Ghost Ranch

In the great wide open places, I can see the forever.

The sky enfolds you, and then you are inside it. Whatever small place you came from is no more because you are part of that sky and the big beyond, and the rest isn’t important.

When the Spanish first rode into this valley in northern New Mexico, they called it Piedre Lumbre — the shining stone.

Behind Chimney Rock, looking across the valley towards Cerro Pedernal. Photograph, iStock Photos.

In the great wide open places, I can see the forever.

The sky enfolds you, and then you are inside it. Whatever small place you came from is no more because you are part of that sky and the big beyond, and the rest isn’t important.

When the Spanish first rode into this valley in northern New Mexico, they called it Piedre Lumbre — the shining stone. Ghost Ranch is a part of territory known as the Piedre Lumbre land grant.

In March, I visited Ghost Ranch on a day trip from Santa Fe. I was so immediately taken with the physical beauty of the valley that I stayed two days, then returned a month later for a full week. Once the red rocks are part of you, you will always go back, always seek out these places.

Panoramic view, looking towards the red rock formations at Ghost Ranch.
Panoramic view, looking towards the red rock formations at Ghost Ranch. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

On my first night back, I spent time thinking about where I wanted to shoot at sunrise, and decided on the cabin which has been used in a number of films. I set my alarm for early — then made the mistake of hitting the snooze button. Twice, I think. Then it was rush, rush, rush!  Make quick coffee, grab my gear, and hit it.

Grey morning light, coffee threatening to splash out of the paper cup, and I drive down off the mesa. But I want to see that first warm light break across the grass. To see the light on the little cabin and the Pedernal.

It was a damned cold morning, but you can’t manipulate camera controls with your gloves on. Just doesn’t work. Oddly, after shooting for thirty minutes, my fingers were so frozen they didn’t work anyway. I sat on my hands in the car for a few minutes and drank cold coffee.

I got back out, and went back at it for another twenty minutes before heading to breakfast.

Early morning sun hits the cabin, the mountain Cerro Pedernal in the distance.
Early morning sun hits the cabin, the mountain Cerro Pedernal in the distance. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
City Slickers Cabin on Ghost Ranch at sunrise, Pedernal mountain in the distance.
Here’s the cabin again, this time in color. Photograph, Ann Fisher

This shot was my favorite. I liked the way the cabin’s roof line and chimney ran along with the Pedernal and the mountains lining the horizon.

The black and white version (above) worked best for me, but the color image is good as well, the grass golden in the morning light — and the whole thing seeming much warmer than it felt!

I love the editing process — dumping everything into the computer and having a look in LightRoom.

But here’s the trick. You only get to pick one picture. Maybe two. I remember the days of watching a neighbor’s slide show from a trip. Some of you know what I’m talking about — when you had to sit and watch 200 slides. Seemed like 20,000. Let me slit my wrists with a dull butter knife! No one wants to see all of those pictures — I don’t care where you went! Pick a small group of images that tell the story.

So, what is Ghost Ranch?

It’s surprising how few people know anything about Ghost Ranch.

I was talking to someone the other day who didn’t know who Georgia O’Keeffe was. “I’ve just come back from Ghost Ranch.”

“Was it scary?”

I cocked my head to the side. “No . . . you know — it’s the place that Georgia O’Keeffe lived and painted.”

“Who is Georgia O’Keeffe?”

I blinked. As someone with a degree in Art History, I forget that knowledge of artists, even major ones, isn’t a given. So I told her, and looked up several paintings on my phone so that she could see.

“Oh, yeah. I’ve seen that one before.”

Seen that one before . . .

Ram's Head with Hollyhock-Hills. Georgia O'Keeffe. 1935.
Ram’s Head with Hollyhock-Hills. Georgia O’Keeffe. 1935.

The history of Ghost Ranch is a rich one — whether you want to talk about the dinosaurs that roamed here in the Triassic period, the native peoples who lived here before the arrival of the Spanish, or the murderous, cattle-rustling Archuleta brothers of the late 1800’s when the property was known as the Rancho de los Brujos — Ranch of the Witches.

Ansel Adam's photograph of O'Keeffe painting inside her car on Ghost Ranch.
Georgia O’Keeffe painting in her car at Ghost Ranch. 1937 photograph by Ansel Adams, who was a good friend of O’Keeffe’s.

