Travel with us to our writing retreat at Ghost Ranch!
For fifteen years together, our group of women writers have written together, traveled together to writing retreats and walked beside each other through life journeys. This time, two of us are traveling ahead of the rest, scouts of sorts (or cheerleaders—see story below) to Ghost Ranch, where Georgia O’Keeffe lived and worked. O’Keeffe’s life has inspired many of us, not just with her art, but her spirit and her independence has made us appreciate strong women in our families and our groups. Because we write—that practice has taken us farther along on our journeys—Dottye and Kay are recording some traveling thoughts, creating another map to move farther along.
And they’re off!!! Our first stop was at the NC/VA border so that Kay could take a photo of the “Welcome to Virginia” sign. We continued on a lovely drive along I-77, a part of the Scenic Byway “located along the lower elevations of the Appalachian Mountain Range,” which the AAA guidebook’s description continued this way, “Venture inside the Jefferson National Forest for a chance to listen to the soft breezes rustling through the leaves as you step into this abundant wildlife habitat. Practice stillness and wait for one of the local deer or squirrel to pass….”
Kay and I fully expected to see lots of reds, and orange, and yellow but thus far there has been very little fall colors in the trees. Unfortunately, in many places the leaves have either turned brown or have already fallen off the trees. But we have a vivid imagination and we enjoyed listening to Eva Cassidy’s voice in her rendition of “Autumn Leaves.”
We decided to stop in Abingdon, VA which is an old little town that’s the home of
Barter Theater. Dottye and her husband have visited there on several occasions; it is close enough to their home to have a nice little getaway and they both enjoy live theater. Abingdon is also a great little town for walking about.
Since Kay had never visited there, we decided to stop and stretch our legs (very important to do on a long drive, especially when one is of “a certain age”!). We ate a delicious meal at the 128 Pecan restaurant and parked the car in mid-town to take a walk. We took a peek at the Barter Theater as well as “The Martha.”
The Martha was originally built as a private residence in 1830-32 for the William Preston* family (*a prominent surveyor who maintained a lifelong friendship with his colleague George Washington).
After the death of Mr. Preston’s widow, the property was acquired by the Methodist Church for the purpose of establishing a college for women, Martha Washington College, which opened in the spring of 1860. After 71 years of operation (including being one of the few colleges that continued operating during the Civil War) the college closed in 1931 due to insufficient enrollment and funding – likely a victim of the dreadful Depression. Wandering through this place made us recall connections to Salem Academy and College where one of us spent time as a teacher and one as a student in an all-female environment. And Georgia O’Keeffe spent some years at Chatham Hall, an all-girls boarding school in Virginia.
In the summer of 1934, the former Martha Washington College gained a new purpose when an unemployed actor from nearby Glade Springs brought a group of actors from New York to establish a summer stock theater: The Barter Theatre. Farm produce or goods were bartered for admission to the performances; their motto was, “With vegetables you cannot sell, you can buy a good laugh!” In the late 1930s another building was constructed across the street for the theater and the Martha Washington Inn opened for business.
With renovations and restorations through the years, it has continued to serve as an elegant hotel. And the theater has thrived as well, adding a second stage next door to “The Martha,” and hosting performances year round.
Kay and I arrived at the Tennessee border right at sunset. Johnson City triggered a few memories for us about family members – my son Glenn used to travel there for comedy gigs during his stand-up days; her family used to visit relatives over a weekend, several piling into the car at once. Then as we got close to Knoxville, Kay remembered taking her kids there for the 1982 World’s Fair! Her boys had put a sign in the back of the car that read, “Follow us to the World’s Fair!”
I am thinking that as Kay and I continue this journey, we will be reminded of many stories that we’ll share. Although we know each other pretty well after a friendship of over 15 years, who knows what else we’ll learn while being “stuck” in a car together for three weeks?! Honestly, there aren’t a lot of people who have such a trusting relationship to risk that. I am grateful.
Dottye noticed that some of the rooms on the hall of the hotel where we stayed included decorations for cheerleaders—there must be a cheerleading convention near here, we thought.
Long ago when our writing group had met together for a short time, Carol offered a writing prompt that included our writing a list which we shared with the group: three truths and a lie. One of my “truths” was that I had been chief cheerleader for my eighth grade squad and because I never knew the rules of football, I consistently led my squad in cheers for the other team.
Dottye looked aghast when I shared that. That’s my story, she told the group. Turns out, we had both been chief cheerleaders and for rival schools in the same county. Neither of us knew the rules of football, so we had inadvertently been cheering for each other’s teams.
This morning as we sat at breakfast and watched cheerleaders all around us, we told our story to the parent of one of the young women. (She didn’t say whether her charges knew the rules of football.) And we discovered that our elementary teams had the same black and gold colors and the same mascot, wildcats. No wonder we were confused about who we were cheering for!
Onward to Nashville!
After a good hardy breakfast of oatmeal and fruit, we prepared to leave Kodak Tennessee and head to Nashville. I was surprised about the mountainous terrain and the rugged walls of rock lining the highway soon after we passed through Knoxville. And based on the number of informational signs along the way, Kay and I decided there must be hundreds of state parks in Tennessee and they are all accessible off Interstate 40. The advantage of driving through a state instead of flying over it is that one can really get a sense of the terrain and the unique amenities each area offers. And we were both wishing we had taken more archeology classes which might have enlightened us on the significance of the differences. Maybe that will be a new entry on a bucket list!
