You Can Be Absolutely Terrified. And Do It Anyway. Props to Georgia O’Keeffe

I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing that I wanted to do.

— Georgia O’Keeffe said that

I love that quote from Georgia O’Keeffe, and remember exactly where I was when I read it — lounging next to a cast iron stove in a cabin in the Alaskan wilderness.

This is where I went to recharge my batteries: to the middle of nowhere some would say.

For me, Alaska was the middle of everywhere.

It was in the Alaskan backcountry that I confronted so many of my fears:

  • of being alone,
  • of grizzlies,
  • of getting lost,
  • of being cold,
  • of accidentally wounding myself with the axe while chopping firewood,
  • with no way to call for help or get medical attention.

Those sorts of fears.

But also fears that are harder to say out loud:

  • I feel so lonely for creative friends.
  • Where is my peer group?
  • I’m such a f*ing weirdo, being out here in the backcountry.
  • But I love being out here. I don’t know many others who do.
  • What does that mean?
  • What’s wrong with me?

All year I would collect dozens of books to take on my summer vacation at the cabin, a place you could only get to by helicopter. No roads at all.

At the end of summer, my challenge was to hike out across expanses of Tundra and over ridges which were really mini-mountains.

The photo below shows the tundra, how it looks in August (which is Fall at these latitudes). Tundra is made up of thigh-high brush: brambles of wild berries, dwarf birch and wet, boggy parts where your foot might sink down a foot into water if you’re not mindful.

Hiking across tundra is the hardest hiking I’ve ever done. If I were ever to create a gym, it would have a mock tundra floor. Talk about a thigh master! But I digress…

Mount Denali viewed from the tundra near Denali National Park.

Mount Denali viewed from the tundra near Denali National Park. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

On rare occasions when it wasn’t snowing or fogging or raining, Mt. Denali rose above, shining white in the sun like a God, creating his own weather patterns. Appearing and mostly disappearing at will.

Mount Denali is rarely visible like this, even in the summer/fall seasons that span from about June 15-September 15. The mountain is usually shrouded in clouds.

Hiking by my own steam instead of flying out was my tribute to what nature gave me. Most of the books stayed behind in the cabin for future visits.

You can’t believe how thrilling it was for me to read Cheryl Strayed’s WILD and know there was at least one other woman who backpacked through the wilderness with books as essential items.

A biography of Georgia O’Keeffe was in my stack that summer.

Georgia O'Keeffe walking in the ‘White Place,’ New Mexico, 1957 (Todd Webb)

Georgia O’Keeffe walking in the ‘White Place,’ New Mexico, 1957 (Todd Webb)

Georgia is a heroine to me as an artist, and as a woman who preferred long stretches of alone time to create. She especially loved painting and sketching out in the sun-baked landscapes of New Mexico. Was she recharging her batteries, too?

Georgia O'Keeffe, The White Place in Sun

Georgia O’Keeffe, The White Place in Sun, 1943 © 2018 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

Maybe you’ve seen some of her paintings called White Place, or Black Place – these are nicknames she gave to these places she went to paint in the desert wilderness.

What struck me was that she apparently said that famous quote in response to someone asking her:

Aren’t you afraid of rattlesnakes?

“I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing that I wanted to do.”

Northern New Mexico is another sacred place for me. When I lived in Chicago, in the early 90’s, New Mexico is where I bee-lined for every vacation.

This is when I first fell in love with high desert light, such a life-giving contrast to the dull, grey and flat Chicago landscape.

My itineraries were drafted in search of Georgia’s painting places. Remember, this was before the wonderful thing called the Internet, or Google.

Georgia O'Keeffe in Twilight Canyon, New Mexico, 1964, by Todd Webb

Georgia O’Keeffe in Twilight Canyon, New Mexico, 1964 by Todd Webb

During these hiking and art-making pilgrimages I hoped to receive by osmosis or some other trick of nature whatever it was that this independent woman artist had.

She was ahead of her time. Misunderstood. The way it happens for so many artists. Especially during the early 20th Century, when being an independent woman, let alone an artist, was heresy.

Georgia O'Keeffe, Black Place 11

Georgia O’Keeffe, Black Place 11, 1944, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Sometimes I would find the White Place, or or the Black Place. Other times, I wandered the canyons lost. But it’s a good place to be lost. All the scenery is good.

Creativity and travel and courage is the theme of my blog (and my life!) since I first launched in 2002.

I’ve always loved traveling as much as making art, and both have required me to muster strength and bravery that I thought I didn’t have.

That’s why travel is such a great teacher for creativity, and vice versa.

Facing the blank page, starting something new, daring to express yourself is just as scary as setting out into the wilderness alone.

Questions Asked of Artists & Independent Travelers

For some reason, when people find out you are traveling alone, they often comment on what could go wrong, not about what a great adventure it might be.

But what about (horrible scenario)?

Aren’t you afraid of (horrible scenario)?

Isn’t it dangerous what you are doing?

