Returning “Home” to Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, by Rex Taylor Stewart

(Many years ago, I shared a summer of volunteering at Ghost Ranch, an education and retreat center in northern New Mexico that was affiliated with the Presbyterian Church until 2017. I worked alongside many new friends, including Rex Stewart and Carol Rogers. That experience and the Ranch itself cast a long and powerful shadow over our lives. When I saw through Facebook that the two of them had recently returned to that enchanting place, I asked Rex to share his impressions. His words speak to the age-old question: Can we ever really go home again?)

Recently, I was able to return to the beautiful high mesas of Northern New Mexico and the spectacular cliffs surrounding Ghost Ranch Conference Center. Every time I go there, I am transported back to my first glimpses of that sacred terrain. I was a college student in 1978 about to begin a summer of volunteering as part of Ghost Ranch’s annual college staff. The contrast of the yellows, oranges, reds, and browns of its cliffs and mesas reaching up to that impossibly brilliant blue sky took my breath away; I fell in love.

Later, I was to meet the love of my life, my partner and wife, Carol Rogers, who also worked on the college staff. We became part of an extensive network of friends and family who were all touched by Ghost Ranch magic, a place that unleashed my creativity and consciousness in ways that are hard to describe. Meeting people who valued others and the beauty of nature liberated me from my overwrought anxieties about trying to save the world. I learned to breathe deeply and soak in God’s creation as I hiked the landscape, swam in Abiquiu Lake, lay on the ground in my sleeping bag searching the night skies for shooting stars and satellites, and having deep conversations with new friends.

Four decades later, many of those friends are still close and cherished. Nowadays, however, they have moved away from the Ranch to create lives, careers and families of their own, just as Carol and I have done. Things have inevitably changed at Ghost Ranch since those early, formative days. Such is life—ever shifting and evolving.

And so, returning “home” to the Ranch no longer feels the same as when our old friends lived and worked there. No one there remembers us from our three summers spent working as volunteers in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Going back now feels like when I visited my childhood home in Iowa and introduced myself to the current occupants. Even though they graciously allowed me to enter and look around, it clearly was no longer my home, nor would it ever be again. There’s a sadness and sweetness in such moments, and it’s clear to me now that it is the people as much as the place that make our memories so dear.

What I have decided to do when I return to the Ranch is to put aside my expectations of reunion with beloved friends who knew us back then, even though that occasionally happens. I let myself fall in love all over again with the experiences of new people amid the timeless beauty of those cliffs, mesas, and grand vistas across the valley toward Pedernal, the flat-topped mountain Georgia O’Keefe loved to paint. Rather than looking for our old friends, gazing past the faces of those who are there now, I can meet and enjoy new acquaintances. One can never have enough good friends, right?

No, it will never be the same as it was. What is? Even the cliffs and pinnacles surrounding the conference grounds–recognizable as background scenery in so many Hollywood westerns—have changed in subtle ways over time.

Nothing ever stays the same, but it is beautiful nonetheless.

Rev. Dr. Rex T. Stewart is Pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Youngstown, New York. You can visit their website here or visit Rex on Facebook here. Rex took the photos featured in this story.

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