The two museums on the ranch, Florence Hawley Ellis Museum of Anthropology, and Ruth Hall Museum of Paleontology, help tell the stories of the dinosaurs and the native peoples who lived on this land. For the soap-opera stories of the cattle rustlers, you could take the History Tour, or pick up the Ghost Ranch book by Lesley Poling-Kempes from the trading post.

By the time Georgia O’Keeffe first found her way to Ghost Ranch in 1934, it was owned by Arthur Pack and operated as a dude ranch, much to O’Keeffe’s chagrin.

Georgia was so taken with the landscape that she put up with the dudes and dudettes, renting a little cottage the first year, and then the house called Ranchos de los Burros which was further removed from the other guests. O’Keeffe finally bought the house and the few acres around it from Arthur Pack in 1940.

Later in his life, Arthur Pack donated Ghost Ranch (over 21,000 acres) to the Presbyterian Church, and it has operated retreat center for more than fifty-five years.

The House I Live In. Painting, 1937. Georgia O'Keeffe.
The House I Live In. 1937. Georgia O’Keeffe.

So, you’re making a trip to New Mexico, and you want to tour the house where Georgia O’Keeffe lived?

Which one? There is definitely some confusion about the difference between Ghost Ranch, and the O’Keeffe houses.

You can visit O’Keeffe’s house in Abiquiu, but only on a guided tour through the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. If you want to do the Abiquiu house tour, contact the Museum the minute you know you’re going. I’ve been to New Mexico twice in two months, and still have not gotten to see the house.

O’Keeffe’s house at Ghost Ranch is owned by the O’Keeffe museum as well, but is not currently open to the public. At some point in the future, the Museum indicates it will be, but there is no firm date set. You can see her Ghost Ranch house from a distance on one the the O’Keeffe tours.

Photograph of the real landscape O'Keeffe used for Red Hills with Pedernal
O’Keeffe walked through the red hills in her “backyard” almost daily when she lived at Ghost Ranch. Following in the artist’s footsteps is a wonderful experience. Red hills with Pedernal in the background. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
Red Hills with Pedernal, White Clouds. 1936. Georgia O'Keeffe.
Red Hills with Pedernal, White Clouds. 1936. Georgia O’Keeffe.

O’Keeffe Landscape Tours

In 2004, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum put on an exhibition called Georgia O’Keeffe and New Mexico: A Sense of Place. A book by Barbara Buehler Lynes of the same name was also published in 2004.

Public interest in being in the landscapes that the artist painted grew.

Suddenly people were showing up at Ghost Ranch wanting to walk into the painting landscapes, which was both good and bad. Great because Ghost Ranch needs the income that visitors bring, and dangerous in the potential for destroying the red hills O’Keeffe painted.

The solution? Restrict public access to the O’Keeffe portion of the ranch. Why? If thousands of visitors go tromping up, over, around and through O’Keeffe’s red hills, they will no longer look the her hills. Footprints in this dry landscape take months, sometimes years to disappear.

O'Keeffe Landscape tour
Walking into O’Keeffe’s landscapes and having a chance to photograph her painting locations was an amazing experience. This is my favorite tour at Ghost Ranch.

I applaud Ghost Ranch for working to preserve this special place. There are only three ways to see this part of the ranch: on horseback, on a small shuttle bus, or on a walking tour. These tours limit impact by either staying on the gravel road (shuttle bus), or following two standard, single file paths. The walking tour is limited to eight guests, and when I was there, only ran twice a week.

O'Keeffe Landscape tour looking towards yellow cliffs
O’Keeffe Landscape small bus tour at Ghost Ranch. This tour takes you closer to the yellow and white cliffs that O’Keeffe loved so much.

Each tour is a little different — obviously — but so is what you’ll see. I went on the shuttle bus tour three times. Yes, three. The light and clouds were different each time. Then I took the walking tour. Maybe next time, I’ll saddle up and head out on the trail ride . . . Read more about the O’Keeffe Landscape tours and horseback trail riding on the Ghost Ranch web site.