We stopped at a rest area after about 90 minutes of travel and Kay led us in a bit of Tai Chi to help us get the kinks out; it was a refreshing break. We had only another 100 miles to Nashville. As we continued our drive, our conversation meandered to memories of beloved pets, Corky and Skipper. Both dogs had been well-loved and were more like another child than a family pet.
Corky was a gift from my mother and my kids still talk about the great surprise it was when I took them to Forsyth Hospital (where my mother was a nursing supervisor at the time) to pick up a “baby.” Glenn was about four years old, Karin almost nine, and Alex thirteen and they were able to enjoy loving Corky through good and bad for most of their growing up years.
Similarly, Skipper was well loved by the Windsor family. Kay told about the time that Skipper went missing for five days and had fallen in a hole in their backyard. Kay felt determined to find Skipper especially because of the vital connection to Elizabeth. I’m not sure of the psychology explaining the phenomenon, but I can say that losing a beloved family dog after losing one of the children who loved him carried a deeper pain than might have been the case otherwise. It just seems that a bit of Alex’s and Elizabeth’s spirit were a little farther away. But, somehow, sharing the stories stirred a happy place in my heart. Sweet memories.
Soon after Kay and I arrived in Nashville, we made arrangements for a Trolley Tour. Neither of us wanted to drive to downtown which was much bigger than either of us had imagined! Nashville has nearly 2 million residents now and it seemed to have at least that many tourists! Knowing that we had only half a day to do any sightseeing, we opted to get an overview and knew we could add a return visit to “Music City” over a long weekend later.
Nashville, city of music, has many stories and connections. Some highlights from our quick tour of downtown Nashville include more colleges (Belmont and Fisk and Vanderbilt—although these are vibrant and thriving unlike Martha Washington College now repurposed as an elegant hotel that we saw yesterday) and the Ryman Auditorium built by riverboat captain Thomas Ryman and home to the Grand Ole Opry live radio show from 1943-74; Country Music Hall of Fame, Musicians Hall of Fame.
We thought of Emmylou Harris and the Nash Ramblers, whose 1992 concert in the then dilapidated Ryman inspired its renovation and reemergence as a venue for wonderful music. In Ernest Tubb Record Shop, Dottye found a new copy of Trio, the CD collection that includes “Farther Along,” an old song recorded by Emmylou, Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt. Dottye had brought that song to our writing group and it finally inspired the title for the book published in 2012. Her copy had been lost in a fire.
“Every old soul needs a hat,” Julie wrote about her son Jack in Farther Along: The Writing Journey of Thirteen Bereaved Mothers. Dottye and I browsed for hats in one of the many hat and boot shops and found a hat named “Poet” with a soft shape and beautiful mottled texture in the material.
We ate dinner at Merchants restaurant on Broadway, a building constructed in 1870 that housed a pharmacy and a drug manufacturing factory and later, a brothel, a casino, a speakeasy, a hotel where musicians Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline and Roy Acuff, who performed at the nearby Ryman, stayed and finally, a restaurant full of stories. One of them now includes a server who signed his name in Dottye’s book and included his middle name, Alexander. He wrote, “May your memories be many and your inspiration plentiful and may all your ghosts be lost on the way to Ghost Ranch. With love.”
We traveled from Nashville to Clarksdale, Mississippi deep in the Delta today, listening first to Trio then blues from Mississippi Delta musicians at the blues museum in Tunica and even wrote and performed a blues song in the recording studio that is part of the museum.
It has been a musical day. A bonus in the new three-CD package includes a more recent Trio recording as well as unreleased and alternate recordings. Dolly, Linda, and Emmy Lou are exceptional singers who bring forth a spiritual resonance when they sing together, especially when they harmonize. We listened to them for the nearly 300-mile drive to Clarksdale, Mississippi. It brightened up a rainy day in the Delta.
And I have decided that I have the soul of a musician and the voice of an excellent audience!!! Listening to the angel voices on the Trio CDs inspired me. When Kay and I visited the “Gateway to the Blues Museum” in Tunica, Mississippi today and I had the opportunity to record a blues song that Kay and I composed on the spot, I jumped right in. The result was not pretty. But we had fun doing it!
When we arrived in Clarksdale, we were starving so we quickly checked in to our hotel and began a search for somewhere to have dinner. The hotel clerk had given us a list of a few places but most were closed on Sundays. After a not-so-scenic tour of the little town of Clarksdale we found Ramons, which the clerk had highly recommended; unfortunately there was a wreath on the door so this particular Sunday even Ramons was closed. With the help of good ole technology, we ended up at Levon’s Bar and Grill. The perfect spot. Live blues music by the Michael Vincent Band, excellent service and quite satisfying food.
This may have been the only open restaurant in town (other than McDonald’s of course) and according to Jaxx, our server, they were slammed. I explained to her that we hadn’t eaten much since breakfast and had been traveling all day so she brought out three freshly-baked biscuits and butter, which we enjoyed with our pre-dinner drinks – Kay, a rosé from France and I, a locally crafted beer from the Ghost River Brewery. We enjoyed live music from a Gulfport, Mississippi trio. Interestingly, Kay found on the website that two Australians had opened the restaurant. What we don’t know is how the heck they ended up in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Perhaps we will find out on our tour tomorrow with Poor William in his Red Jeep!
Farther along we’ll know all about it
Farther along we’ll understand why
Cheer up my brother live in the sunshine
We’ll understand it all by and by.
