America: Ghost Ranch, O’Keeffe haven endangered

GHOST RANCH, ABIQUIU, NEW MEXICO. This sweeping vista ranks among painter Georgia O’Keeffe’s most beloved subjects. She called it “my backyard” in the titles of some paintings, because her Ghost Ranch home looked out on these cliffs. At right is the towering Chimney Rock where an occasional hiker gets stranded, requiring emergency rescue teams. Photo: David Crumm.

GHOST RANCH, New Mexico. America’s most-seen-most-unknown landmark is in danger. You’ve seen it most recently in Billy Crystal’s “City Slickers,” Oscar-winning “No Country for Old Men,” the last Indiana Jones movie, Kevin Costner’s remake of “Wyatt Earp,” Tommy Lee Jones’ “The Missing,” a recent fashion layout in Vogue and in hundreds of eye-popping Georgia O’Keeffe paintings and sketches. Next year, you’ll see it again in Harrison Ford’s “Cowboys and Aliens.”

If you’re a scientist, you read about it in the December issue of “Science” magazine in an extensive article on the discovery of a new meat-eating dinosaur fossil. If you’re a spiritual seeker, you know that the famous Celtic-Christian writer J. Philip Newell, originally known for his work on the Isle of Iona in Scotland, has adopted this place as his signature American retreat center.

But you may not know that this remote 22,000-acre New Mexico haven of art, science, spirituality and some of the nation’s most beautiful pastel-colored cliffs and canyons is endangered. And you probably don’t know that this place is called Ghost Ranch.

Donated to the Presbyterian Church USA in 1955 by Nature magazine founder Arthur Pack, the cash-strapped denomination ended annual subsidies to Ghost Ranch’s operations in 2006. Ghost Ranch has multiple streams of revenue, including fees from retreat groups and room rents, but the facility’s annual $5 million operating budget still is running in the red each year to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars, according to new executive director Debra Hepler.

The chief crisis is that more than $4 million in deferred maintenance has produced serious problems with the adobe dwellings, rental rooms, dining hall, retreat facilities, water and sewage systems.

Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, Executive Director Debra Helpler.“People may think about all the Hollywood movies filmed here, the scientific discoveries over the years and the Georgia O’Keeffe house here and assume we’re doing fine,” Hepler said. “But all the on-site filming doesn’t amount to that much. Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig were just filming ‘Cowboys and Aliens,’ but all those site fees have never added up to more than $100,000 in any year and, this year, our total will be about $30,000 from Hollywood. Some of the scientists are talking with us about writing grants to establish a paleontology center here, but that hasn’t happened yet.”

In a tight economy when nearly all of us are worried about the financial future of our own families, according to a new University of Michigan survey, why should we care?

We included Ghost Ranch in our 9,000-mile American journey because it’s such an important America icon, but we have no vested interest in the place and we were surprised to discover the financial woes. Ghost Ranch’s problems are part of a pattern of financial crises at many nonprofit historical sites nationwide.

We’re reporting this story as an example of those crunches across the U.S. right now and, most importantly, because readers are so eager to read about Ghost Ranch. After earlier stories were published about our American itinerary, we began getting heartfelt notes from readers about the place. Ghost Ranch has hosted hundreds of thousands of visitors for reunions, teen-age summer camps, art programs, spiritual retreats, training courses and short-term volunteer programs, so Ghost Ranch partisans are scattered across the U.S.

One of the most passionate notes arrived from Debbie Bellovich of Grosse Pointe Farms, MI.

“I can see the gates of Ghost Ranch clearly in my mind,” an image that includes Ghost Ranch’s huge logo of a desert-bleached ox skull and horns, drawn by O’Keeffe herself. “I miss Ghost Ranch desperately!” Bellovich wrote.

Ghost Ranch is a place of healing and peace for our family,” Bellovich continued. A year after suffering the traumatic death of a family member in 2000, the rest of the Bellovich family traveled to Ghost Ranch for the first time on a church-related trip. “I immediately felt a sense of peace. We now return every summer. My husband, Keith, always volunteers as the doctor on the ranch in the week we visit. Volunteering at the ranch is a perfect fit for him because he always encourages his patients to find and maintain a mind-body-spirit balance. The land, nature and people of Ghost Ranch have tremendous healing properties.”

She’s not alone. Most readers simply wrote, “Can’t wait to read about Ghost Ranch,” or even sent us just a couple of words, such as “Sacred ground.”

As we walked around the ranch, everyone we stopped expressed similar thoughts.

Mary Ernsberger, from Greenbelt, Maryland, said, “This place has that quality of spirit that gives us calm and peace beyond what I can express in words. There’s a spirit of nature and the natural order here that the Ghost Ranch community has preserved and maintained for so many years.”

Barbara Mori, from San Luis Obispo, said, “I’ve traveled and lived in many parts of the world and I can tell you: There aren’t many places in the world like this. I spend my first morning here just watching the clouds change colors and the light hit the mesas. I love the quiet and serenity. Coming here over the years, I’ve gotten to know this landscape so well that when my son and I went to see ‘City Slickers,’ and Jack  Palance was dying, I suddenly said: ‘I know that place! It’s the horse trail at Ghost Ranch.’

“My son said, ‘How can you tell one corner of the desert from another?’ But I was right. This place has lifted my spirits too many times over the years for me to forget any of it.”

Bellovich closed her long email about Ghost Ranch with a free-verse ode: Why I Love Ghost Ranch. It goes like this:

No phones, internet, locks, keys.

My kids run free on their bikes for weeks.

They meet the most incredible, kind people.

The crunch of the gravel beneath my feet.

Sitting on an Adirondack chair and staring at the great mesa of Pedernal.

Hiking. Climbing. Listening.

Kids being kids.

Digging in the dirt.


Finding God in every corner of Ghost Ranch.

(Today’s photos and story by Editor David Crumm and his son Benjamin who are devoting 40 days and 9,000 miles to circling the United States and talking with Americans about what divides and what could unite us.)

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