The DH Lawrence Ranch, located 20 miles northwest of Taos, has been off-limits to the public for the last 10 years.
What was once a flourishing retreat for artists, students and Lawrence fans is now closed for business and pleasure. Yet despite that, I managed to get a rare tour of the place on a field trip sponsored by University of New Mexico Continuing Education.
Lawrence spent only a total of 11 months on the ranch, between 1923 and 1925, but his time there left its mark. “New Mexico was the greatest experience from the outside world that I ever had,” he once wrote. “It certainly changed me forever.”
David Herbert Lawrence was an English wordsmith whose racy novels titillated readers in England and America and sparked Puritan outrage in others. He died in 1930 at the age of 44, but the flap caused by his novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover landed his publisher in obscenity court and helped ignite the sexual revolution of the 1960s.
Lawrence first visited northern New Mexico in his late 30s with his wife Frieda, at the invitation of Mabel Dodge Luhan, a New York socialite and arts matron who lived in Taos. Luhan was enthralled by his writing and was hoping that he might write her into one of his novels.
Luhan owned 160 acres of land on Lobo Mountain near San Cristobal—formerly known as the Kiowa Ranch—and ended up trading the land and its buildings to Lawrence for the original manuscript of his novel, Sons and Lovers.
I had been trying desperately to visit the ranch for several years without success. Lawrence was one of the three superstars in my holy trinity of New Mexico immigrants, alongside Georgia O’Keeffe and Billy the Kid.
Ever since I downloaded The Lost Girl, Sons and Lovers and The Rainbow on my Kindle, I was particularly keen to visit the place: I was bowled over by Lawrence’s lyrical style and sexy prose. He combined words unlike any writer I had ever read and he took me to places in the heart that I had never been. EL James’ 50 Shades of Grey doesn’t hold a candle to Lawrence’s work.
After reading his books I hungered to visit his ranch and pay my respects. In short, I had become an obsessed fan.
I emailed the university’s provost at UNM, where I work, and I asked him why the place was off-limits to the public.
“The DH Lawrence Ranch is in pretty bad shape these days,” Chaouki Abdallah fired back. “It needs a lot of updating and up-keeping (many millions!) before it can be advertised.”
My big break finally came in last spring when Joan Cok, program supervisor of the Story of New Mexico!
Travel and Lecture Series, contacted the physical plant at UNM and somehow managed to arrange a field trip—the first of its kind—to the ranch. I registered for the $98 pilgrimage, and in one of two vanloads of Lawrence fans, headed north.
It was a grueling three-hour, 155-mile drive from Albuquerque to Lobo Mountain. At noon, we turned off New Mexico State Road 522 and onto DH Lawrence Road, a bumpy, six-mile dirt thoroughfare that twists, curves, rises and falls through arid hills inhabited by thirsty piñon trees.
We rattled over a cattle guard, passed sinister “No Trespassing” signs and, at 8,600 feet, arrived in a place that was noticeably greener and cooler than the arid plain below. Majestic ponderosa pines and a large pasture greeted us as we passed through a sturdy metal gate unlatched by Ricardo Medina, the UNM groundskeeper.
We parked near the front of a large two-story cabin, built by Frieda after Lawrence’s death, and were greeted by Rick Ruminski, a planner at the physical plant at UNM (which maintains the place) and Bill Haller, the president of the Friends of DH Lawrence, based in Taos.
Ruminski told us that electricity and gas were brought up to the ranch after Frieda willed it to UNM in 1956.
“That was a time when you could get things done without having to prepare a vast legion of legal documents,” Ruminski tells SFR.
UNM built a conference center that was originally used by the Peace Corps to teach mountaineering and Jeep driving. They rented it out to high school marching bands, international physicists, writers and others after the Peace Corps left town.
The university also moved cabins from the Los Alamos National Laboratory onto the ranch to accommodate visitors. These cabins were originally used by scientists who worked on the atomic bomb for the Manhattan Project.
“Life at the ranch for visitors to the cabins was primitive, but it was better than camping out,” Ruminski says.
“They had a heater and a stove and a bathroom, but they had to bring everything else.”
“It got so dark and so quiet when you were in those cabins and the sun went down,” he recalls. “We liked to come out here in the winter on a full moon when there was snow on the ground. You’d look up and see that Milky Way up [there], and you’d almost have to wear sunglasses.”
Public access to the ranch ended when the UNM biology department sampled for the presence of hantavirus from the deer mouse population and the results came up positive.
“The UNM legal department said, ‘You can’t continue to rent out the cabins unless you can guarantee that there are no mouse droppings inside,’” Ruminski explains. “So the university just shut ’em down because they were not that heavily used anyway. They were also pretty much rundown: They were only designed to last until 1942.”
I ask Ruminski if the university would be willing to accept outside donations in order to get the Lawrence Ranch up and running.
“Sure! Let me get out my tin can,” he jokes. “No, we’re working on it. As a matter [of] fact, the Taos Community Foundation has generously granted us some money. I’m not gonna hit anybody up, but that would be fine if we could turn this place into The Bill Gates Conference Center at the University of New Mexico. But right now, we are mainly concentrating on the cultural property: to see what we can do to stabilize them, preserve them and, after that, improve them as best we can.”
The “cultural property” is an area of about 10 acres encompassing the places that rabid fans like me were hungering to see. Ruminski hands us over to Haller to learn more about the ranch’s history.
Haller works at Cid’s Food Market, a health-food store in Taos. “Lawrence took me to places I’ve never seen before,” Haller says. “He helped me with my journey, though I’ve probably read more about Lawrence’s life than his literature.”