So, we got the answer to our question about how the Australians ended up in the middle of the Mississippi Delta to open a restaurant. Turns out that Clarksdale and Melbourne, Australia have a “symbiotic” relationship, as described by our tour guide Chilly Billy and have been engaged in business, education, and artistic exchanges for several years. So deep is this connection, the Australian flag flies in town.
And I was again reminded of six (or fewer) degrees of connections in our lives as Billy Howell, docent for Delta Bohemian Tours, showed us the home of John Clark, founder of Clarksdale, Blanche Clark Cutrer’s home and Tennessee Williams’s connections to this place. Blanche DuBois, Tennessee Williams’s character in Streetcar Named Desire was named for Blanche Cutrer and other characters from his plays were named for and inspired by those he knew growing up in Clarksdale. Tennessee Williams wrote, “It’s all so wide in the Delta and so level! The seasons could walk across it four abreast!” That’s what Dottye and I thought as we saw the levees built to manage the flooding of the great Mississippi. We had read that astronauts returning to earth could identify two structures as they returned to earth: the great wall of China and the Mississippi Delta levee system. And one more degree of connection: Thomas Lanier (Tennessee) Williams was cousin to the Williamses of Panther Creek in Lewisville, NC where I grew up.
I can’t possibly do justice in a few words on a blog what Kay and I experienced in a full morning discourse on the history, geography, agriculture, economy, philosophy, politics, and demographics of Clarksdale and Coahoma County! Let me just say right now that if you ever have a few extra days on your hands and you want to do something very different, go to Clarksdale! And if you are lucky enough to have a local boy like Billy spend three-plus hours with you, driving you around town in his little red Jeep, then you will come away educated, inspired, and entertained!
We entered Ground Zero Blues Club co-owned by Morgan Freeman before lunch time, noting signatures and autographs and notes written on every surface of the walls, chairs, beams and furniture. We stopped at the location of Muddy Waters’s home, spent time at Shack Up Inn, a collection of “not the Ritz” sharecropper shacks turned overnight rentals on the Hopson Plantation where Robert Plant, Charlie Musselwhite, Ike Turner and others have stayed.
In Clarksdale, as in all places, we noted that things are not always what they seem. The people who look like hobos or displaced hippies could be settlers who left lucrative professions to live in a place they could live cheap on “river time” and drop all the pretenses and burdens of an ordinary 9-5 life. The dilapidated buildings that look ready for the wrecking ball are likely being restored or repurposed on a schedule that suits a little town in the Delta. As we did the windshield tour of downtown, Billy pointed out places where some of the best blues performers in the world were born, discovered, perform, or currently reside. And the music! Oh the soulful, stirring blues! Somewhere in town, EVERY night, 365 days a year, this town has live music. The Charlie Musselwhite blues CD purchased at Shack Up Inn kept us wide awake on the four hours’ drive to Hot Springs, Arkansas in the afternoon.
We packed all these experiences to think about again as we crossed the mighty Mississippi and saw the welcome to Arkansas sign.
We will unpack more of them as we connect them to our path.
Hot Springs was our first stop in Arkansas. Well, I need to correct that a bit.
Actually, we had a little “blue light special” in West Helena shortly after crossing the Mississippi/Arkansas border. I was driving along and noticed the flashing lights in my rearview mirror. Of course, I stopped immediately (this is NOT a Thelma and Louise adventure, you know) and the young patrolman checked my license and asked where I was headed. I told him that ultimately, New Mexico, but that evening, Hot Springs. Then he quietly asked if I was aware that I was going 60 in a 45? I told him that I was not aware that the speed limit was 45. He said, “Ma’am, it dropped a couple of miles back and will change again – to 55 – about a mile ahead. I’m gonna give you a break and not give you a citation this time. But be careful and watch for the speed limit signs on your right. Be careful.”
So we were off again. And Kay cranked up the WAZE app to watch the posted speed limits as they changed (AND my speed) and I set the cruise control on whatever I was supposed to be driving. We didn’t need that kind of expense on this trip. But, honestly, the road didn’t look any different in the 45 zone than the 55 zone (and maybe I was going closer to 60).
The melodic voice on Waze directed us to “Hahhet Springs,” Bathhouse Row and the Hot Springs National Park. Duly noted: Water’s power in the floods from the Mississippi and the levees built to lessen some of the flooding, its beauty in the rivers
and waterways through Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas— a heron stood at attention in one of the creeks we passed—and its life-giving properties, the draw of hot, healing baths that still draws people to a place near the Zig Zag mountains in Arkansas.
Hey! Did ya know that the hot springs in Hot Springs, Arkansas are really HOT! Duh. I felt like such a doofus when I put my hand under the spigot at the public fountain and the water was VERY warm. The temperature as it flows from the springs is a whopping 143 degrees, but the National Park Service cools it down to 90-100 degrees before it leaves the public watering hole. And the lady in the Visitor’s Center assured me that I was not the only person surprised by the warm water. So there you go! Be prepared.
Now, Hot Springs! What a great little town! In case you didn’t know, and according to the travel guide, Hot Springs is a year-round health and pleasure resort adjacent to Hot Springs National Park (5,500 acres). We didn’t have a lot of time to take advantage of all the amenities offered in historic Hot Springs: showers, sitz tubs, vapor cabinets, hot packs, and massages for head to toe and in-between. But we did enjoy a tour of the Fordyce Bathhouse which was the most luxurious bathhouse in operation from 1915-1962 and now serves as the park visitor center.
