Yes, we are camping in O’Keeffe Country on my birthday! Our trailer sits right under that magic rock formation with the top shaped like a yellow cake at Echo Amphitheater overlooking the scenic O’Keeffe Country. On the east is Ghost Ranch where Georgia O’Keeffe’s former summer house is. Cerro Pedernal, an unusual short mesa, stands high above the southern horizon. It is American’s famous artist Georgia O’Keeffe’s favorite mountain. It is said that her ashes were scattered on Pedernal. After spending over 40 years painting this landscape, she finally became part of this country. That was her ultimate love of this country.
I was blessed by the wonderful birthday greetings from my family and friends on social media. A brand new day started when I woke up under my favorite tower. The vista of O’Keeffe Country was framed by the back window of the trailer. A man and several kids walked by and went hiking. After a while I saw the kids sliding down the hillside of the rock tower. “The vista might be better up there.” I thought. So I put up my shoes and walking sticks and set out to climb the tower at about 8 O’clock. The hillside is covered with loose red sand with a few plants. I climbed in a straight line at first but it was getting steep. The loose sand had little support under my feet. I looked around and walked to the right and kept climbing up.
When I reached the base of the red Chinle Formation, a steep red rock formation faced me. According to the interpretive sign of the park, this was part of the supercontinent Pangea dated back to 251 million years ago. A curvy crevasse that was covered with loose red sand seemed to be the way up. My favorite yellow cake rock formation looked like a golden castle from this angle. And it sat up there waiting for me. I lowered my body, held both walking sticks in my right hand to anchor my footing, and used my left hand to guide my way. When I got to a spot where I could stand straight, I turned around and looked down. Stephen was sitting in the chair by the Escape trailer. We waved to each other.
I climbed up to the top of Chinle Formation shortly. It is a low hill about 6o feet tall with a relatively flat top studded with some short junipers and pinyon pines. An old gnarled juniper grows on the red sand at the foot of the gorgeous tower. The tower was formed during Jurassic period (199-145 million years ago) and has layers of colors. The capstone, the chocolate frosting of the yellow cake, is the youngest Todilto Formation. The Entrada Sandstone consists the most beautiful yellow layer, as well as white and orange layer. Walked to the base of the tower and looked up, I noticed a narrow band of rock was sculpted like the decorations for the edge of a pie. Then I carefully walked to the edge of the hill and waved to Stephen again. A panoramic view of the valley was presented in front of me. Pedernal sits by Lake Abiquiu in the distance. Highway 84 runs through the valley. Across the highway is the hill at the back of Ghost Ranch. Half of the Echo Amphitheater was visible from this vantage.
Climbing down the hill was more difficult on the stiff rock formation because of the loose sand. I lowered my body and planted my shoes deep into the sand to get a good footing. After coming down the rock formation, I found a trail hugging the base of the Chinle Formation and followed it. It was sad to see some graffiti on the vertical rocks. The last stretch was fun. I used my walking sticks as supports to slide down the red sand hill.
Echo Amphitheater is at the southeastern side of the mountain range – Mesa De Las Viejas. Rio Chama river runs through Chama Canyon along the west of the range. A small sign for Monastery on the highway points to a narrow road. We decided to take a look. It was a one lane dirt road with turnouts. Christ of the Desert Monastery is 13 miles away. The road cuts through an open desert plain. The cliffs of the south of Mesa De Las Viejas have the same spectrums of colors as that of Echo Amphitheater. A couple of trailers were boondocking on a high ground overlooking this desert landscape. Soon a mesa with exposed ribbons of colorful rocks came in our vision. The road headed north along Rio Chama river. Small sandy hills with rusty red, purple and pale green deposits sat at the foot of Mesa De Las Viejas. They were as beautiful as the Artist’s Palette in Death Valley.
We stopped at Big Eddy Takeout in the Chama Canyon. Some people were unloading their kayaks on the parking lot. The happy Chama River carves its way around the rocky canyon and empties into Lake Abiquiu. The water was clear and cool. It was so nice to see a good size river in the desert. The drive became more scenic along the river. But the winding road became narrow with more switchbacks as well. There was traffic from the other way. And we always pulled over to the turnout and waited for them to go first. Mesas with painted rock formation line the west coast of Rio Chama. Some mesas also have layers of the beautiful yellow Entrada Sandstone. River greened up the trees, shrubs, and grass on the banks. Although it was a cloudy day, the new green color of cottonwood looked nice and complimented the colorful mesas. Rio Chama sang a song along its way. It had a low and slow tune most of the time with occasionally high and rapid notes on rocky and narrow riverbeds. Now I realized the colorful mountains in O’Keeffe’s paintings are real. And I found them in this mesmerizing Chama Canyon.
A dramatic cliff shaped like a big round yellow cake above the bank. But the view point was occupied by a family with a vehicle and a tent. We pressed on. The view on the east bank also kept us busy. A long and narrow wall of yellow Entrada Sandstone stood in front of the mountain range. Campers pitched their tents by the river, behind the blooming wild rose bushes. A few trailers were also seen camping on the campgrounds by the river. The free camping is the reward for bringing your rig here if you don’t mind driving on the narrow dirt road.
Finally, we arrived at the parking lot of Christ of the Desert Monastery. Walking towards the monastery, we passed a guest house overlooking this beautiful country. Who would have thought there is an oasis in the desert deep in the mountains? Magpies were flying around and a tractor idled on the farm field. Under the imposing colorful cliffs of Mesa De Las Viejas sits an isolated Roman Catholic monastery. It is a modest adobe style building with a cross on the top. Huge wooden framed wall windows like wings. A bell sits in an opening under the cross. An immaculate flower garden beautified its ground. Flowering trees peaked out from the private compound. That might be where the monks live and work. They make Monks Ale and other products. An Asian monk came out from the monastery and asked me if I was from Japan. He didn’t tell me where he was from but he welcomed me to look around and then got in his white car.
Opened the carved wooden door, my eyes were brightened by the natural light immediately. Cliffs were visible from the huge windows on the upper part of the walls. Another Asian monk was playing organ. Two elderly ladies were sitting inside. I quietly sat down at the very back. It is a small monastery with several rows of seats. An alter sat against the facing wall. It was quite peaceful sitting there listening to the organ. I took a short video of the monk who was playing the organ. He smiled at me and I returned him a smile. The gift shop has products made by monks, including cookies, honey, etc. It is nice that they live and work in this safe haven.
My days at O’Keeffe Country went fast. Everyday I walk passed the awe inspiring cliffs to the Echo Amphitheater and spend some quiet time there. It is a nature’s wonder. Water carved the spectacular cliffs and made this perfect half circle shaped natural amphitheater. It is a nature’s temple, so serene and so sacred when there were no others. A crow was flying under the giant amphitheater. The echo of its call made this place even more tranquil. O’Keeffe Country is indeed a lovely place that I would keep it in my heart dearly.