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Witness to creation -- and destruction

Between HEAVEN AND EARTH, THE PRESBYTERIANS HAVE a lot on their hands, and you can find 21,000 acres of it here, 65 miles northwest of Santa Fe.

At its highest points, Ghost Ranch rises as a set of chalky red slopes, slopes that you know you’ve seen somewhere before. At its lowest points, along the Chama River, a thousand cottonwoods wear their fall robes of gold.

The place is high-desert gorgeous, and the Presbyterian Church, which owns it, has been running it for nearly 50 years as a conference center: about 50 acres of buildings and a whole lot of open space.

“Thirty square miles,” says Jean Richardson, the Ghost Ranch development director. “We’re the size of Manhattan.”

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But there are unseen layers here, and skeletons in the closet.

Skeletons and skulls. This is where painter Georgia O’Keeffe came every summer from the 1930s to the 1980s. Its steer skull logo came from her, and her red-sloped mountainscapes came from it. But that’s only half of why I’m here.

As a Spanish land grant, this corner of northern New Mexico was called Piedra Lumbre (Shining Stone). Its reputation as a spiritually charged territory was in place long before O’Keeffe ever headed west from New York. In the 18th century, settlers and Indians whispered about the sorcerers and witches thought to control this valley. In the late 19th century, when the Archuleta brothers ran it as a cattle ranch, the whispers turned to stolen cattle and murdered travelers -- and then one brother murdered the other.

“It was sort of like the ‘Silence of the Lambs’ Ranch,” says Richardson.

Once new owners came in and set the property up as a dude ranch, the spooky reputation died down. And then O’Keeffe turned up, first as a renter, then owner of a seven-acre plot.

Living alone in a low-slung adobe, O’Keeffe painted the hills, bones and antlers, the cottonwoods in all seasons, the yucca and cactus blossoms in lurid bloom.

She was, they say, as difficult as her work was inviting. In 1955, when Ghost Ranch owner Arthur Pack told her he’d donated most of the ranch to the Presbyterian Church, O’Keeffe threw a tantrum and told him he should have given it to her instead.

Give Pack credit for aiming higher; he hoped the scenery would turn a visitor’s thoughts toward God and help promote peace. And give the Presbyterians credit for shouldering a load. Along with its lodgings and conference rooms, the ranch has grown to include two small museums (anthropology and paleontology), a library, a pool, a couple of campgrounds and a roster of secular and spiritual courses -- including multicultural congregational leadership and the theology of Harry Potter.

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It gets about 20,000 visitors a year, some Presbyterian, some not, and has a smaller sibling facility in Santa Fe. Faced with expenses of about $4 million a year and dwindling support from the church, management is looking to lure more visitors, especially younger ones, especially in the cold, lonely weeks between October and April.

But that’s not why I’m here, either.

The first time I hiked on this ranch, years ago, I knew nearly none of its history, but immediately imagined I understood O’Keeffe better. Then, just a few weeks ago, I came across a 62-year-old tidbit that turned all that sideways and brought me back.

In early 1942, back when O’Keeffe was on the scene, a team of FBI agents turned up. They interviewed the Packs and all the other regulars. Soon after, new guests began arriving. Secret guests, with assumed names. These were the atomic scientists of the Manhattan Project in nearby Los Alamos, and the ranch became their off-campus retreat.

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They mostly kept to themselves, writes ranch historian Lesley Poling-Kempes in “Valley of Shining Stone: The Story of Abiquiu.” But after the 1945 bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Pack family learned that the guys talking physics in the dining hall included Richard Feynman, Edward Teller and J. Robert Oppenheimer.

O’Keeffe’s blooms and Oppenheimer’s booms -- all made possible, at least in part, by these same hills at the same time.

So you wonder. In their strolls, did the physicists pass a squinting, sun-worn artist? Did she grumble? Flirt? Did they glimpse, on her easel, an ominous skull, or one of her strange desert skies, all crowded with clouds?

Once you know all this, running the the ranch seems a heavier burden. And the ranch’s 1 1/2 -mile hike to Chimney Rock seems a necessary act.

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I start at 8 on a stinging-cold morning, late October, and clamber through the dirt and brush until the Chama Valley yawns before me. Beyond it stands Cerro Pedernal, the dark, flat-topped peak that O’Keeffe called “my private mountain.... God told me if I painted it often enough I could have it.”

That Georgia. Always angling for real estate.

I climb and scramble and emerge atop a red ridge, the trail head 500 feet below, clouds of graphite hovering about 6 inches overhead. I hear an unseen burro honk, the screech bouncing wall to wall to wall, and look over to Kitchen Mesa, where researchers have been digging up dinosaur bones 200 million years old.

At such a moment, a high, dry rock like this can seem wholly removed from human history. But boy, do I know better.

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The painter, the physicists, the pretty panoramas: They all connect. And the next time you come across a thoughtful hiker in the middle of some vast landscape, just think: Creation, destruction, inspiration, hubris -- there’s no end to what might be starting there.

To e-mail Christopher Reynolds or to read his previous Wild West columns, go to latimes.com/chrisreynolds.


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