"Ah," I think, as I tear along the highway in my little, old, muffler-challenged car, "that’s what she meant." I continue past the undulating, almost erotic landscape, the color of charcoal and ash, and pull over next to the highway atop the next rise, right about where she would have first spied the hills through the windshield of her Model A Ford. Of that view, she wrote: “… as you come to it over a hill, it looks like a mile of elephants—grey hills all about the same size with almost white sand at their feet.”
“She” is Georgia O’Keeffe, one of the greatest American artists of all time, and this is the Black Place, which O’Keeffe visited and painted on dozens of occasions. As such, it may be the most famous and little known stretch of badlands anywhere. Though thousands of people pass by every day on the highway, very few slow down to actually look at or see the remarkable piece of landscape. Even O’Keeffe fans probably miss it, as many believe that the Black Place is in the Bisti Badlands, which lie north and west of here, and are protected as a wilderness area.
On a hot and surprisingly humid August day, in a short window between monsoon-driven storms, I climb out of the car and walk into the dunes, their crackled surfaces oozing warmth and, here and there, a shock of green topped with tiny yellow or red flowers. The landscape is surreal. Massive stones perch on impossibly tiny pillars of dirt, and geologic time here seems transparent — an empty Tokay bottle sits beside what looks like the remains of a Navajo sweat lodge built on layers of sediment deposited millions of years ago.
“Such a beautiful, lonely-feeling place,” O’Keeffe wrote, “part of what I call the Far Away.” Seven decades later it is still beautiful. And lonely, too. That’s in spite of, or maybe thanks to, the constant wail of cars and trucks passing on the highway, not to mention the droning buzz of a hydraulic fracturing operation nearby, which resembles a small village made up of tanker trucks, a few RVs and vaguely diabolical machinery, gleaming starkly against the burnished orange and grey dunes.
Back in the 1940s, as O’Keeffe mined the Black Place for inspiration, oil and gas drillers were already penetrating the region’s geologic formations in search of hydrocarbons. This is the San Juan Basin gas field, where some 40,000 wells have been drilled, making it one of the most productive coalbed methane fields in the world. Though some of those wells are near the Black Place, most were drilled a bit farther north, turning vast piñon and juniper forests into sprawling industrial zones. But when the market got glutted with natural gas, and prices crashed in 2009, the drill rigs mostly fled the San Juan Basin. Even local drilling companies sent their rigs to Pennsylvania, Ohio or North Dakota. The economy in Farmington, the basin's hub for the energy industry, withered.
But after the drill rigs sat dormant for a couple of years, they started popping up again in the San Juan Basin. Only this time they’re going after oil, not natural gas, with horizontal drilling and extensive hydraulic fracturing of the Gallup Sandstone/Mancos Shale formation. It’s not yet a basin-wide boom: My Baker-Hughes Rig Count app shows just seven active rigs in the basin, compared to nearly 200 active rigs in the Williston, North Dakota, vicinity. But it sure feels boomy in the basin’s current sweet spot, near the Black Place. The web of dirt roads around the small, mostly Navajo communities of Nageezi and Lybrook and the edges of Chaco Culture National Historical Park teem with mud-caked trucks, and flaring and lit-up rigs smother night’s darkness.
This concentrated mini-boom, which is expected to grow — WPX Energy, in particular, has plans for a lot more drilling in the region — has alarmed environmentalists, O’Keeffe fans and Navajo activists (the land here is a checkerboard of tribal allotments and tribal and federal and state land). But it's also been good for some landowners. Earlier this year, the State of New Mexico and the feds worked out a deal to expedite lease agreements between energy companies and allottees, Native Americans who received land from the federal government in the late 19th Century, with the Gallup/Mancos Shale oil in mind. That has resulted in more drilling, but also a chunk of change for allottees, many of whom desperately need the cash (though the financial impact is often diluted by fractionated ownership of allotments).
The O’Keeffe movement, spearheaded by Abiquiu photographer Walter Nelson, merely wants to limit energy development on 75 to 100 acres of land around the Black Place. It’s a modest goal, but one that garnered global attention after a Santa Fe New Mexican story was picked up off the national wires. But there’s a lot more at stake here: Badlands every bit as spectacular as the Bisti wilderness nearby; remnants of the Chaco culture that weren’t included in the park’s boundary; and the water and air of the people who have lived in the area for generations. In July, Duane Chili Yazzie, a longtime Navajo activist and candidate this year for Navajo Nation President, spoke out against the drilling before the U.S. Human Rights Network. “The damage is clear, irreparable and unconscionable,” he said.
It's probably useless to speculate about what O'Keeffe herself might have thought about the drilling. While she obviously had a deep appreciation for and connection to this particular landscape, her fondness was that of an artist, not an environmentalist, and her aesthetic sensibilities might have been more offended by the constant stream of highway traffic than the slow grind of a completed oil well.
The late summer afternoon ritual commences, and high puffy clouds coalesce into a grey almost as dark as these elephantine dunes. Time to go. Some seventy years ago, as a war raged in Europe and scientists on a mesa not far from O'Keeffe's home developed a weapon that could destroy worlds, the artist spent the night out here in a tent. When she awoke, this is what she saw:
It was a pale dawn, as dismal as anything I’ve ever seen— everything grey; grey sage, grey wet sand underfoot, grey hills, big gloomy looking clouds, a very pale moon … and still the wind.
Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at@jonnypeace.. He is based in Durango, Colorado, and tweets