Some time back I attended what was supposed to be a Georgia O’Keeffe exhibit at the Colorado Springs Fine Art Museum. There were O’Keeffe pieces, but most of the exhibition was made up of her contemporaries. There was a film which depicted many scenes from her later life after husband, Alfred Stieglitz died. In the film she is often depicted walking alone amongst rich red canyons and tall white cliff faces adorned only in her trademark black. A woman sitting on a viewing couch next to me whispered to her friend, “What a lonely woman.”
O’Keeffe, interviewed in the film, couldn’t have described herself any less lonely if she tried. She was a woman completely at peace with her solitary, creative nature. Her eyes are serene staring at the desert sand. Her fullness seemed palatable to me, as the old celluloid film fed out at the end.
That fullness is what is lingering in my mind as I awaken. It remains dark and utterly silent as my feet touch the floor of my bedroom. O’Keeffe appears to still walk the cliff faces of my dreams and it seems wrong to turn on the lights. I see her standing dark against the red stone faces and I feel her satisfaction. I know instinctively her joy. This is what energizes me to leave early for the trail knowing the sun would turn last week’s snow into mud soon enough.
Steam plumes out from my nostrils and I resist the urge to stay inside the warm car. I wrap my scarf about my head and step into the canyon. The parking lot had been empty and I saw no one ahead on the path. The sky is still it’s deep dawn blue, not warmed by a sun that has yet to crest the hogback ridge. Temperatures remain close to freezing and frost dusts every blade of grass.
Though there is a part of my brain that loves to rail against physical discomforts, my spirit is brimming with joy. I love the early morning hours and feel immensely proud for having managed to pull myself out of a perfectly cozy bed to done hiking boots and head out. It may not exactly be an act of courage, but it must qualify as a sign of a great adventurer.
I sense Georgia’s spirit all around me. Delighted to be free of the familiar and dropped into the cold boldness of a Colorado morning. As if listening to me a kestrel’s piercing call echoes off the far cliff face. It calls again and again. I wonder if it thinks another is calling back or if it delights in hearing it’s own voice return to it. I stand and listen for a few moments until the cold spurs me on.
Rabbits scurry into the brush and voles are heard digging beneath a thick autumn layer of fallen leaves. I see a coyote far off and have a moment of thinking I should hide to see if he’ll come closer, when I realize the ridiculousness of the idea. I’m in winter barren landscape dressed in a bright orange scarf and psychedelic running pants, surrounded by billows of steamy breath. If this is not enough of a calling card to the coyote’s keen eye, he surely has not missed the sound of my step upon dirt and gravel. He turns west and heads down the slope to the lake and glen below confirming my notions.
As expected the earth is rock hard and the signs of previous hiker’s slugged out journeys are quite evident now in footsteps frozen in mud. My body heats as I hike higher through the canyon, while my nose and face remain persistently numb with cold. I wrap the scarf tighter across my face and rub finger tips that are not fairing much better. A pair of mountain plovers seem to be following me along the trail with their soft peeping calls coming and going as I move. I occasionally see a head rise above prairie grass as if finding it’s bearings before it drops back down and disappears again into the field.
I marvel at how un-alone my aloneness is. Loneliness never comes to call sitting munching almonds between two yucca plants, as full now as they were in the spring. This is what Georgia knew. There is no aloneness in this harsh, barren space. Only fullness awaits my lone steps as I turn a corner disturbing sparrows, bellies full of winter berries. A mountain jay alerts the entire dale that I am upon the trail and a pair of nuthatches swoop my head as they dive into a thicket. I crest the ridge and morning rays hit my retinas full on and I stand wonderfully blinded by the light. Within moments my nose begins to run as my face thaws in winter’s only heat.
Like O’Keeffe I’ve come to accept that I need periods devoid of human contact. I hunger far more for nature’s peace, which isn’t really quiet at all. Something in the way the wind moves through the grasses quiets my inner world and heals my overwrought senses from electronic environments awash in fluorescents. This aloneness is not antisocial or agoraphobic. It has nothing to do with hiding in one’s home, avoiding the world, but more about engaging the earth at another level entirely. Winter brown leaves lacking the good sense to fall to the earth rattle in the thickets with each gust of wind and I could dance across the prairie, a winter’s sprite in delight. This is the fullness in Georgia’s eyes.
The wide open expanses, the calls of birds and the movement of who knows what amongst the thickets is a balm to my senses after a week working inside a hospital. Here the chattering calls of three magpies feels as if a divine hand has rested upon my thoughts, and pulled from me the sounds of monitors and staff chatter, phones ringing and the persistent clicks of computer keyboards. Even in winter’s pseudo-death there is so much life here that all the faces of those lost and suffering in hospital beds fades away into the silent creek.
As I come into the farther vale I rest my hand across the top of tall grasses my own kind of spiritual braille. I am remembering myself. Remembering my carefree nature that hears the squish of the first, sun-warmed mud puddle and knows life is really good. It may take me an hour to come back up the valley trail that crosses the ridge, but in that sweaty, muddy, jay-squalking journey I will feel the blood in my veins and rejoice in the good fortune of two fine legs. I will know myself the adventurer and revel in her singular nature.
I stuff the scarf, no longer needed into my pocket and look upon a squirrel whose cheeks are full of nuts he still hopes to bury. I am alone here and not alone at all. I am full and also empty. And so it is, I have dubbed this moment in my life, like Picasso’s Blue Phase, my Georgia Phase.