If you are only at Ghost Ranch for the day, the bus tour or the trail ride are your best options, since they run every day, and in the busy season, several times a day. On the bus tour, guests get out at several stops to take photographs

Georgia O’Keeffe and her relationship with her lover/mentor/husband/promoter Alfred Stieglitz is a fascinating part of the artist’s life.

Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O'Keeffe. c. 1939. Ansel Adams
Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe. c. 1939. Ansel Adams

If you don’t know much O’Keeffe and Stieglitz, there are a couple O’Keeffe biographies from which to choose. Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O’Keeffe by Laurie Lisle is my favorite. Another to consider is Full Bloom by Hunter Drohojowska-Philp; this one a very full biography, but I find the writing style dull.

I also recommend watching the 2009 film Georgia O’Keeffe, starring Joan Allen as O’Keeffe and Jeremy Irons as Alfred Stieglitz, and partially filmed at Ghost Ranch. It is as well done as a two hour bio-pic could be, in my opinion. O’Keeffe lived to be nearly one hundred years old, and this film would arguably have made a better mini-series to do justice to her life. I found Jeremy Irons particularly brilliant as Stieglitz.

Joan Allen as O'Keeffe and Jeremy Irons as Stieglitz in the 2009 film, Georgia O'Keeffe.
Joan Allen as O’Keeffe and Jeremy Irons as Stieglitz in the 2009 film, Georgia O’Keeffe.

Ghost Ranch Goes Hollywood

If you think that parts of Ghost Ranch seem familiar to you, well, you’re probably right.

Between 1985 and 2016, ten major motion pictures filmed in New Mexico used Ghost Ranch as a filming location. This doesn’t mean the entirety of each film was shot here; the amount of Ghost Ranch footage varies in each picture.

Movie Poster from all the movies filmed at Ghost Ranch
Ghost Ranch is a popular filming location. Here are the movie posters for Silverado, Young Guns, City Slickers, Wyatt Earp, All the Pretty Horses, Missing, 310 to Yuma, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Cowboys and Aliens, and The Magnificent Seven.
Byung-hun Lee at the Ghost Ranch City Slickers Cabin. Magnificent 7 film.
South Korean star Byung-hun Lee, shows off his mad knife throwing skills in The Magnificent Seven. Note the Ghost Ranch cabin in the background.

Movies that used Ghost Ranch as a location for for scenes include: Silverado (1985), Young Guns (1988), City Slickers (1991),Wyatt Earp (1994), All the Pretty Horses (2000), Missing (2003),  310 to Yuma (2007), Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), Cowboys & Aliens (2010), The Magnificent Seven (2016).

If you’re a movie buff, Ghost Ranch does give a Movie Location Tour, but it is by reservation only. Be sure to call a week or more before your visit to make the arrangements so you don’t miss out while you’re there. Summer is Ghost Ranch’s busiest season, so I’d plan even further even out if that’s when you are going to visit.

You do not need to go on the Movie Location Tour to see the City Slickers cabin (in the photographs above). That site is right off the dirt road leading into Ghost Ranch — so very easy access.

Day Trip

Ghost Ranch makes a great day trip from either Santa Fe or from Taos. I warn you, it’s very hard to leave Ghost Ranch after spending a single day, but it’s better than not seeing this beautiful place at all. From Santa Fe, it took me about one hour and fifteen minutes to reach Ghost Ranch. Google Maps show a drive time of 1.5 hours from Taos to Ghost Ranch. You’ll pay a $5 Conservation fee at the Welcome Center that gives you access to the ranch and the museums.

I’d plan on a full day. Read about the hikes, tours, and museums, and call ahead to reserve space if you choose to do a tour. Plan to have lunch (12:00 – 1:00) at the ranch, and possibly dinner as well, to give you as much time as possible to explore this special place.

View toward Kitchen Mesa from the Matrimonial Mesa hike at sunset, Ghost Ranch New Mexico
View toward Kitchen Mesa from the Matrimonial Mesa hike at sunset. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Hiking

Hiking at Ghost Ranch is a favorite past time for many people. Read about the different hiking trails on ranch’s website, and choose one that suits your abilities and time. Use the sign in sheet at the Welcome Center before you go and after you return. Borrow a walking stick.