Water from ancient springs heated deep in the earth and brought back up in
springs is at least 4000 years old, the national park sign says, and now the thermal water is provided at several “jug stations” in Hot Springs. Visitors gathered around circular fountains with spigots that filled bottles, jugs, spilled over hands. We did both.
Like a ripple, events of our lives keep widening in circles, and we keep meeting ourselves in the whirlpools caused by disturbance in the waters.
After a quick stop for fresh fruit to replenish our in-car snack stash (at the store of one of Arkansas’s favorite sons), we were finally on the road to OKC. So many Native American names of rivers, towns, and tourist sites along the way. I was particularly impressed, and tickled, with the Lotawatta creek followed by the Eufala. You can probably have as much fun with that as we did!
Later in the long and sometimes windy drive from Hot Springs to Oklahoma City, we entertained ourselves listening to music and podcasts.“Where Rainbows Never Die,” by SteelDrivers included these lines: “I will make my way across the fields of cotton/And wade through muddy waters one last time. . .Waste away the sunsets/Where rainbows never die.”
As we drove on during the afternoon, we listened to the second CD of Trio and found that Emmylou, Linda and Dolly offered some blues songs too. We listened to Charlie Musselwhite’s “Cristo Redento”(Christ the Redeemer)—beautiful music to lead us beyond the Delta—and we listened to a collection of songs from Dottye’s grandchildren: SteelDrivers, Carolina Chocolate Drops and Ziggy Marley among them. We heard “On Being” with Joan Halifax, Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant and “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” to see if we could answer the quiz questions. We finally saw some gold and orange leaves, sun-flecked and wind tossed.
We nearly missed the Welcome to Oklahoma sign at the end of a bridge crossing the Arkansas River. Arriving in OKC at nearly 8 p.m. gave us a huge boost of (short-lived) energy after the anticipation all day. Happy that this is one of our 2-day stays so we can regroup and charge ahead tomorrow. Not much sight-seeing yet, but we are planning to see the Dale Chihuly 55-foot tall tower of glass, the OKC National Memorial and Museum, among other notable sites. To be continued…
A walk to Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum, a chance meeting with Kris Kanaly and Sean Vali, artists spray painting stories in the tunnels. Deep Deuce, Bricktown canal, and the corner of Mickey Mantle and Flaming Lips Alley. Many images and few words. Here they are.
At the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum: “We come here to remember those who were killed, those who survived and those changed forever. May all who leave here know the impact of violence. May this Memorial offer comfort, strength, peace, hope and serenity.”
See more about OKC’s Plaza Walls Expo and the Oklahoma City National Memorial Museum.
Chihuly’s glass art in the Oklahoma City Museum of Art soothed our spirits this morning, and we walked more miles in Oklahoma City before heading out to Amarillo. Tumbleweeds scooted across the highway perhaps faster than the 75 mph speed limit and we watched wind turbine blades blend rotations into dance movements.
Two nights in Oklahoma City, in the Bricktown Canal area of town, were just the thing we needed to slow down, get out of the car, and prepare for the next two days of the longest drives we will have had. Taking advantage of proximity to downtown and sunny weather, each of us has walked over 8 miles, 19,500+ steps, on Wednesday pm and Thursday am.
Being able to see things from the street level as a pedestrian has given us a much greater perspective on the city and the people. The downtown is so clean and inviting, especially for a city this size (680,000+) and the drivers are considerate, the people friendly, and the infrastructure diverse.
I am still haunted by our visit to the OKC Memorial and Museum. The planners and designers of the Memorial did an excellent job of making visitors feel the full impact of transitioning from “just an ordinary day in April” to one of extreme devastation and horror. It seems that the entire city has adopted much of what has motivated me since Alex’s death: how can I take this tragedy and overcome the angst and emptiness I feel and move to a place I can make a difference and not only survive but thrive. Collectively, this community has created a place to relive the terror, follow the historical events, ask the hard questions, honor everyone involved in rescue efforts, and remember with deep, quiet reverence those who were lost.
Although I am glad we visited the Memorial, it is good that we did that first and ended our touring in OKC with a visit to the Museum of Art. There is a fantastic collection of Dale Chihuly glass art which is worth the visit just for that. But there are so many interesting sculptures and paintings it was impossible to spend less than two hours there. A Georgia O’Keeffe painting reminded us of the path to Ghost Ranch.
After feeding our souls up to the last minute, we made our way back to the hotel and started the long drive to Texas, buffeted by a strong headwind the entire way.
Another advantage to this road trip is being able to see and feel the change in topography as we move from state to state. And one of our “stretch” stops today was at the Route 66 Museum in Elk City, OK where we learned a little history of transportation in the US. Did you know the first paved road was in Detroit?
We arrived in Amarillo in time for dinner. Loved that there was fresh popcorn and chocolate chip cookies in the hotel lobby. Comfort food never fails!
Here’s a partial walk through the Chihuly exhibits in the OKC Museum
Windy and COLD!! That’s what we were literally struck by on our arrival and stay in Amarillo. Georgia O’Keeffe loved the power of the wind in the plains of the panhandle. She took her first teaching job here in 1912 and described it, always, as her spiritual home. A quote I recently read about her says “That was my country – terrible winds and a wonderful emptiness.”
