October means Halloween, and its not that I dont believe in ghosts, its just that I havent met any. So this year, I chose to live for a week at Ghost House on Ghost Ranch in New Mexico to see what spooks and goblins might come by. Staying in a century-old adobe house beneath the long, arching limbs of an ancient cottonwood, I had a few surprises, especially after dark.
Waking up in Ghost House under a wooden ceiling with six crossbeams and the sound of mourning doves, I felt refreshed. In keeping with tradition at Ghost Ranch, now an education and retreat center, none of the doors had locks. Vertical logs stood in the corner fireplace, and the pine furniture sported floral motifs and dentils carved into the beds baseboard. The bedposts had been smoothed by countless hands, and I opened the swing-out windows to view a cerulean New Mexico sky.
Startled by muffled voices, I went to the bathroom and realized people were on the other side of the wall in the public part of Ghost House, which is used for meetings and small conferences. At twilight, I heard the rustle of dry leaves beyond my deep-set wooden screened windows. The traditional turquoise-painted window frames warded off spirits.
I stepped outside to see a crescent moon and a single star above it. From the enclosed patio, I had a view of Cerro Pedernal, the dominant flat-topped mountain visible from almost anywhere in the Piedra Lumbre, or the Cliffs of Shining Stone. Georgia OKeeffe sketched the peak countless times because she said God had told her she could have the mountain if she painted it enough. Surely she must have known local stories about witches on full moon nights taking unsuspecting victims to dance with the devil on that mountaintop.
I took a quiet walk and thought I had shut the outside door, but when I returned in darkness, the historic wooden five-panel door stood wide open. Bats fed on insects, leaves rustled overhead, and I thought I saw something move in the huge tree above me, but I brushed it off as my active imagination. I felt the structures projecting wooden vigas hewn by hand axes and stepped down into the old house for my second night alone.
In the Ghost Ranch library, I researched the thieving, murderous Archuleta brothers, who in the 1880s or 1890s built the house I was staying in. If only those adobe walls could speak. According to all accounts, the two brothers with one wife and a daughter chose this out-of-the-way spot and side canyon beneath the cliffs of the Piedra Lumbre to conceal their cattle-stealing activities, and woe to any stranger who sought shelter for the night. Many drovers disappeared on their way north from Española and Abiquiu toward Chama.
Area residents would get wind of stolen livestock and missing persons and occasionally rally the sheriff and deputies. Fourth-generation Abiquiu folk artist Leopoldo Garcia explained, The posse would ride up and see figures tied and hanging in the trees, swinging in those tall cottonwoods, and turn and ride away not knowing it was only dummies.
Arthur Pack in his memoir We Called It Ghost Ranch wrote, In a narrow canyon just outside the Piedra Lumbre grant boundary they built a stockade of cedar posts plastered with mud and straw, which we later came to know as Ghost House; they channeled water out of Yeso Canyon and discovered this was a good place to hide stolen livestock.
The Packs bought the ranch in the 1930s complete with aging adobe houses, rusted barbed wire fences and plenty of ghost stories. Pack said they had a difficult time hiring ranch hands because of the evil spirits which all the native people were sure haunted the Ghost Ranch. One elderly Hispanic woman claimed to have been born in Ghost House, and she told Pack about all the witches who lived there. She described earth babies who grew to 6 feet long, were covered with red hair and howled at night. Occasionally she had seen cows with wings flying down the canyon at dusk.
She claimed her father, one of the notorious Archuleta brothers, had hidden some gold he received for stolen cattle in an olla or clay jar near the adobe ranch house. In a heated dispute about sharing the buried treasure, her uncle had murdered her father over the gold and then dug numerous holes around the house searching for it. Her uncle threatened to feed her to a 30-foot-long snake named a Vivaron if she uttered a word.
But my mother, the woman said with a smile, she fool him. She take me on a burro that night a long way off to San Juan Pueblo. We live there many years. The murdering uncle was finally hung by a posse that overcame its fears and tossed a braided lariat over the outstretched limb of a stately cottonwood. After years of scaring passers-by with dummies hung from trees, the evil brother had finally joined them. The house he built, I was sleeping in, and the tree he probably hung from stretched its massive limbs outside my door.
I was getting used to the squeak of old brass hinges and the sound of doorknobs that took a skeleton key, but I was disturbed when the black polished knob came off in my hand one night. Remodeling Ghost House, workers found animal bones under the wooden floor and ground squirrels in the jacal walls. Ghost Ranch Contracts Manager Gary Salazar told me, Often people who stay there hear noises, and I have to check it out in the middle of the night. Some guests we have to move because theyre so upset. Some people hear and feel things like someone trying to get out of the old closet.
A couple of nights, I did not sleep well. I heard that ghost again up in the ancient cottonwood, and, fearing it was a returning Archuleta brothers ghost, I shined my flashlight into the top branches only to find another thief a raccoon with a piece of bread. Long after midnight, I was awakened by owls faintly hooting, and in the hour before dawn, coyotes tuned up.
During my week at Ghost House, I saw no ghosts, but I dont think Ghost Ranch is haunted. I think its about spirits the spirit of a beautiful place on the edge of the Colorado Plateau, rich in biodiversity with migrating birds, glowing walls of shining stone and stands of ponderosas set in deep canyons.
I saw no ghosts, but there were blue sparks in my room after midnight. Was it static electricity from my blankets, or was it a spirit still trapped among those thick adobe walls?
email@example.com. Andrew Gulliford is a professor of Southwest studies and history at Fort Lewis College.