Retreats and Workshops

Ghost Ranch has a full set of retreat and workshop offerings that run all year long. Whether you’re interested in spiritual retreats, an art, photography, or writing workshops, outdoor adventure, you almost certain to find one that you’d enjoy.

Accommodations and Food

You can stay at Ghost Ranch overnight — which I heartily recommend. There are a range of room types, some with shared restrooms, many with private restrooms. They also have a campground with spaces for both RVs and tents.

Room in the Coyote building on the upper mesa at Ghost Ranch.
Room in the Coyote building on the upper mesa at Ghost Ranch.

What are the rooms like? They are basic, but clean and comfortable. You need to remember this is a retreat center, not a hotel, and certainly not a resort. There are no televisions or in-room phones, and the only wi-fi at Ghost Ranch is in the Library. When you come here, it is to be with and in the amazing landscape.

One important thing to note: the rooms have heaters, but are NOT air-conditioned. In the summer, temperatures in the day are hot, but cool down to around 60 °F (15.5 °C) the evening (check average temperatures and rainfall for Abiquiu here).

What did I think about the rooms? I stayed two nights in March (Aspen building), and loved Ghost Ranch so much I returned for a full week in April (Coyote building, upper mesa). I had a sitting room and a bedroom. I was very comfortable, and I loved sitting outside my room in Coyote on the upper mesa and watching the sun go down while I had a drink. I will certainly return and stay again.

View of the Coyote building on upper mesa, Ghost Ranch.
View of the Coyote building on upper mesa, walking back up from breakfast. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Personally, I would have a difficult time handling the heat in the summer. I like to retreat to my room during the afternoon, particularly in hot climates, to read, edit pictures, and write. I couldn’t do this here in the summer. I think the evenings would be fine, since the temperatures drop to near 60 °F, the windows are screened, and there are small fans. If lack of AC is a problem for you, then consider staying at the Abiquiu Inn.

The Dining Hall at Ghost Ranch serves three meals a day in a cafeteria set up. The menu changes daily. You buy meal tickets at the Welcome Center, and you can eat at the Dining Hall, even if you’re just at Ghost Ranch for a day trip. Meals are served for ONE hour only. Be sure you get the schedule at the Welcome Center, and be there, or be square!

The food is good, and there is plenty of it. The menus change daily. At dinner, the hot food line includes two main meal offerings, one of which is always vegetarian, along with vegetables. If you have problems with gluten or soy, or are vegan, please call Ghost Ranch directly to find out what options there are. At lunch, the main food line may have sandwich makings, or it may be a hot meal. There is always a good salad bar, and I saw vegetable proteins and cheese available each day I was there.  At breakfast, the hot food line may feature an egg dish, or perhaps pancakes. There is always oatmeal, and cold cereal. At breakfast, the salad bar turns into a fruit bar that also has yogurt.


What more can I say? I found Ghost Ranch to be one of the most beautiful parts of New Mexico. I know I’ll return many times to this special place.

View towards the mountain Pedernal from the Kitchen Mesa hike at. Ghost Ranch. Photograph, Erin Vanelle
View towards the mountain Pedernal from the Kitchen Mesa hike at. Ghost Ranch. Photograph, Erin Vanella.

** It’s important to note that while the Presbyterian Church owns Ghost Ranch, it no longer contributes financially to support it. The Ghost Ranch Foundation is now responsible for care, preservation, and maintenance of the ranch and its facilities. Through out this article, I have linked to books at the Ghost Ranch trading post. If you are thinking about purchasing books on Ghost Ranch or Georgia O’Keeffe, please consider buying from the ranch website. To find out more about the Ghost Ranch Foundation, link here.

Road Trip to New Mexico

One of my best friends is living in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for several months to complete a project — and I thought, what a perfect excuse for a road trip!

“I was surprised, as always, by how easy the act of leaving was, and how good it felt. The world was suddenly rich with possibility.” — Jack Kerouac, On the Road

One of my best friends is living in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for several months to complete a project — and I thought, what a perfect excuse for a road trip!

“I was surprised, as always, by how easy the act of leaving was, and how good it felt. The world was suddenly rich with possibility.”  — Jack Kerouac, On the Road

The first day was a long one, taking me from Houston and the coastal plains of Texas up to the Panhandle and Amarillo. It’s easy to write off this part of Texas — vast flat fields that stretch on forever, but it was magical that afternoon in the failing light.