I definitely agree with that description. As we were driving across Oklahoma and
then Texas, the sky seemed to grow wider and the land more expansive and the wind more brutal. Still the landscape does have a beauty of its own. As for Georgia O’K, even though she stayed in Amarillo only two years, leaving after a dispute about textbooks with the State Education Commission, Texas never left her soul.
Four years later when she had the opportunity to teach at a two-year college in Canyon just south of Amarillo, she accepted immediately. The land drew her back; the people not so much. She was labeled as a bohemian by the conservative and staid community, but Georgia thrived on her privacy as this was a time when she was developing her own style and expressions in her art.
She especially loved going out to the Palo Duro Canyon, located about 20 miles across the plains from the town. “It looks like the plain goes on and on and then, suddenly, the canyon appears.” Kay and I were bound to see for ourselves this dramatic geological feature, so before leaving Amarillo we headed south to explore what the Texans call the “Grand Canyon of Texas.” I imagine Georgia O’K had the same sense of wonder looking at the colorful stratifications and mysterious gaps and crevices.
Our drive to New Mexico was fast! Contrary to Arkansas, I had trouble even reaching the speed limit (75 mph) across the plains. A ribbon of highway interrupted the fields of cotton, the sprawling pastureland, and the wind farms along the way. We were especially excited to see “Welcome to New Mexico.” Our anticipation of visiting sites in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Taos, Abiquiu, and finally Ghost Ranch is intense!
We changed time zones again today, Central Time to Mountain Time as we crossed the border into New Mexico. Part of our retreat as we traveled was listening to Krista Tippett’s “Living in Deep Time” interview with Richard Rohr on an “On Being” podcast. We were struck by the discussion of chronos time and kairos time. The Greeks had two words for time: Chronos refers to quantitative time, the point A to point B kind that we had been planning for months, and Kairos refers to the opportune moment, the now, or as Richard Rohr said, “And kairos was deep time. It was when you have those moments where you say, ‘Oh my god, this is it. I get it,’ or, ‘This is as perfect as it can be,’ or, ‘It doesn’t get any better than this,’ or, ‘This moment is summing up the last five years of my life,’ things like that where time comes to a fullness, and the dots connect, when we can learn how to more easily go back to those kind of moments or to live in that kind of space.”
Travel to writing retreats for me is part of the retreat. Travel—whether it be a 15-minute drive across town or an 2000-mile drive across country—allows a passage between the dailiness of life and allowing the “now” time for writing and reflecting, for being.
Dottye observed that planning this road trip, for us, was definitely in Chronos time – looking at maps, deciding on routes to take, making hotel reservations, packing our clothes, giving the itinerary and important phone numbers to family members — all were necessary. But once we were in the car, Kairos was present. Our flexibility and our mutual desire to live in the moments of our journey were over-arching.
Another meaningful portion of the Rohr interview was the discussion centered on his workshops with men around the idea that “unless the male was led on journeys of powerlessness, he would always abuse power.” Vulnerability is necessary to empowerment and having a more honest relationship with those close to you, whether male or female. This explains why 13 women who met in a day-long writing workshop and bared their souls as they tried to write themselves to healing still yearn to be with each other. We have a sacred union in which we can be truly human, vulnerable and honest.
Feeling quite contemplative and introspective, we drove to the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque before checking into our hotel—the CAC was supposed to close by 4 pm and we hoped for the possibility of meeting Fr. Rohr. The center had closed early! Not to be deterred, we walked the labyrinth before leaving and made tentative plans to come back if we can.
We went out to dinner at Church Street Cafe in the Old Town section. Time was still the teacher for us. The cafe is in the oldest house in Albuquerque, Casa de Ruiz, built around 1706 (chronos). When we were seated at a table in a small front room of the house. we noticed a woman sitting alone nearby, a pensive look on her face.
Rita sat with straight back in a chair apart from the table facing us. She was wrapped inside her jacket with her arms hugging her torso and the sleeves of the jacket hanging empty. Her white hair was pulled back in a bun. At first she sat quietly, not seeming to notice us. She might have been unstuck in time. Dottye spoke to her, asking if she came to the cafe often. “I come here every day,” she said. “Are you the owner?” Dottye asked. “No, my daughter is.” As if awakened, she began to tell the story of her daughter’s finding the old house and opening the cafe:
I’ve found the most beautiful house. Would you like to come with me to see it? Oh it was so dirty, in shambles, and I told her first you must clean it up. Do you know anyone to clean it up? Oh, Charlie, Charlie did some work for me in Cuba—the little town north of here where I am from—so we found Charlie and he said how much do you want this house? I’ll clean it up if you will be the gofer and get materials for me each day. After a while, Daughter said I’m not so sure about this because if I get the wrong materials, I have to keep taking them back. You made a deal, I told her, you need to keep your promise.
Rita told us she had been at Ghost Ranch a few times when Georgia O’Keeffe worked there. Is she there still? she asked us. Dottye told Rita that Georgia had died in 1986. A look of surprise passed over her face.
We invited Rita to join us at our table, but she said she would stay where she was, her chair almost in the center of the room absent a table. She repeated her stories, telling us as if we were old friends about her daughter finding the house, about finding Charlie to clean it up, about the food she and her sister prepared. Rita took us on a tour of the house, full to overflowing with people and musicians playing guitar and harp. She invited us to come back in the morning so that we could see the patio that Charlie built and the waterfall. Rita’s time and her gift to us was kairos; her stories, timeless.
