The Bleak Place
Updated: Jan 11, 2021
Georgia O'Keeffe, Black Place II, Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art
One of the greatest things about moving to a new place is exploring it. In New Mexico, the possibilities seem endless. In just four months, I've been all over the state -- and much of the Southwest -- from Las Cruces to Taos, Bisbee to Flagstaff. On the way to and from all of these places, I see dozens of spots and think, "I need to camp there."
The place at which I would most love to experience the stunning night skies of New Mexico is Chaco Canyon. During the day, Chaco Canyon is stunning -- at night, I imagine, it is otherworldly. Designated one of the best places in America to stargaze, and an International Dark Sky Park, the absence of light pollution makes it ideal for those who love to ponder the incomprehensible immensity of space.
Night sky over Chaco Great House, Courtesy National Parks Arts Foundation
And so was the same for Maria and Georgia, who camped near Chaco Canyon frequently in the 1930s and 40s. They didn't come for the night skies, though I am sure that view was part of the attraction, they came for the Black Place. It took me 2.5 hours to drive the 120 miles from Abiquiu to Chaco, it must have taken them, bumping over dirt roads in Georgia's wooden station wagon, six or seven hours. The drive didn't deter Maria, she did it for Georgia all the time.
"The first time i went with O'Keeffe to the black place, several hundreds of miles out of our way as the crow flies, we were on our way to a fire dance in the Lukachukai Mountains -- which if we could get there in the small open Ford would be an accomplishment in itself!
This is a region of the earth where you feel you are the first person to walk across it. Or, if anyone has preceded you, he was so wild and so simple of heart that he left not even a track of his foot behind him.
Climbing these black hills, walking through them, you are aware only of heaven and earth and of your transient moment between them. There is black and there is blue -- there is no shade, no comfort, no water, no leisure -- but there is something else, there is grandeur. And that grandeur has purpose. In every fold of the hill, every curve of the arroyo, every exposure of a red pebble.
In the evening when the sky is a lapis blue and the moon rises flooding all of our country with light - it is wonderful to see the antelope run. Frightened by coyotes, they fly with their tails white - up from the stream bed and across the moonlit plain…” -- Maria Chabot
The Black Place is rough and rugged. There is no shelter. It's a bed of hardened dirt ringed by small, dark, rounded rises -- moody bumps of earth that inspired some of O'Keeffe's best-known works.
Perhaps the foul mood those paintings sometimes conveyed was influenced by the harsh realities of embedding oneself there. Camping was on cotton bed rolls sheltered by canvas sheets. Dinner was whatever was available to pack and could easily be cooked over fire -- bear meat, beans, oatmeal, and of course, O'Keeffe's beloved coffee. They frequently camped in November, for this time of year, "when the thunder sleeps", is safest. I can't imagine how she could paint with frozen fingers or how it would feel trying to sleep with the cold stab of the high desert wind on your back.
Just off busy Highway 550, a long band of hot, black pavement frequented by tanker trucks and semis, I found the Black Place. So have the oil and gas companies. To get to the Black Place, one must skirt oil rigs, pipelines, trucks, and a storage area for fracking chemicals. Just a few hundred yards from this conspicuous detritus of human consumption, sits the Black Place. Amidst the chaos of ugliness, still moody and still somehow defiant. It's a sad statement on where art and nature lay on the scale of what's important today.
I guess no one will be camping there again and am grateful Maria documented it as well as she did -- memories from, and for, the past -- because looking to the future, the Black Place is bleak. It may soon be nothing more than a memory.