Tractor in field at sunset
Fields at sunset. Photograph, Allou, iStock Photos.

Driving through Chillicothe and Quanah, Childress and Memphis became a de-and-re-acceleration rhythm of 60 miles per hour then 50 — 40 — 35, a stop at a traffic light, then 40 — 50 — 60, and back up to a cruising speed of 75. In each small town, grain silos shown in the slanting sun, first silvery, then golden orange.

The Mercedes ate up the miles and as I left Goodnight, Texas, there was another forty minutes to my hotel in Amarillo.

Outside of Clarendon, I passed two tractors in line, close to the highway, kicking up dust that trailed out far behind them. Many times meadow larks flew dead-straight towards the car, then corrected their flightpaths for several wingbeats to fly alongside me, before abruptly veering off, back into the fields.

When the sun hung low on the horizon, I passed fields of harvested cotton, where the angle of the light caught the spent plants, turning them golden.

As I came closer and closer to Amarillo, there were not many clouds, just a few wisps in front of me as the sun set to my left. Behind me the sky turned indigo at the horizon, edged with magenta above, then both deepening to purple.

Travel My Way, Take the Highway that’s the Best

I slowed down on Interstate 40 to get off into the towns and find a little of old Route 66 in Amarillo, then in Tucumcari and Santa Rosa, New Mexico.

Cadillac Ranch at sunrise, with photographer's shadow
Up early on the morning of my birthday, shooting images at Cadillac Ranch. Photograph, Ann Fisher

I made my visit to Cadillac Ranch in a cold field post-dawn at the edge of Amarillo.

Only one other person there — a guy about my age with his phone and a selfie stick. We danced around one another to get pictures without the other in them. It was a companionable time — exchange of a few words, hand signals, and a final salute as we left the ten Cadillacs behind.

There are many famous American road trip routes — Highway 1 in California certainly comes to mind — but none can eclipse the Mother Road as the nostalgic icon of the freedom to roam America.

Route 66 was born November 11, 1926, when the Federal Government officially established Highway 66, leading from Chicago to Los Angeles. By the following year, road signs were up all along the way, even as states worked on paving their sections.

In the 1930’s, Route 66 provided a way west for desperate families fleeing the Dustbowl; John Steinbeck chronicles the migration along Highway 66 in his novel, The Grapes of Wrath, describing the flow of people “into 66 from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks and rutted country roads. 66 is the mother road, the road of flight.”

Then when World War II ended, and fuel rationing ended, Americans were free to drive again, and they took to Route 66 in droves.

Our affair with the car blossomed; we did EVERYTHING in our cars — ate, watched movies, made love.  It was the age of motor courts, roadside hamburger joints, and drive-in movies. In 1946, Nat King Cole recorded the Bobby Troup song, (Get Your Kicks On) Route 66,  — the anthem of the Mother Road.

Martin Milner (right) and George Maharis, in the CBS TV show, Route 66.
Martin Milner (right) and George Maharis, in the CBS TV show, Route 66.

Then in 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act into law. It was the death knell for Route 66 — but it would take almost thirty years to be buried.

In the meantime, the highway became even more famous in pop culture with the CBS television show, Route 66, which ran from 1960 to 1964 for a total of 116 episodes.

Gradually more sections of the highway were replaced with super-roads, until in 1985, Highway 66 was officially decommissioned. Of course it lives on — kept alive by those who make the Route 66 pilgrimage each year. A 2011 study showed the direct impact of Route 66 as $132 million annually.

On this trip, I only traveled the Mother Road for 250 odd miles before I turned north, headed to Santa Fe. But I’ll be back. I see a full Route pilgrimage in my future . . .

Cadillac Grill with Route 66 sign blended into image
I stopped at the Auto Museum in Santa Rosa, New Mexico and photographed many of the thirty classic cars — here is my love note to Santa Rosa.

The Great American Road Trip

Road trips exist as a key part of our country’s psyche. Two formidable road trip books from the 1957 and 1962 come to mind: Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, and John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley: In Search of America.