Much of today was spent leisurely strolling in Old Town, the historic center of Albuquerque. As to be expected, there were lots of kitschy touristy shops, but also many interesting buildings, plazas, and gardens to enjoy.
One of my favorites was the San Felipe de Neri Church.The original church was founded in 1706 and lasted until 1792 when, during a rainy summer, the adobe and terrón structure collapsed. At that time a new pueblo mission style church was constructed on a nearby site (with walls 5 feet thick) and has been maintained with only required updates over the years. The church is still active and open to the public—except in situations like today when it was closed for a few hours for a wedding.
Ordinary events in historic places give me a special sense of satisfaction; perhaps it is the constancy of hope and promise I feel and the idea that love sustains us all over time.
We enjoyed listening to live music—primarily guitar and flute— in the plazas and on the sidewalks; admiring jewelry and other accessories offered in the open market by Native American craftsmen; and browsing specialty shops selling ornaments, kites and flags, t-shirts, toys, clothes and hats.
Kay and I were lucky enough to find just the right hats for ourselves and will be wearing them often I’m sure! I do love hats and the one I bought is modeled after Georgia O’Keeffe’s fedora that I noticed right away in the exhibition of her art and clothing at the Reynolda House.
It was a pleasantly warm and not-so-windy day and we ate dinner at an outdoor restaurant before leaving Old Town. It will be nice to have a relaxing evening before packing up and heading along the Turquoise Trail to Santa Fe tomorrow.
We traveled from Albuquerque to Santa Fe on the Turquoise Trail, about 50 miles of national scenic byway alongside mountain views and deep yellow cottonwoods under a cloudless blue October sky. I wasn’t sure it could be bluer anywhere other than my small part of the world in North Carolina, but it was.
Along the Turquoise Trail are dozens of shops and artists making and selling jewelry, paintings, sculpture and clothing in the colors of this October day. We saw fountains made from slabs of rock and of course, turquoise and other gems. We stopped in Madrid (MADrid) and found several places to browse and converse.
To reach Dream Gallery, a one-room cabin at the top of a small hill, we walked over foot bridges and listened to meditative bells and admired metal art. Dottye and I both chose the same greeting card, one with a striking photograph of a rainbow arching over the mountain. Pamela, the photographer, said it was just after rains during the monsoon season. My photograph of the card won’t show the nuances of light in her original, but you’ll get the idea.
Rainbows have been special sightings to me since my daughter was small. She used to sign her name with a swath of rainbow before she could form all the letters that made up her long name. A year after she died when my family was traveling, we saw a rainbow where we’d had no rain and it reminded us of her. As we chose a place to plant a tree on a mountain in her memory, a rainbow led us to the site. So many times others have recounted sightings that seemed significant or just hopeful to them. When heading toward a writing retreat with my Farther Along sisters, I always imagine I am taking my daughter with me and the unexpected rainbows that appear are a reminder of her presence.
When Dottye and I stood in the Oklahoma City National Memorial Museum almost at the end of the tour, I looked down at my feet and saw a strip of rainbow light. I followed it to a corner where the bevel of two large pieces of glass was refracting the light.
When we arrived at the home we had rented in Santa Fe, we settled in and instead of taking a nap, we began chopping vegetables for dinner. We listened to Eva Cassidy while we worked. As I chopped, I looked down at the floor and saw a brilliant swath of rainbow beside my foot. Eva Cassidy was singing “Somewhere, over the rainbow. . .” The colors in that light reflected the colors of a beautiful October day with brilliant blue, turquoise, yellow, orange, red.
The art along Turquoise Trail fed our souls and we were ready to feed our bodies by the time we reached the Airbnb we have rented for four days. Kay and I are the first of our group to arrive and will be followed by one or two or three others each day until we are all here to travel together to Ghost Ranch.
I was grateful to have a “home” to stay in for a few nights. The travels have been delightful and I am sure Ghost Ranch will be amazing. But being able to get into a kitchen to chop and saute veggies, even a few squashes we’d never seen before, pleased my soul. We also made steamed rice and braised chicken breast with a fresh salad on the side. A little wine and beautiful music made the meal so relaxing and so much more special than if we had gone out to a restaurant.
We did interrupt our meal briefly, at sunset, to remember my mother who died as the sun set on this date nine years ago. When I found some quiet time after dinner, I began to reflect on memories of a trip to the Southwest my husband and I took a few months after my mother died. That trip was a gift to us from our children; we were emotionally spent and they wanted us to get away and refresh our spirits. The red rocks and vast landscape, imbued with the spirit of Native American magic, made it one of the most meaningful trips we’ve ever taken.
I think Alex would have fit right in if he had ever decided to live in the Southwest. He was a good-looking cowboy with his dark, wavy hair and his steel-blue eyes. His dark mustache was just the right touch for his Western persona. Not long after he was discharged from the Navy and had moved back to Winston-Salem, he bought a beautiful black Stetson. And because it was so much a part of who he was, we actually buried it with him.
As Kay and I have traveled through Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico, I’ve seen a lot of young men who, for a split second, look just like my son. Each time, it takes my breath. And that’s where he is: only a breath away.
