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Insight

Geography

Report from the Faraway: Plaza Blanca

May 8, 2020

Giustina Renzoni

“We’ve had a week of White Place days – the bright blue sky, the clean edges on all the horizon”

In 2015, I embarked on a solo road trip from Northern Colorado to Northern New Mexico. Although I had been several times before, I had never made it out to Abiquiú, the mysterious place where Georgia O’Keeffe spent most of her life. I left Santa Fe one early morning in May and drove along route 285 without a real plan. I dreamed of touring O’Keeffe’s Home & Studio or riding a horse around Ghost Ranch. As a broke graduate student, these goals were a bit too far out of reach.

Instead, I drove around without any directions hoping to stumble upon Plaza Blanca (the White Place), a geological landscape that I read was unlike any other in the Southwest. Surely there would be signs, right? And wouldn’t gigantic white rock formations be hard to miss? It turns out I assumed wrong. Thankfully, a kind cashier at Bode’s General Store in Abiquiú gave me detailed directions. I jumped back in my car, drove down an unpaved county road until I saw the glorious gate that meant I was close to my destination. After driving down an even bumpier road to the parking area, I finally arrived at Plaza Blanca. With no other cars, people, or animals in sight, I walked down the hill towards the looming white cliffs.

It was not until I started working at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum that I learned how truly special the White Place was to Miss O’Keeffe. Her many visits even inspired several paintings. Thinking back to those first moments, I wonder if she felt the same sense of anticipation as she walked into the arroyo[1]. Was she overcome with the grandiosity of the rocks? The stillness of the desert? The sounds of the crows flying overhead?

Georgia O'Keeffe walking through the white rock formations of Plaza Blanca. She is shown from behind and the photograph is in black and white.
Georgia O’Keeffe walking at the White Place, New Mexico, 1957, photographed by Todd Webb © Estate of Todd Webb, Portland, Maine, USA

With every step, I felt my breath slow and my mind clear. I walked back into the canyon. I walked until the rocks slowly closed around me and I could walk no further. At no point did I feel claustrophobic. Instead, it felt like the earth was tenderly holding me in its arms.

I made my way up the rocks until I reached a flat area where I could sit and take in the view.
With an expansive blue sky overhead, I could see for miles and miles, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains looked like little snow-capped hills off in the distance. As I looked around, I thought that these limestone walls provided a gentle reminder: they had been here for centuries before me and would continue to be here after I left.
Image of the vista from Plaza Blanca looking east towards the Sangre de Cristo Mountains

I wished I could feel that sense of awe and wonder every day. Little did I know, just a few years later, I would be living in Abiquiú, on that same county road that led me to Plaza Blanca the first time around. However, since moving here, I have learned that you do not need to visit Plaza Blanca to feel the awe and wonder. It is all around you everywhere you go — the birds outside your window, the blossoms on the old apple tree, the smell of soil after a summer rain.

While I do enjoy visits to Plaza Blanca, simply stepping outside allows me to slow down and focus on the present moment. During these difficult times, I find it especially comforting to turn to nature to remind myself that I am a tiny being in a gigantic universe.

It is surreal to stand in front of a rock formation that Georgia O’Keeffe painted but no matter where you are right now, you too can have a White Place day – simply by looking closer at the world around you, feeling the sunshine on your face, and holding onto an ever-present sense of adventure.

Plaza Blanca is located on the property of the Dar-al Islam Education Center. Plaza Blanca is both monumental and fragile. If you are fortunate enough to visit, please be gentle and follow ‘Leave No Trace’ principles.

[1] Arroyo is a word used in the Southwest to describe a small steep-sided watercourse or gulch with a nearly flat floor. It is usually dry except after heavy rains.