Here is a classic excerpt from On the Road:

“I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn’t know who I was – I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I’d never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn’t know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I wasn’t scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost.”

Never mind that neither of these books is exactly what it purports to be — they are both good stories, stories that caught the public’s imagination and entered the collective American consciousness. Even if you haven’t read them, you are likely familiar with them.

The On the Road legend is that Kerouac wrote the book in three weeks on one continuous 120 foot scroll of paper.

Kerouac's scroll manuscript of On the Road.
Legend: Kerouac wrote On the Road in three weeks on a 120 foot continuous scroll.

“Kerouac cultivated this myth that he was this spontaneous prose man, and that everything that he ever put down was never changed, and that’s not true,” Kerouac scholar Paul Marion says. “He was really a supreme craftsman, and devoted to writing and the writing process.”

The truth is that Kerouac created six different drafts of On the Road between 1951 and 1957 as he worked hard to get past multiple rejections to have the manuscript accepted with a publisher.

Viking Press marketed Travels with Charley as a true account of Steinbeck’s three month solo trip around America with his poodle, Charley.

Bill Steigerwald spent weeks traveling Steinbeck’s route, and then nine months fact-checking and came to the conclusion that very little of the book  represents Steinbeck’s actual journey and experiences:

  • Steinbeck was almost never alone. His wife Elaine accompanied him for 45 days of the 75 day trip.
  • Another 17 days of the trip he stayed in motels or camped on friends’ property.
  • He almost never camped out at all. He spent many evenings in motor courts, and often on the trip he and Elaine stayed in very fine hotels.
  • Many of the people who he wrote about meeting were fabricated.

The truth is that at 58, Steinbeck was in poor health, but he longed to take another epic solo journey into America.  The reality: he took a long trip with his wife and his dog and visited friends. He came home with few notes, but penned a book that Americans still love. I think I can cut him some slack.

In the end, it doesn’t make any difference whether we shelve Charley with Steinbeck’s fiction, because Steinbeck and his poodle will always drive the blue highways of the American consciousness in a travel camper named Rocinante.

The end of my journey outward . . .

At the end of a second day on the road, I pulled into Los Suenos RV Park — to the cutest little cabin I’ve seen in a long time. A Tiny Home for my home away . . . and it was so great to find my friend Joyce and head out for margaritas and classic New Mexican enchiladas with green chile sauce!

More to come on my New Mexican rambles . . .   Here, a look down the road towards Ghost Ranch.

On Highway 84 in New Mexico, looking towards Ghost Ranch.
On Highway 84 in New Mexico, looking towards Ghost Ranch. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Hi — this is the first of three posts on my trip to New Mexico. You’ll find the second part, Embracing Santa Fe, here:

 


Ann in Castolon in Big Bend National Park. Photograph, Jim Stevens

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Sources for those interested in reading further.

Listokin, D., and D. Stanek. Route 66 Economic Impact Study: Synthesis of Findings. Rep. N.p.: Rutgers, 2011. Print.

Mcgrath, Charles. “A Reality Check for Steinbeck and Charley.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 03 Apr. 2011. Web. 11 Mar. 2017. <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/04/books/steinbecks-travels-with-charley-gets-a-fact-checking.html&gt;.

Payne, Adam A., and Douglas A. Hurt. “Narratives of the Mother Road: Geographic Themes Along Route 66.” Geographical Review 105.3 (2015): 283-303. Web.

Shea, Andrea. “Jack Kerouac’s Famous Scroll, ‘On the Road’ Again.” NPR. NPR, 05 July 2007. Web. 11 Mar. 2017. <http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=11709924&gt;.

Steigerwald, Bill. “Sorry, Charley.” Reason 42.11 (2011): 58-62. EBSCOhost. Web. 11 Mar. 2017.

First Solo Travel

Ann Paris Carte Orange

The year was 1985: an account of the first time I traveled solo in Europe.

At twenty, I traveled abroad alone.

I had two weeks in Britain by myself before going to Paris for a semester of study. It was my junior year at university. My plans included a couple of days in London, a four or five day stretch in the Lake District, a return to London to meet my father for two nights, two nights in Bath visiting elderly family friends, then London again before the boat-train to Paris.