DAYS 11, 12
The next few days were very different from travels as just two of us. Early on Monday morning we drove to another part of Santa Fe to pick up Carol, who had been visiting an old college friend for a couple of days. The rest of the day was spent catching up, relaxing and going back to historic Santa Fe to browse the sites, do some shopping and get a better sense of the city compared to the other southwestern cities we have visited thus far. Every place has something new to offer, and there was a plethora of art and history museums we could have vistied in old Santa Fe, including the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, the only museum in the world dedicated to a female artist.
We stayed up late to wait for Peggy whose flight arrived around midnight and visited for just a bit before heading off to bed to rest up for the next day’s activities.
Carol and Kay made a grocery run to stock up in anticipation of a bigger group. Three more of our group arrived the next afternoon: Beth, Beverly and Barbara. Since it was Halloween, and they’d all had long days of travel, we decided to stay in and eat “reconstituted” leftovers and generally visit with one another. For many of us, it had been a year since we had been together, and we all had much to share.
Speaking of sharing, we were surprised to have trick or treaters appear at the door of the rental house. We had not bought any candy for the occasion, so the couple of dozen kids who rang our doorbell were “lucky” enough to receive some “Cuties,” the poplular little Mandarin oranges and some granola bars.
Five of us traveled to Rio Grande Gorge State Park, Mabel Dodge Luhan home and Taos as the yellow cottonwoods waved their leaves on another blue-skied day. Two of our group visited Meow Wolf, an interactive art installation that uses technology and fantasy to entertain and immerse visitors in the art. By the end of the day on All Saints Day, the last three of the group arrived and we were ten, ready to go to Ghost Ranch to begin the long-awaited writing retreat.
The Taos-bound group stopped at Rio Grande Gorge State Park and asked questions about the Rio Grande Gorge of the two young women who were on duty at the park. One of us bought a hat, and two of us who are directionally challenged left with compass bandanas, sure to find our way from any direction.
We spent the morning at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House in Taos, where artists and writers including Ansel Adams, Willa Cather and Georgia O’Keeffe had spent time with Mabel Dodge Luhan. We shared good conversation with staff including Carol, and a coffee/tea break in the dining hall sealed the visit as most memorable.
Because it was All Saints Day, the Taos Pueblo was closed, and we decided to drive back to the house in Santa Fe by a different route to avoid some road construction work. We could not tell from the map that the road was unpaved and included hairpin turns and switchbacks all the way down. We met no vehicles on that road until we were close to the bottom of the steep incline. Dottye, our driver, stopped often so that we could hang out windows to take photos. Finally we encountered a truck driving toward us and stopped to ask if we were on the right path to Santa Fe. He smiled obligingly and told us we had just two more turns and we would arrive at the main road. We noted his “U.F.O. Crash Recovery Team” hat and his friendly dog and were on our dusty way.
About that drive down the mountainside… All I could think about was how the headline would read: NC Woman Drives Off Mountainside: Thelma and Louise Plus Three? Seriously, it was the most harrowing driving I have ever done. It was heart-throbbing, awe-inspiring, breath-taking, knee-knocking, and in the end, hilarious!
It began with the turn off the Rio Grande River Gorge Road onto West Rim Road. As soon as we came to the gravel, I stopped and backed up to be sure I had made the correct turn. It was a little comforting to see the National Park sign because I figured we would run into someone to confirm directions with soon. Note: there was NO cell service so GPS and Siri were unavailable!
Slowly, but definitely not surely, I drove ahead. The road narrowed and I realized there were NO guardrails, only some huge boulders perched on the side of the road in some cases but mostly nothing but crumbling shoulders as the road continued to narrow. Still, I moved cautiously forward, primarily because at this point there was no room to safely turn around! My passengers were having an alternating discussion between how awesome this mountainside looked to just how much Farther Along we could go. And there were several requests to stop the car to take advantage of the fantastic photo ops. At one point, about halfway into this adventure, we started taking inventory. We had several bottles of water in the trunk, a few granola bars between us, some gum, and tic-tacs. (Not exactly the last meal any of us would have chosen!) We did have our jackets and scarves and there was one little blanket in the trunk.
How much farther to go before the sun set? Wow! Wouldn’t that be an awesome photo? But how could we see where to go if there were no daylight on this road? It was at about this time we encountered the first vehicle we had seen since entering this other world and had just enough room to pass; thank goodness we were far enough down the mountainside to be between two cliffs at this juncture. With his reassurance we were not far from the camping area by the river in the National Park, I drove on. What I wasn’t sure of was would there be a connection to a paved highway at the bottom or would we have to drive UP the mountain and return to the highway we’d left? I was not looking forward to THAT drive! We would have had to camp overnight because it really was nearing dusk and that presented a whole new set of problems.
At one of our photo-op stops, when we had first sight of the river and campground near the end of this road, an old truck roared past us. He passed us! On a curve! On a narrow mountain passage! I am sure he was just as surprised to see us – a little red car with NC license plate that read “HATS4ALL” with five gray-haired women in it, some with cameras in hand. But there we were. And we made it to the main highway. Happy to have survived. We looked back and up to where we had been and how far we had come. Together. With faith and hope and each other. Amazed and grateful. Pretty much sums up the past fifteen years.
Tomorrow we will all arrive at Ghost Ranch, the retreat we have been anticipating to note our fifteenth year of writing together.
DAYS 13-18: The Writing Retreat
The long anticipated writing retreat at Case del Sol at Ghost Ranch celebrated our fifteen years of writing together. Fifteen years of writing toward healing, starting with an all-day workshop for bereaved mothers and moving us farther and farther along together.
