Saturated in the arts and a rich Hispano heritage, awash in charming adobe-style architecture and 400 years of contentious history
Taos, New Mexico
Saturated in the arts and a rich Hispano heritage, awash in charming adobe-style architecture and 400 years of contentious history marked by occasional bloodletting of incomprehensible proportions, this quaint Northern New Mexico resort community of international fame has been known to cast a spell, a benign trance that reels back seekers and others inclined to the aesthetic year after year. But beware. If you’re not careful, even you might turn your back on urban life and move here like so many globetrotters and the creative who tap into the landscape’s romantic inspiration that lends itself to their creativity and peace of mind.
Painters, potters, sculptors and writers the caliber of D.H. Lawrence and John Nichols have plied their craft on the verdant high desert of the Taos Plateau, and men and women, with and without talent, continue to aspire to the works of the hand alongside temperamental actors and rebounding directors at home among the eclectic and traditional. They’re a special breed, perhaps, setting themselves apart and infusing a peculiar vitality into this ancient community of narrow crooked streets and buildings flat and square and rectangular, stacked low to the ground in clean lines of smooth plaster and mud colored in tranquil tones; the browns of the earth and deeper shades of red, and pink, and the lighter scales of blue.
Located on a broad plain of silvery sage and green pastures with the Taos Mountains hovering and the Sangre de Cristos off to the west, Taos is beautiful, but not overwhelmingly. It’s not pushy in this regard. Its beauty is neither craggy nor dramatic like Wyoming’s Tetons. Taos is poetry, and if it could fly it would be a smooth hot air balloon ride captivating in measured increments scenery entitled to contemplation with the patience of an artist’s eye discovering in due time subtleties man-made and natural. Moving dark shadows in giant steps across the face of the earth, the artists’ radiant light fades in and out with each passing train of late-summer’s tumultuous thunderheads, then sets the arid sky ablaze with orange and red and lavender streaks over distant mesas on the far expanse of western horizon.
That’s the Taos I take with me when I leave Old Town, Seco and the Cow and the quiet spaces, the ideal, the stuff of brochures that siphon great summer crowds of festival-goers and art lovers from the cities of the world and send them swarming through exquisite galleries on Paseo del Pueblo Norte or historic Ledoux Street and down Kit Carson Road. The feel-good Hollywood version.
Then there’s the other Taos, a newer rendition not necessarily inevitable, that has fallen victim to its own renown and has dismayed many first-time visitors, like me. Having read John Nichols’ minor masterpiece “The Milagro Beanfield War” from the sweaty discomfort of a double-wide hammock in the scrubby jungles of the Yucatán Peninsula back in the early eighties, I had lollipops prancing in my head expecting thirty years later to find the simpler unvarnished world this talented author conveyed so eloquently with such deft humor.
Boy, was I naive. My heart sank like an oak viga from a mile south of the visitors center on Paseo del Pueblo Sur all the way to the outskirts of Old Town. Saddened by the familiar clutter of chain stores, fast-food joints and ticky-tacky Americana that’s corroding south-side into just another place, my first reaction was to blame it all on John Nichols and his Milagro Trilogy (essential reading, by the way) that shined such a bright spotlight on the valley.
The torrent of tourists during warmer days just adds to the pain. Granted, the gawkers and spenders pay the bills and the chains keep costs down for worker bees who keep the place humming, but the great influx comes at the expense of eroding authenticity, carbon monoxide poisoning and the clash of bumper-to-bumper traffic strewn from the casino past iconic Taos Plaza all the way down to the maddening crowds at Walmart.
In his defense, we can’t lay all of the post-Milagro ills at Mr. Nichols’ feet though he certainly helped get the ball rolling off the cliff and watched its ignominious descent. Those of us drawn here shoulder the blame to a degree. After all, the book has been out 30 years and there are 300 million restless people in this shrinking country of ours, and so many are desperately seeking the transcendental, the inspirational, something rare, something … I don’t know … un-America. And Taos fits the bill.
All was forgiven once I gained the small rise where things turn Spanish and muddy, ancient and lopsided. Veering left at the Kit Carson intersection I made one obligatory spin around the 400-year-old tree-shaded plaza boxed in by neat rows of stout adobe buildings standing shoulder-to-shoulder panting breathlessly for credit cards. Believing I had dropped through some mystic portal and landed deep in Old Mexico, it was architectural lust at first sight. Aspen, this is not.
