how the ranch would be cared for after him. He didn’t want the ranch subdivided and offered it to the Boy Scouts of America and the Archdiocese of Santa Fe to have and maintain, but neither were able to accept the offer. He gifted the 21,000 acre ranch to the Presbyterian Church in 1955 to use as a retreat and for education.

It seems the story about flying dragons wasn’t so farfetched. In 1947, George Whitaker of the American Museum of Natural History in New York was hunting for fossils in the red hills of Ghost Ranch when he found a graveyard of hundreds of the Theropod Dinosaur, Coelyphysis from the late Triassic era. They were light, agile and fast moving. Their form may have looked dragon like to someone viewing skeletal remains. There is an excellent exhibit at the Ruth Hall Museum of Paleontology near the Welcome Center.

The Florence Hawley Ellis Museum of Anthropology also has an excellent collection of aritfacts from Paleo-Indian culture through ancestral Puebloan times

Ghost Ranch has been the setting for many films, among them: Silverado; Indiana Jones ~ Kingdom of the Crystal Skull; 3:10 to Yuma; Wyatt Earp; Hostiles, and City Slickers.

I spend my time hiking around the ranch alone, and with Kalika. It’s breathtakingly beautiful. A weekend is not long enough to explore everything I want to see, and hope to return. Next time I will use the campground. The accommodations are disappointing. The ranch is in a terrible state of disrepair. The people at the Welcome Center blame it on the year it was closed due to Covid. It took many years of neglect for the ranch to fall into this condition. The Presbyterian Church owns Ghost Ranch but no longer supports it financially. The Ghost Ranch Foundation is responsible for care, preservation, and maintenance of its facilities. I imagine Arthur Pack would be displeased if he saw the condition it’s in. Fortunately, the natural beauty of the land is intact.

The weather is moody and dramatic. Kalika and I decide to hike to Chimney Rock after dinner. It was lovely as we started out, but dark clouds rolled in and we think it best to head back to the cabin. By the time we return, the clouds pass. Later that night, there is thunder and lightning and a torrent of rain.

Georgia O’Keeffe wrote of the Pedernal, “It’s my private mountain. It belongs to me. God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it.”

Pedernal by Georgia O’Keeffe
Georgia O’Keeffe Pedernal 1945

4 thoughts on “The Best Place in the World

  1. Thanks for sharing the art. And I enjoyed Kalika’s work too. I think writing about the people who lived there was a good idea. Ken O’connell came by a few times this past month. He is going to teach at Abiqui (sp) in March. He asked me to come along. I will try to go if it’s possible. Happy New Year! Jan Brown

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