Why should kids have all the fun?
What if there were a camp for grownup kids where they can hike, fish, swim, ride a horse, participate in an archaeological dig, sing in a chorus, practice yoga, swing from high and low ropes, rock climb, walk a labyrinth and nurture their inner artists with courses in mosaic making, silversmithing, weaving, metal sculpture, pottery, quilting, beading, stone carving, drawing, painting, photography, pastels and fused glass?
Sound impossible? Well, there is such a camp, and it’s right here in Northern New Mexico, on a 21,000-acre site that is surrounded by red, yellow, and white bluffs, and monumental stones carved by nature into fanciful shapes.
Every evening it is bathed in orange, pink and magenta sunsets. It’s Ghost Ranch, just outside of Abiquiú, and if it looks like a Georgia O’Keeffe painting, it’s because she lived and painted many masterpieces there. Like O’Keeffe, many city-weary adults head to Ghost Ranch for peace, tranquility, beauty and inspiration. If they have kids in tow, there’s a camp for them as well. It’s not unusual to have three generations arrive together and fan out for separate experiences.
Last week, I was one of the happy campers. Overwhelmed by work and responsibility, I signed up for a hot-fused glass class, tossed some comfortable clothes in a suitcase, and sighed deeply at the thought of seven days without phone calls (you have to drive down the road for cellphone access) or a computer (two or three buildings have wi-fi connections, but once I was snipping and grinding glass, who cared?). It was a great relief to know that someone else would do the grocery shopping and provide three cafeteria-style meals a day, so I could pick and choose what I wanted.
The fused glass class began with an introduction, by instructor Olive Smith, to unfamiliar words like drill press, circle cutter, nippers, dichroic glass, noodles, frit and stringers. Then she informed us that after 28 years of teaching at Ghost Ranch she was retiring, and her replacement, Katrina Jameson, would be steering the glass ship. Jameson had been Smith’s student at Ghost Ranch six years ago, and she was so inspired that she went home, changed her life and became a full-time glass artist in Colorado. Her story was echoed by other instructors: They came to learn, and they returned later as accomplished artists and instructors.
Jameson’s teaching style is signature Ghost Ranch — nurturing, encouraging, non-judgmental, working one-on-one with students, as hands-on or hands-off as you wish her to be. Every time she and Smith took our pieces out of the kiln after they had cooked all night, it was like Christmas morning. Heat and silica had their way with our creations, and despite our meticulous work, they fused and changed color and became what they wanted to be.
Sometimes we were surprised and delighted. Other times, we sighed, shrugged, and then selected new bits of glass to try again.
While we worked on our glass pendants, bracelets, earrings, belt buckles and wine stoppers, there was a soothing stillness in the room. Each student was focused on the moment, the glass, the cutting and grinding and polishing. For me, there were no past regrets or future anxieties. All that mattered was the piece of glass in front of me, and how it could be transformed through the magic of fire.
My husband, Paul, signed up for metal sculpture and his instructor, Tom Nichols, used to be a scrap-metal dealer. Now Nichols has students rummage through a huge pile of metal refuse to find material for their sculptures. He and co-instructor Connie Burkhart gently guide the neophyte sculptors as they don protective gear and operate torches that are almost as hot as the surface of the sun. I was agog when Paul turned a rusted oil drum lid and steel piping into a powerful 5-foot-tall sculpture that admirers offered to buy for their gardens.
The glass fusers, metal sculptors and other art explorers I met ranged in age from 12 to 92. Many had no previous experience in the art medium of their choosing. They had come to learn new skills or burnish old ones. Some of them came alone; others were accompanied by spouses, friends or family members who signed up for other courses or opted for R&R — sitting under a tree, walking, reading, admiring the interplay of light and shadows on the bluffs.
One night after a rainstorm, we hitched a ride back to our room with a stranger. It was dark and we couldn’t see her face, but she spoke to us from the heart.
“I’ve been coming to Ghost Ranch for over 50 years,” she told us. “And you’ll meet people who have been coming longer than that. It’s so welcoming, and beautiful, and every time I drive through the entry gate, I feel like I am coming home.”
She was not the only one who called Ghost Ranch home. Archaeological evidence reveals that humans inhabited the area for at least 8,000 years, and the Jurassic Age cliffs were laid down about 165 million years ago. Fifty million years before that, Ghost Ranch was a subtropical site covered by rivers, streams, and floodplains, and the on-site Ruth Hall Paleontology Museum contains bones and teeth of dinosaurs and other long-extinct reptiles like the Coelophysis, which is the New Mexico state fossil.
In the dining room, at long, communal tables, I met several guests who had come for what one described as “spiritual renewal.” The Presbyterian Church owns and operates Ghost Ranch, but guests of all religions and spiritual persuasions come to partake in prayer services, night sky meditations, theological courses or the magnificent church of nature.
On the last night, there is a display of the art produced by all the students. Walls and tables are covered with jewelry, quilts, metal work, glass, pastels, stone sculpture and paintings. It’s an overwhelming tribute to human creativity and ingenuity.
After the art show, the chorale group performed two masses. The first was composed by Joseph Haydn in the 18th century. Sitting in the audience was a sacred experience, as the soloists pierced the heavens with their high notes and soothed the soul with their low ones. And then, the group fast-forwarded to 200 years later, when Robert Ray wrote his “Gospel Mass.” The singers rocked and swayed exuberantly, as the audience clapped along.
“Joy is a form of prayer,” I mused aloud.
“Coming to Ghost Ranch is a form of prayer for me,” the woman next to me responded.
And if you can’t get there during the summer, camp courses are offered yearlong.
Judith Fein is an award-winning travel writer and author based in Santa Fe. Her website is www.Globaladventure.us