For the English award my senior year in high school, my teacher gave me Discovering Britain. I loved the Romantic poets — Worsdworth, Keats, Shelley. These pictures were my inspiration. I would hike in the Lake District. I would stay at the Swan Hotel. I worked my sophomore year in college and paid all of my living expenses so that my father would pay for this trip and the additional expenses of the semester abroad in France.

From the book Discovering Britain
The Lake District in  the book, Discovering Britain

Handling luggage, reading and sleeping on the plane, navigating Gatwick, and finding a cab to my hotel in the Bayswater district of London — as long as travel logistics kept me busy, I was fine.

I checked into the hotel and sat on my bed looking around. Then the enormity of being alone in a foreign country hit me. I am by myself in London. I feel alone and suddenly overwhelmed. Why in the world did I push to make this trip on my own? Why did I think doing solo travel as a female was going to be okay? What was I thinking?

I said to myself, “Ann.” And then,”You can sit here in your room feeling timid. Or you can get off your ass and go explore the city.” Honestly, the twenty year old version of myself didn’t curse much. I probably used the word “butt.”

That has been my attitude ever since. You can sit — where ever it is, by yourself. Or you can get up, get out, and find the world. That afternoon, I mastered the Tube system, found Westminster and wandered the streets around Parliament. In the early evening, I went to a pub. By myself.

I bellied up to the bar and admitted I knew almost nothing about British ale. In minutes I had a half pint of bitter, shepherd’s pie on the way, and a bar man looking out for me. And you know, everything was just fine. Better than fine. It was exhilarating.

What is it that makes us afraid of being by ourselves in public? I don’t know, but if you haven’t done it, it makes you feel very self-conscious. And that’s uncomfortable. People avoid the uncomfortable.

Lake Grasmere 1985
Hiking above Lake Grasmere in the Lake District of England in 1985

I was, by nature, somewhat shy. At this point both my sister and my daughter Catherine would be laughing at me and telling you, “Ann? She’s not shy. She meets people all over the place.”

But I have not always been that way. I had learn it.

There is a song from the King and I, Whistle a Happy Tune, that expresses this well:

“While shivering in my shoes

I strike a careless pose

And whistle happy tune

And no one ever knows I’m afraid.

The result of this deception

Is very strange to tell,

For when I fool the people I fear,

I fool myself as well.”

Like any experience, the more times one does it, the easier and more comfortable it becomes.

My father and his girlfriend, Gladys, were friends of the painter Gerry de Rose (Gerard de Rose). I’d met Gerry several times when he was visiting in New Orleans, so I had an invitation to the Chelsea Arts Club one evening. What an experience that was! I met Gerry’s son Theo and his friend Fiona. We had a great time together, and she invited me to stay with her when I returned to London post Lake District.

Gerard de Rose Self Portrait
Gerard de Rose, Self Portrait

The most nerve-wracking night was in London a couple of days later. It was time for supper, and I’d picked a fine looking pub. At the entrance, there was a table of working class guys who gave me a sort of cat-call whistled welcome. I wanted to bolt. Run. But show them I was scared? Damn it, I wasn’t about to do that. So I drew myself up to my full 5 foot 4 inches, raised my chin and stared at them for a couple of seconds. I finished with my best look of absolute disgust, and went to the bar. I’m sure I was impressive. I impressed myself, anyway.

A moment later, one of the fellows was at my elbow at the bar. Could he buy me a pint? I said, “you’ve GOT to be kidding.” I proceeded to tell him that I thought that he, his entire table of buddies, and possibly every man in pub, were beneath bed bugs. Finn, a very contrite Cockney Brit, protested that he had not participated, but apologized profusely. Three times. The fellows bought my dinner, and then taught me how to drink single malt whiskey. Properly. Without ice or water. Finn wound up being a brotherly sort, and made sure I got on the correct Tube line back to my hotel at the end of the evening.

The most alone I felt on that trip was at the Old England Hotel in Windermere. It had a very formal dining room with people at tables that all faced out on the lake. That’s when bringing a book, or today an iPad, comes in handy.

The next stop was The Swan Hotel in Grasmere. Wordsworth mentions the Swan in his poem The Waggoner, and I spent two nights there and had a light rainy hike up above the lake. It was an extraordinary time.

