Travels With A Neganative, Part 1

This is not a travel feature. Travel writers are the pilot fish for sharks.

I’m a bad traveling companion if you want to go around falling in love with the mountain West. I was born in Wyoming and grew up in Colorado. I’m a “used to be” traveler in Colorado, always telling how there used to be an old mill here, used to be a miners’ saloon there, used to be a river ford, used to be wilderness. And if you want directions in Santa Fe, I’ll tell you to turn where Big Jo Lumber or something used to be.

Above Wilson Mesa near Telluride on the track to Silver Pick Basin there used to be this ranch. It was drop dead beautiful. The aspen. The meadow. The pitched roof house. The wall of Wilson Peak reflecting in the bay window. The last time I was there, about 15 years ago with a favorite friend, we trespassed. An old cowboy on a work horse appeared suddenly and silently. We apologized and told him it was awful nice up there. He just sat his settled horse and agreed, and we hiked away. His name was Orville Schmidt. He was very old.

In recent years Wilson Mesa has become an uncomfortable place for people who don’t carry keys to a log chateau. Parking has been cut off at Silver Pick Basin mine. I have not wanted to go back. I have not wanted to see where Orville’s incredible ranch used to be.

I’m also a bad Colorado travelling companion because I’m always looking for a property that will compensate for the real estate fortunes I have missed. Last summer I was checking out a little $250,000 1 b.r. 1 bath opportunity in Ridgway when the remodeler mentioned he once lived on Wilson Mesa. At that very same ranch, as a matter of fact. The guy had a look in his eyes that said paradise.

Orville before his death declared his wish that the place, where he had been born about a hundred years ago, would remain a working cattle ranch. His heirs made a deal, the remodeler said, that would carry out that wish while enabling them to stay ahead financially. They had sold the development rights to a wealthy conservation trust. So paradise was not, so to speak, lost.

But I don’t think the Orville’s ranch solution is going to be the answer everywhere in the West. There’s too much of it to save. A news article out of Las Cruces the other day said the price of scenic ranch land in New Mexico has reached the point that it’s too costly for ranching. A New Mexico State University agricultural economist based his conclusion on a study of 500 ranch sales between 1996 and 2002, when prices escalated 10-12 per cent a year.

My thoughts turned to the magic stretch of Old West along U.S. 84 in Rio Arriba County from Abiquiu to Chama. Most of it is in the Tierra Amarilla Land Grant. This peculiarity, because of title disputes and the “history of chicanery,” has been its salvation.

But it’s threatened. First come the artists, then the celebrities, then the travel writers, who make the maps for armies of developers and real estate pushers. Abiquiu with disturbing regularity contributes fine properties to the Santa Fe real estate ads.

So far the real estate price pushers have not declared victory. The area looks like it did when I came to New Mexico. Let me describe a drive up U.S. 84.
It begins at Bode’s store at the Abiquiu junction. I like to stop and get gas, whether I need it or not. The new owners have invested in electronic gas pumps, but they’ve kept the old general store the way it was. Bode’s carries merchandise that people in the area still use — for example, carpenter’s pencils impressed with the store’s name.

Nobody will prevent you from driving up to the village and peeking over the wall of Georgia O’Keeffe’s old house. But why do it? You can see enough from the highway, and you can buy O’Keeffe posters at the Abiquiu Inn on the highway. See, after the famous painter died, the federal government developed plans and funding for an O’Keeffe National Monument at Abiquiu. Even with parking at the bottom of the hill and shuttle service to the house, the local people opposed it. They do not want to attract tourists.

A more fitting monument to O’Keeffe is visible to everybody up the road — past the public school on the right built with her donation — where the highway inclines up the Rio Grande Fault. You rise above the wild meanders of the Rio Chama, pass Abiquiu Dam turnoff (unless you want to turn left to investigate a Cadillac Desert boondoggle): there, rising on the skyline, is the Pedernal.

About 30 years ago, during the administration of Gov. Jerry Apodaca, O’Keeffe consented to a show in the State Capitol — the inaugural of the what has become the Governor’s Gallery. All the landscapes, which she chose herself, showed the Pedernal. She once said God told her that if she painted that lone butte enough, “I could have it.”

The exact quote appears in a little exhibit up the highway at my next stop: Ghost Ranch Conference Center. O’Keeffe was friends of the Pack family, which gave the ranch to the Presbyterian Church. It’s contained by a stunning box canyon with layered walls of gold, silver, and rose sandstone.

You can stop at Ghost Ranch and dream, “Getaway.” The schedule of one-week seminars and workshops on everything from conversational Spanish to calligraphy to a lineup of religious and moral discussions is accessible to anyone who’s willing to pay the moderate fees. This is not a resort, but a working ranch with a mess hall, central showers and a crowded library. So the participants tend to be serious.

The general absence of motor vehicles and the presence of horses makes this ranch real and Western. The picturesque log house on the entry road, however, is not real. It’s left over from a set of “City Slickers.” Gov. Bill Richardson had his picture taken near this spot for the state’s Broadway billboard.

A little up the valley, I ignore the U.S. Forest Service information center, which used to have a controversial zoo. The dirt road to the upper Chama River canyon takes off near here. It enters a marvelous area, but it’s not for passenger cars or RV’s, particularly in wet weather. And the last thing this wild and fragile canyon, with Christ in the Desert Monastery at its head, needs is a travel writer.