Isn’t it dangerous where you are going?

Interestingly, these very same questions are often asked of artistic endeavors as well. Heaven forfend if you are combining your art with entrepreneuring, and want to make a living as an artist. More heresy!

Unless you are talking to people already doing what you want to do, you’ll get naysaying comments, blank stares or cautionary tales. Often a mixture of all of the above. Which isn’t exactly courage or confidence building.

I wonder how Georgia dealt with those questions?

Maybe my new answer is: Yup. I’m scared shitless. And leave it at that.

It would be an honest answer.

I have been terrified doing everything that matters to me:

Whenever I’ve put my work into the world, hit publish on a blog post, started a business, got out of a business, gotten on a plane or set out with my backpack into the wild.

Even though I love to travel, you might be surprised to learn that I have massive flight anxiety. I’ve had anxiety in general since childhood, that I now manage with lifestyle and diet choices, plus natural remedies.

Brave: visual journal page by Lisa Sonora.

My backpack-friendly sketchbook travel journal made out of 3×5 index cards.

I’ve learned that with everything important that I want to create, there will be overwhelming terror first. So now when I feel that way, I take it as a sign that I’m on the right track.

It’s because of my love of travel, and my love of painting and writing, that I had to find ways to not only cope, but rise about my limitations—so that I could have adventures and paint and write and put my work into the world.

Being terrified and acting anyway remains a work in progress, always more to learn and places to grow.

This is why taking creative action (or any trip outside our comfort zone, with or without an actual boarding pass) is such a powerful teacher.

Maria Chabot, "The Black Place," 1944. Copyright Georgia O'Keeffe Museum

Maria Chabot, “The Black Place,” 1944. Copyright Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

We have to confront our fears at some point along the way. Maybe at every point.

You don’t need to leave the house, or get a passport, or go to the desert alone — even though so many spiritual seekers do these very things.

There is a wilderness inside you.

There is a wilderness waiting on the blank page.

It’s ok to be scared. Terrified even.

What if this was a sign you were headed in the right direction?

My friend Birch, who taught me how so much about surviving in the Alaskan wilderness, asked me that summer, “Do you think Georgia O’Keeffe had a peer group?!”

If this post has you hankering for some art pilgrimage road trips of your own, I did a little research and put together some resources for you.

And if you’d like to come on a creative adventure with me, check out my workshops page for the latest escapades.

New Mexico. Go!

If you’re in Santa Fe, don’t miss the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.

Also – one of my favorite art and craft supply shops happens to be in Santa Fe: Guadalupe’s Fun Rubber Stamps. I’ve been shopping there since they were a tiny one-room office in the mid-90’s! They have a beautiful shop now right near the plaza.

Visit Georgia O’Keeffe’s Home & Studio in New Mexico

Visit Georgia O’Keeffe’s home and studio in New Mexico:  located 60 miles northwest of Santa Fe, in the Abiquiu, New Mexico. Must reserve in advance with the museum.

O'Keeffe Hitching a Ride to Abiquiu, 1944 Photograph by Maria Chabot

O’Keeffe Hitching a Ride to Abiquiu, 1944 Photograph by Maria Chabot

Where to Find Georgia O’Keeffe’s Black Place: 

The “Black Place” is found about a 100 miles southwest of Abiquiu, New Mexico, and is the nickname Georgia O’Keeffe gave to New Mexico’s Bisti Badlands, located in Navajo country.

How to Get to Georgia O’Keeffe’s Black Place

The old-fashioned way, that I used way back when: Highway US 550Mile Marker 111Nageezi, NM

The new-fashioned way: You can also find it on Google Maps and check Trip Advisor for reviews and advice.

Where to Find Georgia O’Keeffe’s White Place: 

The “White Place” also known as Plaza Blanca in Spanish, is near the Abiquiu, New Mexico in the Rio Chama hills.

How to Get to Georgia O’Keeffe’s Black Place

Between U.S. 84 mile markers 213 and 214, go approximately 2.5 miles on County Road 0155


And just in case you want to wander into my Alaska stomping grounds…

See Mount Denali for Yourself

Going to Alaska is an experience like no other, and I highly recommend venturing into the interior of the state, to Fairbanks and then on to Denali National Park.

You DO need to reserve well in advance to visit Denali Park, located in central Alaska, reached from Fairbanks, Alaska by car or train. Did you know that Mount Denali is the highest mountain in North America? More than 20,000 feet high.

The National Park Service has Denali info here.

Your Turn

What would you like to do, even though you’re absolutely terrified?

What DO you do, even though you’re scared out of your mind? My first thought answer to that is: “Pretty much everything”, but I know you’ll get specific. 🙂

Any good art pilgrimages you would recommend?

What artist places have your visited or would like to visit?

Do you have an artistic peer group?

If so, how did you find each other? If not, how can we help each other find our kindred peers?

Like Frida Kahlo? I wrote this piece about visiting her studio in Mexico City, Mexico.

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