Chris and Doug, Canadian college students traveling in the Lake District.
Chris and Doug, Canadian college students traveling in the Lake District.

Two days later, I met Chris and Doug in Keswick up in the Lake District. These two Canadians had just finished their bachelor’s degrees and were taking a trip around Britain together, and they had a CAR. We hit it off brilliantly so I spent the next day and evening in their company. I know, I know. One of you out there is saying, “But they might have been axe murderers.” Maybe. But I will say that I have very good intuition and people sense. I listen to it. Besides, look at the two goofballs. What cuties!

I was due back in London — my presence commanded by my father. I left the boys and arrived back in the city to spend the day waiting around on Dad. He’d gone to Windsor Castle with his girlfriend. It was then that I met James. We’ll call him James. He is 14 years older, but someone who recurs in my life, in a Before Sunrise kind of way. It is another story.

My Carte Orange from Paris in 1985
My Carte Orange from Paris in 1985

The lesson I learned is that I love to travel by myself. Sometimes, I am alone. I read. I write. I take photographs. I think.

Sometimes, I see and experience things in ways that I never would if I had a traveling companion.

I have adventures.

And sometimes, I meet extraordinary people.

 

 

 

 


 

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Ann Fisher

The Fedora Rides Shotgun

Painting from the Gage Hotel

“Mom, you’re so weird.”

I just returned from camping by myself in Big Bend National Park.

I had not been camping since 2009, and as I looked at what to do with a few days off in September, all I could think of was what it sounds like to wake up in a tent.

Fedora on headrest of car
The Fedora Rides Shotgun

There have been times in my life that I slept in a tent to drop the overall cost of a cross-country vacation. I moved from New Orleans to Seattle and eventually back to NOLA, and multiple times both direction I camped with my cat, Jenny, and my bird named Charlie. Then when my daughter was going to Girl Scout camp in the Davis Mountains, I took my tent and launched out to various places, like Santa Fe, New Mexico.

I don’t need to camp anymore, but I’ve found that I miss it. This is where I need to be really honest. I don’t camp in the haul-it-in-on-your-back way. No, thank you. It’s car camping, so I have a cot and a nice tent and a great camp stove.

Catherine saw my grocery list for the trip. “You’re bringing red snapper? Orzo? Normal people make easy stuff when they camp.”

Preparing steaks, new potatoes and asparagus for the grill
Steaks, new potatoes and asparagus for the grill

Yes, I like good food, and I enjoy cooking. I’ve learned that there are many delicious things I can make with a grill, some foil and a little ingenuity.

At the end of the day, what this is really, really about  — it’s seeing the stars, and hearing the breeze pull at the tent. It’s sitting with my coffee in the morning and watching the last stars fade out, the light grow until the sun peeks her head above the horizon.

Campsite
Fixing another cup of coffee

Big Bend National Park. It happens to be my personal park.

No, really. I have been many times, simply because it was the closest big western landscape to Houston. I can go and get my desert, big sky, big rock fix in less than a week — if I have to do so.

When I came here with Drew in 2010, it was before he was diagnosed with cancer. On the Lost Mine trail, there is a vista that opens up between the peaks in the Chisos mountains and the desert stretches out into the far distance. I told Drew that right there, that spot, behind the big rock we sat on as we enjoyed the view, that would be where to bring my ashes when I died. He looked at me and said, “it’s perfect. That’s what I want, too.”

We thought we would live to be . . . well, old. I promised to chase him around the breakfast table when we were eighty.

Life had other plans for us though, and we took them as gracefully as we could. We talked several times about where he wanted me to take his ashes when he died. He never wavered.

Drew on our rock, Lost Mine Trail, 2010
Drew on our rock, Lost Mine Trail, 2010

Wasn’t he a beautiful man? I did go spread his ashes in January of 2014. Several of his siblings were able to join me, and it was a very special pilgrimage.

View from the Lost Mine Trail in Big Bend
The view from our rock

So now the fedora rides shotgun with me. This time, my trip was not about ashes and it was not about mourning. It was about feeling the Big Bend again and being very, very alive.


 

Thank you for visiting — for other articles on life and travel, browse the home page:

 

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Ann Fisher