Traveling Tintypes, Cosmic Caves, and Barefoot in the Bosque-Oh New Mexico

One of Ra's caves
One of Ra’s caves

New Mexico is a very intense place. The temperature can shift fifty degrees in one day and you can experience blinding hailstorms one moment and sunshine the next. The land is wild and gorgeous and fierce mirroring the people who live here. There is as much beauty as there is cultural devastation. Violence, poverty, and racial and class divisions run rampant and there are no easy answers.

Because I have spent more time with the land than the humans, my perspectives come more from that angle. I have grieved for the piles of debris dumped in the desert and ATV tracks scarring the earth, the blackened forests of dead piñon trees and what I can only imagine the scientists are up to at Los Alamos. And in the midst of all of this complexity, I have found a place that resonates with every fiber of my being. It’s a dream I did not know I was dreaming about, a place that I belong to. As this post was emerging I realized part of me has rose-colored glasses about my New Mexico experiences and I wanted to keep it real. I considered titling this post “I have died and gone to heaven (in New Mexico)-don’t try to email me.” Some may say it is both heaven and hell here.

Lumiere Traveling Tintype -coming to a town near YOU!
Lumiere Traveling Tintype -coming to a town near YOU!

The last week has seen a series of peak experiences that would each have been epic on their own, but they all got piled up and I am still swirling from their unique gifts. The first treat came by surprise surfing Instagram. I have been struggling with social media recently, it can be really distracting and I question the amount of time dedicated to it. But there I was, surfing my folks feeds and I almost jumped out of my skin when I saw that the traveling Tintype show, Lumiere Tintype from Austin, TX was going to be in Santa Fe in two days. I knew they were coming to Seattle later in the summer (September 2nd), but had not tracked the rest of the tour.

Traveling Tintypes coming to your town!!
Traveling Tintypes tour dates so far

Tintypes are incredible. They are so compellingly eerie with their chemical irregularities and when the eyes jump out the sitter looks like a disembodied ghost. How does it get any better than that? The session with Adrian Whipp of Lumiere was completely delightful. He reminds me of all of my London Calling punk rock friends from high school and his canine companion Ernie added to the unorthodox ambiance. We tried a couple of angles and both of the images gave me a George Hamilton Palm Springs tan. Filming the plates as they emerged added another element to the process and I could have spent all day playing photoshoot with Adrian. If I was not so chemically sensitive I would use the process in my own work. I have to settle for the faux version through Hipstamatic.


The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum was right around the corner from The Andrew Smith gallery where Adrian had set up shop and that stop added a whole new dimension to the best day ever. In a matter of moments, I was signed up for my dream tour of Georgia’s favorite geological haunts in Abiquiu and I got on the maiden voyage of their first surprise “pop-up” tour into the cloistered research annex. I was going to see Georgia’s bones and stones!! The Director of Research Eumie Imm-Stroukoff who gave the tour was wonderful and we all wanted to spend weeks learning from her about this independent New Mexico icon.

Ojo cabin off the grid
Ojo cabin off the grid

The next day the Ojo Caliente valley called me and I stayed at a delightful little Airbnb cabin off the grid on the banks of the Rio Ojo Caliente. Located in a Bosque ecosystem, it is a fertile lowland forest found between the land and water in the floodplains of southwest waterways.  It is covered in soft silty soil washed out of the river, and Dave the land keeper said they have very few goats’ heads (little spiked grenades of hell for feet and paws from the Bindii plant) so you can easily go barefoot. Driving into the property hundreds of huge grasshoppers flew in every direction making me think of Maria Yraceburu’s teaching that the grasshoppers are the ancestors. Hello, ancient ones!  Another wanderlust woman was also staying at the Airbnb, and she became part of a once in a lifetime experience that seems to happen more than once in New Mexico. Maybe visiting the land of enchantment is like being hit by lightning, you are more prone to being struck again after the first hit.

Tree of Life cave through Hipstamatic
Tree of Life cave through Hipstamatic

Another beyond amazing thing in New Mexico is the cosmic sandstone caves created by a man called Ra. He digs them by hand and they truly need a different title than ‘cave’ because you could never imagine that something usually considered dark, low, and dank could actually turn out like this. A documentary film called Cave Digger was made a couple of years ago about his mythical dedication to his craft. Most of his temples are on private land so they are not accessible. Seven years ago I got to visit three of them and have yearned to see more. I told my new adventure sister from the Bosque about the caves and she found out from a local that one of the caves was publicly accessible. A disclaimer here, I am not opposed to light trespassing. That means no one actually lives there and it will not hurt or damage anyone or anything, just exploring. This was going to be light trespassing because we were told the owner lives in Mexico and the sheriff turns a blind eye to people hiking up there.


My adventure buddy and I misunderstood the directions and ended up peeking in the windows of a private, locked cave nearby. She headed back home after our jaunt thinking we had been thwarted and then I found out we were in the wrong spot! There are two other caves nearby with Ra’s signature cave The Tree of Life that was supposedly the open one. Again almost jumping out of my skin with excitement I headed into the desert in the middle of the afternoon to find it. I found a smaller locked one and looked in the window taking a few shots and then as I was headed back I heard a group of folks chattering away and then silence. They had obviously headed into the big cave. I followed where I last heard them and went in where it seemed too oddly obvious to go before. (Don’t ask, sometimes the obvious does not seem correct; trickster Spirits wish things to roll out in a certain order and we are all susceptible to their wily ways).


As I headed into the hidden cathedral there were five folks cleaning things up. Damn, if I had gone into this one directly I could have caught the little altars covering every available surface. It was an odd thing to have them tidying the space. They clearly felt really good about their service and were disgusted with the debris and disrespect they perceived. What they seemed to be missing is that this is a temple, and for people to engage with it on any level brings something to them. They may be smoking crack or scrawling their names in the sandstone walls, but a place this penetrated with Spirit has a major presence and it affects us if we know it or not. Luckily they left soon after offering me any of the offending candles and sacred items out of their wooden collection box.


For the next hour or so I was enthralled with taking photos from any and every angle and would have spent another three to four hours if another person didn’t turn up. I was deep in creativity and heard a man’s voice call in. I called back and coming out there was this southwest cowboy with a drill in his hand. I grinned and said it looked like he had come to do some job. He was very polite calling me “ma’am,” and said this is private property and that there has been a huge amount of vandalism since January and he needs to secure the door. The owner (he said a female and my other informant said the owner was male and had relocated to Mexico) was really unhappy and wanted to open it to the public next year. He said people had taken a blow torch to the bulletproof glass in the door to break in. That’s pretty motivated to get into this otherworldly sanctuary. He asked me to leave, offering me a ride down in his truck so he knew I was gone. On the way down I told him about the Grand Central Station aspect with the people “cleaning up” and he said the box they took was the owner’s special items for meditating in the cave. That added a whole new dimension to the decluttering folk’s situation, it made me think about feeling righteous about doing something and it may have different consequences than we think. Pious is in the eye of the beholder. Overall it all seemed perfectly normal in a completely extraordinary environment. Here are a few of the images captures in Ra’s Tree of Life cave, and the next blog post will continue this best week every with hidden cemeteries and abandoned houses. The land of enchantment certainly lives up to its name.






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