“This is not to say that I haven’t read his literature,” he continues. “But for some reason, I identify with his wanderlust because I have traveled the world over and I’m from a working-class family.”
Haller gives us a lengthy biography of Lawrence, from his birth to his liaison with his professor’s wife, Frieda Richthofen (a distant relative of the Red Baron).
When he gets to the part where Frieda and Lawrence arrive in Santa Fe on Sept. 11, 1922 (Lawrence’s 37th birthday), he leads our group up a trail and into a veritable DH Lawrence theme park.
Lawrence and Frieda lived in a rustic, three-room log cabin, known as the homesteader’s cabin. It was built from ponderosa pine and adobe bricks in the late 1800s. Sunlight pouring through its windows reveals a simply decorated interior heated by a fireplace. The building had a dirt floor during Lawrence’s time that has since been replaced with wood.
A towering ponderosa pine stands outside the front door of the cabin. It’s called The Lawrence Tree because it became the subject of a 31-by-40-inch oil on canvas painted by Georgia O’Keeffe in 1929. I lay down on the ground and stared at the sky through the tree’s branches and successfully recaptured that pivotal moment in art history.
A tiny, 100-square-foot dwelling, known as the Dorothy Brett Cabin, stands adjacent to the homesteader’s cabin.
In 1924, Lawrence tried to convince some of his English friends to return to New Mexico with him in order to create a utopian society he called Rananim, but only Dorothy Brett, a deaf artist (who owned an ear trumpet named Toby) would make the journey.
“Lady Brett” took up residence in the cozy one-room dwelling, where she typed Lawrence’s manuscripts and worked on her art. “She never married, but she was very close to Lawrence,” Haller says as we inspect the tidy interior of Lady Brett’s tiny cabin.
“The story goes: they met in a motel room one night, and basically, it failed. I don’t think it ever was consummated, for whatever reason. In the whole scheme of things, I don’t think it was really all that important to Lawrence, to Brett or to Frieda. They didn’t put as much importance into it as we do…you know, the sensationalism,” Haller says.
Next, we pay our respects by visiting Lawrence’s memorial. Although Lawrence died and was buried in Italy, Frieda had his body exhumed, cremated and sent back to the ranch. The memorial is housed within a white building with a pitched roof that one enters through a pair of sturdy wooden doors. We reach the one-room shrine by walking up a zigzagged concrete path that dramatically ascends a lightly forested hill.
Frieda wanted to store Lawrence’s ashes in an urn within the memorial, but Brett and Luhan were intent on scattering them. Frieda settled the matter by dumping his ashes into a wheelbarrow of wet cement, à la Jimmy Hoffa, and that became part of Lawrence’s altar.
Or so the story goes.
A statue of a phoenix standing on top of the altar bearing the initials “DHL” dominates the interior of the memorial, beneath a round, painted window. A framed letter from the American Consulate in Marseille, France, hangs on the wall, testifying to the authenticity of Lawrence’s ashes.
Frieda’s grave, marked by a large, engraved marble stone, guards the memorial’s entrance.
UNM’s Physical Plant has done a splendid job of preserving and restoring the cultural properties; the homesteader cabin and the Brett cabin are neat as a pin and bone dry. The Lawrence Tree appears healthy and happy. Any conservatory sins are minor, forgivable and easily reversible, like the modern metal guttering system that diverts water from the fragile foundation of the historic cabins.
The DH Lawrence Ranch is a jewel in the crown of the University of New Mexico. Not only is the ranch a beautiful and inspiring place, but its association with one of the world’s greatest writers makes it a prime tourist destination.
My visit to the ranch, and absorbing whatever energy is left of Lawrence—in his cabin, on his land, beside his grave—enhances the love I already feel for his writing. It also connects me to the author in ways his words could never do.
As I prepare to go home, I wonder whether a conference center and overnight accommodations Ruminski mentioned are really necessary: UNM had gone down that slippery slope once before and abandoned it. And surely, UNM has enough financial problems without hosting a conference center in the middle of nowhere or becoming an innkeeper to a bunch of finicky guests.
Moreover, the ranch is much drier now than it was in Lawrence’s time, and the lack of water could create problems in the future.
“Climate was different then,” Ruminski says. “There was more rain and more waterfalls.”
But since my trip, UNM’s Continuing Education program has taken the bold step of setting up infrequent tours of the DH Lawrence Ranch. Now, anybody with $100 to burn can register to take a guided tour, walk in Lawrence’s footsteps and learn every honorable and lascivious detail they ever wanted to know about the man, his life and his writing.
That said, $100 is a lot of money for most people, and the tours fill up quickly. (The next trip, scheduled for May 3, is already sold out.)It seems only right that the public should be able to easily visit an international landmark listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the New Mexico State Register of Cultural Properties. But they can’t.
So what is UNM to do with the place? Should they milk it like a cash cow? Should they archive it like a rare and delicate document and only expose it to the light from time to time?
Or should they set up a website, pave the road, sell tickets, hire docents, create a visitor’s center and let in hordes of people, like the Hearst Castle in San Simeon, Calif.?
Perhaps UNM will just keep the place to themselves and continue to methodically tinker with it until a rich donor like Bill Gates comes along and does the job right.
There certainly is no rush to make a decision. When a true-blue DH Lawrence fan somehow finds a way to see it, getting there will have been worth all the trouble.
It’s like Lawrence wrote in The Rainbow: “The secret, shameful things are most terribly beautiful.”
Charles Reuben set type at the Santa Fe Reporter for three years after graduating from St. John’s College in 1980. He then moved to Albuquerque and spent seven years working as a printer at the Albuquerque Journal. He has spent the last 19 years working at the University of New Mexico, where he’s an editorial technician at the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.