ABIQUIU -- When old age began to steal her eyesight in the years before she died at 98, the painter Georgia O'Keeffe reputedly said her only regret was that she would no longer be able to see the New Mexico countryside, ``unless the Indians are right and my spirit will walk here after I'm gone."
Well, the Indians -- the Pueblo people of the Chama Valley -- were right.
It is impossible to drive the ribbon of highway from Espanola to Abiquiu and not see O'Keeffe in the red-rock cliffs, their creased slopes meeting the valley floor like the toes of a giant, ancient animal. Aficionados cannot lay eyes on the flat-topped silhouette of Pedernal , her favorite mountain, without flashing on her words: ``God told me if I painted it often enough I could have it."
O'Keeffe's spirit still daubs pale wisps in the desert sky and bends diagonal shadows up the walls of her adobe house. And what, if not a spirit, permeates these rooms with the peace of an orderly, directed life? ``When I got to New Mexico, that was mine. As soon as I saw it, that was my country," she said. She called this landscape ``the faraway."
Since her death in 1986, thousands of pilgrims, both artists and appreciators, have sought O'Keeffe's essence in the sere landscape of Abiquiu -- her subject, muse, and home -- 25 miles northwest of Santa Fe. Visitors want to see what she saw, touch what she touched, bask for a few hours in the clarity she crafted from form and space and light.
We struck out from the capital city to join the pilgrimage. After coffee in Santa Fe's bustling plaza, where jewelry vendors and burrito sellers were setting up their booths for a fiesta, we were glad to see the city vanishing in the rear-view mirror.
Heading west toward Espanola, we crossed the Rio Grande and watched the scenery grow hillier, with outcrops of rock and cone-shaped mountains edging closer to the road. Geology revealed itself in striking layers. Cliffs striped in terra cotta, buff, and gray were capped with marine sediment from a sea that covered the area in the middle Jurassic period. Mesas rose against the sky like distant altars.
These were among the sights that thrilled O'Keeffe when she first traveled to the region in 1917 on a trip with her sister. (O'Keeffe was born in Sun Prairie, Wis., in 1887, moved to Virginia in 1903, to Chicago to study art in 1905, and to New York to do the same in 1907. For the next 11 years, she led a somewhat itinerant life of study and work.) In 1918, she moved to New York , where she continued to pursue her art, and married Alfred Stieglitz, a photographer and gallery owner, in 1924. It wasn't until 1929 that she made it back to New Mexico, this time to Taos, as a guest of friends.
In 1934, she began what was to become a lifelong tradition of summering at Ghost Ranch, a 21,000-acre property in Abiquiu (pronounced AB-uh-cue), and returning to New York in the winter.
Though Ghost Ranch was then a dude ranch -- not quite a match for the flinty O'Keeffe -- she managed after renting for several years to buy a remote cabin and seven acres in 1940 . From here she rambled out into the desert in her wide-brimmed black hat, finding subjects in skulls and rocks, mountains and sky.
Five years later she bought an adobe ruin 15 miles south on Route 84, also in Abiquiu, but her Ghost Ranch cabin remained her summer retreat. With the help of her friend Maria Chabot, she gradually transformed the wreck of a house -- an 18th-century core with 1860s additions -- into a comfortable sanctuary with inner and outer courtyards, gardens, and an adjacent studio, all done in traditional adobe. After Stieglitz's death in 1946, O'Keeffe moved here permanently.
Today, getting to Abiquiu is easy enough, but gaining access to O'Keeffe's home and studio requires planning and $25. Tours, run by the Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation , strive to limit the annual flow of visitors to this tiny town for the sake of those who live here and who, presumably, cherish the sleepy solitude of the place as much as O'Keeffe did. (Ghost Ranch is intact, operating as a Presbyterian retreat center with natural-history museums and miles of trails open to the public, but O'Keeffe's cabin is off -limits. )
We had made the required reservation for a tour, which departed from the foundation office next to the Abiquiu Inn. Before shepherding the small group (the limit is 12 people) onto a minibus, the guide laid down the rules: no photos on the grounds, no note-taking or tape recording during the tour, no large bags.
Ten minutes later, the bus pulled into the shade next to the wall enclosing O'Keeffe's property.
Following a guide through a gate, the group stopped first in the understated gardens of flowers, herbs, and vegetables, with stone walls shaded by fruit trees. Entering the walled patio, the guide pointed out a red door that appeared in several O'Keeffe paintings, including the abstract ``White Patio with Red Door" (1960) .
From the courtyard we were allowed to peer through a window into the living room, which featured low couches, native rugs, and the corner fireplace typical of traditional adobe houses. It was spare yet comfortable, and, like all the rooms, remained as O'Keeffe had left it, allowing visitors to see that the love of unembellished essence that graced her work also ordered her living quarters.
Following the guide to the kitchen, the group passed a skull with curling antlers hanging on an outside wall and a ram's skull sitting on a shelf -- both O'Keeffe icons. Inside the whitewashed kitchen and pantry were neat rows of preserves and dried herbs, grown in the gardens and put up by O'Keeffe's housekeeper. The kitchen windows looked out to a front garden and walled entry courtyard, and, over the walls, the red hills.
Minutes later we stood in the studio, a separate adobe building with a vast picture window. This sparsely furnished building, dominated by views of Pedernal, Black Mesa, and a pale cliff known as ``the white place," felt like the heart of O'Keeffe's world. A sheet of plywood on sawhorses carried a graceful arrangement of round stones. Aside from bookcases and another plywood surface used as a desk, the other main piece of furniture was a single bed with a white spread next to the window. This was where the artist rested when she was working.
Her actual bedroom was on the other side of a wall at the far end of the studio, with a glass corner bringing her favorite views into the room. Looking out at the gray ribbon of Route 84 winding through the hills, O'Keeffe got the idea for `` Winter Road" (1963) , a mere suggestion of hills limned in calligraphic curves.
O'Keeffe's health failed in 1984, and she moved to Santa Fe to live under the care of a long time friend, Juan Hamilton. She died two years later, and her ashes were scattered on Pedernal.
Where her spirit went next is anyone's guess, but I like to think she left a clue in her 1958 painting ``Ladder to the Moon." In it, Pedernal's flat-capped silhouette dominates a sliver of black land at the bottom of the canvas. Above, a pale ladder hovers in a turquoise sky, stretching toward a distant half-moon.
Contact Jane Roy Brown, a freelance writer in Western Massachusetts, at firstname.lastname@example.org.