Updated: Jan 11, 2021
One of my favorite things about living in New Mexico is: road trips. I’m in love with the places I can be in just a few hours: Taos, Bandelier National Monument, White Sands National Monument, Durango, the Jemez Mountains, the Hopi Nation, Gila National Forest, even...Mexico! OK, maybe Mexico is a bit further than a couple of hours but that’s a trip for the future. The very near future, in fact. Anyway, the point now is: I can get to all these places in the same amount of time I used to spend commuting to and from work in Seattle.
Thank you, New Mexico!!!
Georgia O’Keeffe and Maria Chabot were also big fans of the road trip. They would embark on many an adventure in search of places to paint, Indian dances to watch, or even just an entertaining party.
One of their most frequent destinations, which I have previously written about, was the Black Place. This was Georgia’s favorite place to paint, and both women enjoyed camping there; smack dab in the middle of the nothingness of nowhere.
It wasn’t easy to get there. I’ve driven the same route they did and it took about 2.5 hours but in the 1940’s, on dirt roads, the 150 mile trip was much more of an investment. I found this description of the trip in Maria’s papers and wanted to share it with you. It is just simply beautiful and paints an O'Keeffe-worthy picture of their journey in their day...and that's all I have to say. Take it away, Maria.
“One hundred and fifty miles west of us, up the red vein of the Rio Puerco, through mountains heavy with pines, through half a dozen settlements, we travel.
The journey to the Black Place is of the nature of a major expedition. We stand on the roof of our house when the south wind is blowing and the sky an unbroken blue. We look west across the plain that lies between Pedernal Mountain and the high mesas of the Puerco. And if it is so clear that we can see each pine on the skyline distinctly, we say: this is Black Place weather.
To know the Black Place one must go to it in the heat of the July moon, in the depths of the November night. One must sleep on its bosom, suffer its piercing wind, grit its sand in one’s teeth, watch it though days and nights of ever-changing light, contemplate it and give ones self to it wholly. For that is the price it demands for this intangible thing that it offers. Its wonder.
Snow, sleet, rain, floods, freezing, fire, struggle with wind and snow. Coffee in our cups blown up our sleeves, the haunch of a venison we roasted frozen and covered with sand.
Preparing for the journey is an all day task. The car must be checked -- the oil and gas and water and air with which the machine will move. It is an old Ford station wagon, high in the tail, able to surmount many of the difficulties that lie ahead. The back seats, when removed, leave a space 4x6 feet into which all of our supplies must fit. First our water. Where we are going there is no water and it must be carefully planned: two people, two gallons a day, so many days. And wood. There is precious little wood and fire will be needed.
After water and fire we think of blankets and food. Every meal is planned, and the staples loaded into boxes: coffee, fresh-cooked bread, oatmeal, salt, canned milk, canned beans and bread and spinach and fruit. We each have a tin cup, knife, fork, spoon and plate. In camp we will clean these utensils with paper toweling and a teaspoon of water. These are carried in a small collapsible table. The table is a box which has legs that unfold six inches off the earth and it becomes the center of our camp. Then the lantern and the axe, the canvas sacks with a change of shirts and socks. O’Keeffe’s easel, paint pallette and boxes of stretched canvas, and we are off with the cat to the west. And always a little bit of fear.
Maria Chabot, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Holger Cahill camping in Navajo Canyon, 1942. Photo by John Candelario.
When we cross the high plain under the lee of Pedernal we move to an unpaved road following the course of the Rio Chama. Wheat fields and farmers using irrigations - beyond Youngsville through the town of Coyote, beyond that the ranches are scattered...Where the great trees begin our troubles start. The red road becomes black and rutted, dangerous and slick, subject to the clouds that unburden themselves. Often we are forced to leave its morass of mud and strike our unchartered way through the trees. Even in dry weather the hard-rutted road can rip out the bottom of a machine.
Leaving the mountain road we reach the graveled north-south highway that drops into Cuba -- a straggling town. So named maybe because it is an island in the wilderness. We could smell it before we saw it. An impoverished coal-mining, sawmill town. The smell of outdoor toilets and stagnant water, cooking fat and unwashed bodies -- all combine to make it a blight upon an incredible, beautiful landscape.
And yet nowhere does the sun set with greater splendor that over this sage-bounded plain. There have been stormy nights when we have been forced to stay in Cuba, sleeping in our clothes, desiring neither to eat or drink of what it might offer, marvelling that in the desert could grow such a slum. For slums are not necessarily a product of the city, they are a product of man’s greed.
We leave across this and then the grey hills begin and the sage withdraws.
Few birds fly across the Black Place, red ants and packrats avoid it, we have never seen a snake nor even a lizard.
Yet in that very fact, perhaps, does it seem blessed with a peculiar and luminous light as we drive toward it. There is more here than the eye can see, more than is audible to the ear. Getting out of the car and climbing over the first line of low, grey hills, the spirit of the place comes over us.
Out of the useless come great things..."
-- Maria Chabot Courtesy Maria Chabot Archive, Georgia O'Keeffe Museum Research Center