Desert Traditions
…where new journeys into life, tradition & culture begin

Travels with DH Lawrence and Friends

When DH Lawrence accepted an invitation to stay with Mabel Luhan Dodge in Taos, New Mexico, he set in motion a chain of events that gave rise to one of his most insightful works. In the long run it proved to be a fraught relationship and ended badly for the ambitious patroness who had seen an opportunity to give a credible voice to her ‘Bohemian’ views. Some 80 years later I set off on the writer’s trail. I travelled with a well thumbed copy of ‘Mornings in Mexico’, three Australian companions and a desire to trace a journey that would lead us from New Mexico to ‘old’ Mexico well south of the border. Along the way we would encounter the legacies of some of Mabel’s other guests including the painter Georgia O’Keeffe.

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Mabel & Tony’s House, Taos © Carole Douglas 2014

True to the writer’s own journey, ours began in Santa Fe before driving to Taos – melting pot of American Indian, Spanish Colonial, the Wild West and various forms of counter culture. And just as Lawrence did in 1922, we took the High Road that winds up and through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the high desert, mountains, forests, small farms, and tiny Spanish Land Grant villages and Indian Pueblos (villages). Today the road is a paved highway and not a stony dirt track and is now a recognised arts trail dotted with galleries and studios of traditional artisans and artists drawn to the area’s solitude and scenery. The road eventually led us down into onto plains dominated by Taos Mountain residing over the land like an ancient warrior. Indeed, the Indians of the Taos Pueblo who have lived at its foot for a thousand or more years, regard the mountain as sacred. It was this presence, this concentration of forces, that attracted not only Mabel Dodge but also the artists who ‘colonised’ the area in the early 20th Century. As one painter described it: ‘You can’t argue with those desert mountains, and if you live among them enough, like the Indian does, you don’t want to. They have something for us much more real than some imported art style.’

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Canyon (Rift Valley?) on the road to Taos © Carole Douglas 2014

It was from the foot of this mountain that the visionary Mabel Luhan Dodge plotted to create a new Western civilisation. Hers is a fascinating story to be told at length another time; enough to say that when the heiress moved to Taos she fell in love with the place and with local Pueblo chief, Tony Lujan (Luhan). They eventually married and together created the huge adobe house that is now a rambling guest house sought after by those who seek differences. The house sprawls amongst abundant gardens and large trees and a nearby church was immortalised by painter Georgia O’Keeffe who stayed in the house for some time. I love its sense of comfort and especially the rooms named after the people who once occupied them – I am angling for the O’Keeffe room in July. I want her to haunt me at night and ignite my latent talents! One can take one’s pick – the entire house is imbued with the spirits of cultural icons such as Aldous Huxley, Dorothy Brett, Carl Jung, Leopold Stokowski and of course the Lawrences. Mabel’s main motive in seeking their presence was to immerse them in the Indian culture that she believed would heal the ills of modern society. The rest is herstory! It’s a relatively short drive back to Santa Fe along the ‘low road’ that follows the Rio Grande – if one hurries (and we did not) – and to the landscapes immortalised by Georgia O’Keeffe. Just as the Lawrences did, O’Keeffe soon tired of her hostess’s dominating ways and made her move – first to Ghost Ranch and later to Abiquiu where she lived and worked until her death on March 6th 1986.

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The low road to Santa Fe along the Rio Grande © Carole Douglas 2014

During our visit The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe was exhibiting the landscape works of photographer Ansel Adams alongside O’Keeffe’s paintings. It was great to see the same subject matter through these great artists’ respective lenses. And then, in between and after the Santa Fe Opera and the International Folk Art Market, we toured O’Keeffe’s home and studio at Abiquiu and were later entranced by humming birds as we ate black bean soup and corn bread at the nearby Inn. I had studied O’Keeffe during art school and it was an extraordinary experience to wander through her painted hills and to match paintings to place. I was (temporarily) tempted to abandon my companions and wander off into the purple, red and ochre distance! Instead I sat on O’Keeffe’s couch, until I was told to move, and imagined her sitting beside me!

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Ghost Ranch guide with O’Keeffe painting of the scene behind © Carole Douglas 2014

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International Folk Art Market attracts artisans from more than 150 countries © Carole Douglas 2012

And as for Mexico? We did find DH Lawrence’s house at 600 Pina, Oaxaca, and with book in hand, we traced his journey to the village of Huayapa where he bought oranges with great difficulty and ate them by a bubbling (or should that be babbling) brook. Unlike Lawrence, we did not walk and there was no market that day – however we found the church and a stream or two. We also found a place caught in time; shepherds still wander the narrow dirt roads with their animals and there are still tempting oranges weighing down trees. In the end, I like to think I did walk in DH Lawrence’s footsteps. Mornings in Mexico sits on my desk and when I read the words I am transported to another time and another place.

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Huayapa today – a place caught in time © Carole Douglas 2014

‘Not a soul anywhere. Through the fences, half deserted gardens of trees and banana plants, each enclosure with a half hidden hut of black adobe bricks crowned with a few old tiles for a roof, and perhaps a new wing made of twigs. Everything hidden, secret, silent …’

Excerpt from essay, Walk to Huayapa, from collection, Mornings in Mexico by DH Lawrence.

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A field under cultivation, much as DH Lawrence would have seen © Carole Douglas 2014