Once Upon A Time In New Mexico
National Geographic Traveller India|May 2020
The soaring canyons and sagebrush plains of northern New Mexico have attracted artists, spiritual seekers and free thinkers for over a century. A road trip through the high desert—encountering a hippy commune, artists’ studios, futuristic eco-homes and a Benedictine monastery—uncovers the weird, wild and wonderful soul of the American Southwest
Amelia Duggan

IT’S POSSIBLE TO GO YEARS—OR A WHOLE LIFETIME—WITHOUT CONSIDERING OUR INFINITESIMAL PLACE IN THE VASTNESS OF CREATION.

But in the desert of New Mexico, existential revelations seem to come thick and fast. It’s dusk in the Chama River Canyon. I’ve padded uphill from my guest quarters, through a meditation garden decorated with the Stations of the Cross, to join my hosts in their chapel. Soft light streams in through the patchwork of windowpanes, entombing a gory carving of Christ in a grid of radiance and shade. Black-robed Benedictine monks—some wizened, some fresh-faced, many occupying the years in between— chant psalms from the shadowy transepts. “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” One monk wafts a thurible around the central altar, taking steady steps. “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters.” Finials of sweet-scented smoke wind languorously through the beams of light.

Outside the tall windows, a sliver of a moon rises over the canyon in a wan, cornflower-blue sky—the last vestiges of a blistering summer’s day. The colours of the landscape slowly intensify, emphasising russet veins in the rockface—sediment laid down by a powerful river millennia ago. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,” the monks sing. I’ve now completely lost my place in the hymn book. All I can think about is the improbability of my being here.

I don’t just mean this in the metaphysical sense. Staying at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert, the most remote in the Western Hemisphere, is one of the more outlandish travel experiences of my life. It’s a hard journey to reach the monks— their off-grid home sits at the end of a 13-kilometre red dirt track outside the pit-stop town of Abiquiu, which is a two-hour drive from the state capital, Santa Fe. Despite my firm agnosticism, I’ve come to sample the solitude and beauty of the monastery; the monks welcome people of all faiths and no faith.

I’m invited to dine with them, to labour in the gardens alongside them during the morning work period, and to attend—if I wish—their nine daily church services. The welcome literature also encourages me to join them in a commitment to contemplative silence.

The local crickets, however, have agreed to no such terms; as I return down the hill to bed, their deafening chorus adds texture to the still, black night and, later, seeps into my dreams.

When the steady clang of a bell rings out for 4 a.m. vigils and I shuffle blearily back towards the chapel, the darkness of the valley has deepened. Overhead, the entire cosmos is lit up: layer upon layer of distant galaxies and burning suns—a ceiling that puts the Sistine Chapel’s to shame. I reach the steps but, instead of slipping into a pew, I sit outside to watch the stars. Yellow candlelight glows through the cracks in the door behind me; the monks’ ethereal Gregorian chanting spills out into the empty canyon. It feels divine.

“They say the deeper you go into the desert, the more you’ll be sought out. There’s a lure, a fascination,” Abbot Christian tells me on the morning of my departure. It’s the first and only conversation of my stay; one I requested in low whispers from the monk on hospitality duty. The abbot, who joins me on a garden bench, surprises me by being both charming and gregarious—not at all severe or solemn, as I’d imagined. He repeatedly steers the conversation towards ’80s movies and The Beatles; I repeatedly steer it back to the desert. “It’s a strong tradition in monasticism, of course,” he says. “The earliest monks went out into the Egyptian desert. For the solitude, the quiet, the beauty.” Abbot Christian pauses and looks out over the flowerbeds and modest graveyard to the amphitheatre of grasslands and rock spires beyond. “This was created over aeons of time,” he says pensively, echoing my own thoughts. “Man can hardly fathom it.”

The Benedictines aren’t the only ones to find inspiration and solace in this ancient landscape. When I arrive at my rustic cottage at Ghost Ranch, the legendary retreat and education centre an hour’s drive east of the monastery, the smattering of people I encounter around the main compound seems to have been plucked from a circus. A bare-chested man juggles bean bags; a troupe of blindfolded women are attempting to circle a cottonwood tree; and tiny children dressed in tie-dye rough-and-tumble on the scrubby lawn. “We attract a lot of artists. A lot of solo travellers too. Most people are on their own private journeys,” Karen Butts, the tours and education manager, explains. “This remote corner has always attracted interesting characters.”

One of the best known of these characters was 20th-century American painter Georgia O’Keeffe, who fled the patriarchal confines of New York in the ’40s and made this 21,000acre estate her home and her muse. Perdenal, a narrow mesa 14 kilometres to the south, was her favourite subject. “It’s my private mountain. God told me if I painted it enough I could have it,” O’Keeffe once joked. As with the monks, people made long pilgrimages to seek out O’Keeffe in the desert; guests at her humble cottage included artists Frida Kahlo and Andy Warhol, and the psychiatrist Carl Jung.

I head out to explore more of the ranch on horseback, a set of watercolour paints tucked into my saddlebag in case inspiration strikes. Three tough-as-nails Texan cowgirls run the ranch stables (one vice-like handshake cracks all my knuckles), and they lead our small party with the flair and swagger of rodeo pros. It’s wild, wild country. Red dust streams from our horses’ hooves as we navigate dried riverbeds, passing trees mangled by lightning; I feel like we’ve left the planet, not just the homestead. Threatening clouds roll in, darkening the land. Around us, large ravens croak murderously.

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