We wrote, we did art projects, we walked the heart labyrinth and left prayer flags on the tree, we toured Georgia O’Keeffe’s home in Abiquiu and the area she painted at Ghost Ranch; some of us rode horseback through Ghost Ranch, some of us hiked on the Chimney Rock trail. We visited archaeology and paleontology museums, walked the larger labyrinth, the medicine wheel, and we wrote. We wrote our story again in this new place.
Photos of some of these times may tell the story of our time at Case del Sol, house of the sun, with the views of Pedernal, the mountain Georgia O’Keeffe painted over and over, saying that if she painted it enough, God would give it to her.
LAST EVENING at GHOST RANCH
We wrote blessings and benedictions as we left Ghost Ranch.
May we tuck into our travel bags a piece of Pedernal with its basalt sturdiness and kaleidoscope of colors.
May we steal away a puff of the wind that blows our prayer flags until only threads remain, the prayers already ascended to the heavens.
May we savor the breath we have breathed together: breathing out sorrow and pain and loss and breathing in beauty and peace and joy.
May we take from this place the lessons of color: red, orange, cobalt blue, purple, turquoise, more than 200 greens, yellow, white and shape our own rainbows of hope, love, faith.
May we stitch together this time in our crazy quilt of life to warm us while apart, to sustain us with comfort as we live and grow.
May we remember the rocks and flowers to remind us of our strength and vulnerability.
May we take the lessons of courageous women who have walked here before us. And so amen.
Loving Father, Nurturing Mother,
Bless our lives with new hope and restored energy.
From the red hills, the broken bones, the dead juniper to the wisdom and love we have shared with each other.
Monitor our travels as we leave this place and keep us safe in your care.
Instill in us the strength to return to our daily lives with more purpose and resolve.
Help us remember who we are and to stand with that person in love and admiration.
May our restored souls be a blessing to those we love as well as to strangers.
And always, be with us as we move farther along in peace and courage.
Driving east for five days sometimes seemed much slower than the 14 days it took us to get to Ghost Ranch. It might have been those couple of gray spitting-rain days and unending flat, brown fields that made us long for the hills and trees we saw at the beginning of our trip.
First stop after Ghost Ranch was south to Roswell, NM. When we mapped out the itinerary, we thought it might be fun to go to one of the museums to learn more about the alien sightings and crash landings that Roswell is known for. However, our brains were already saturated with new information, and we were “headed to the barn,” so we bypassed any more museums on the drive home. We did have one “sighting” in the Roswell Mall where we stopped for dinner
After one more authentic southwestern meal with those delicious sopapillas and tasting the green chile (which the hostess said was mild and that nearly turned my mouth inside out!!), we headed due east to Brownfield—aptly named because getting there was through earth that was a dozen shades of brown and flat, flat, flat—interrupted only by a few oil rigs and wind turbines. (Our apologies to the people who live in that area; we’re not complaining, just explaining!)
Kay noted that the oil rigs were almost like a herd of cattle munching earth slowly and methodically. And quietly, from our vantage point. The wind turbines were mesmerizing as the blades slowly turned several hundred feet above the ground. According to Wikipedia, a 1.5 MW wind turbine of a type frequently seen in the United States has a tower 260 ft high. The rotor assembly (blades and hub) weighs 48,000 lbs. The nacelle, which contains the generator component, weighs 115,000 lbs. The concrete base for the tower is constructed using 58,000 lbs of reinforcing steel and contains 250 cu yds of concrete. The base is 50 ft in diameter and 8 ft thick near the center. In other words, they are darn impressive! And they are the only thing that interrupted the skyline for hundreds of miles.
As we were checking out of the hotel at Brownfield, an employee noticed our NC license plate and asked what part of NC we were from. He said he had recently gone to Raleigh (pronounced Ray-lee) to attend a funeral. He noted, “Y’all have a lot of trees and hills, don’t you?” Indeed.
It was still rainy, grey, and cold as we left there headed to Sherman, Texas, just north of Dallas. (We tried to avoid as many big cities as possible on our way home.) A few hundred miles between Brownfield and Sherman, we did have two short diversionary stops at Saint Jo, population 1,022, a delightful little reconstructed western town complete with saloon and other Old West storefronts and Muenster, founded by two German brothers in the mid-1800s; go figure.
By the time we arrived in Sherman, Texas the second night we were both beginning to feel the effects of non-stop travel across the plains, and it was difficult to remember where we were! We did find an interesting place for dinner, The Library Grill, just a few miles from our hotel. Great food, good service, and a story to go along with it. A rich rancher owned several thousand acres in the area and wanted to have his own town, but the state of Texas required that every town have a municipal library, so he converted a building on his property to serve as a library. Later the library was repurposed into a “Cheers” type bar, and in the 1990s the current owners opened a high-end restaurant. It still has a cozy library feel—even without many books.
On the third day of driving across Texas, we slipped into Louisiana, passing through Shreveport to West Monroe for a night where we met Kay’s cousin Tammi for dinner and a short reunion. The next day we crossed the Mississippi River once more, this time heading east, and we felt jubilant to be on the east side of the country. This great divider and connector, the Mississippi, felt like a symbolic passage.
It divides west and east but runs north and south almost the length of the country. The bridge did not seem large enough to span all of that. We continued to collect state line photos into Alabama and rested in Tuscaloosa. Two more legs of the journey: Lenoir City, Tennessee, then back home to North Carolina!