No doubt young Phillips and Blumenschein were similarly captivated when they stumbled upon the dirty little hovel in 1898. Two painters from the city, who achieved acclaim in their time, had the foresight to abandon concrete and move to Taos luring other artists with them. By 1915 a dedicated group of six of these creatives formed the legendary Taos Society of Artists as a means of promoting their work, painting the American West and drawing attention to this timeless corner of the world. It worked. As the saying goes, for better or worse they put pretty Taos on the map.
With subsequent financial and inspirational assistance from patrons such as Mabel Dodge Luhan, a steady stream of talent followed. The likes of photographer Ansel Adams, the incomparable Georgia O’Keeffe, the Russian Nicolai Fechin and many others memorialized Taos and helped transform it over the last century into the premier art colony one finds today.
The key to crowd control is timing; things turn down a notch around here during off-season, and October-before-last was sublime, all thirty days of frosty mornings and towering cottonwoods turning bright yellow as leaves died magnificently on the branch. Of the many activities and festivals proffered up, and there’s a slew - art walks, crafts fairs, wool and wine galas, solar and classical music gigs, film fests, San Geronimo Days and ceremonial dances and pow-wows and rodeos – I rose early for the annual Taos Balloon Rally, an increasingly popular fellowship of giddy hot air enthusiasts fed up with the mobs and expense associated with the vaunted Albuquerque balloon spectacle down south.
That morning was a trip to the circus, a photo-snapping saunter through a herd of elephants thirty-something strong, a spectrum of color displayed in caricature and abstract patterns. A day in the round, so to speak, as hot air filled enormous empty bags splayed on the ground, the ear-splitting roar of propane torches blasting and fans blowing inert fabric to life, growing big, shaping up nicely before lifting the fortunate in their wicker baskets and breaking free one-by-one. You want art? There it is, floating off into the deep blue sky forming beautiful drifting geometric contours relative to one another, a shifting symmetry of unintentional design framed by the Sangre de Cristos or yellow cottonwoods in autumn throes, or the empty parking lot at the Smith’s supermarket.
I was left to imagine the view from up there, gazing down on Old Town radiating in a tangled web of twisted streets and alleys with names invoking a storied past – Camino de La Placita, Don Fernando Street, Martyrs Lane – mangled spokes reaching out from the historic plaza that’s been hustling and bustling for centuries acting as crossroads and thriving with commerce and trade in beaver pelts, Mexican collectibles hauled north from the south, and local edibles - maize and piñion nuts. All around me an expansive valley essentially rural with green hills crowding the southeastern tiers. Nearer the mountains north and west of town are undeveloped open spaces thanks in large part to the Taos Indians on their sprawling reservation who had the sense to stay their hands. In the other direction, a patchwork of plots farmed and irrigated for decades too many to recall.
In all candor, large swaths are chopped up and cluttered with subdivisions, small haciendas, casitas and time-tested mobile homes. It’s a land interspersed with meandering arroyos that hide from view an earthy Taos urban tourists would rather not lay eyes on; a random splatter of small farms where chubby hogs and scrawny horses stand stoned in dilapidated corrals watching adobe walls crumble. And we love it. Rural Taos still has that grubby funk, that disheveled old sweater demeanor that sets it apart from the corporate Vails and über-groomed Deer Valleys of the world.
My imaginary blue balloon drifts north over the Taos basin, an expansive valley that wraps around the western flank of long folded mountains canting skyward in smooth forested lines, treeless near exposed summits and subtle on the eyes. To the left the Taos Mountains break open at cliff-strewn Hondo Canyon traversed during winter by devotees of extreme double-diamond drops at the Taos Valley Ski Area. And west a short jaunt I can make out the mighty cut of the Rio Grande Gorge, black and basalt, where I once swooned dizzily from the deck of the country’s second highest cantilever bridge and watched a glob of spit sink 650 feet toward unsuspecting whitewater rafters below and that dark green ribbon of water destined for El Paso and the murky Gulf of Mexico 1,194 MapQuest miles that-away.
Taos, and its lesser siblings El Prado and Ranchos de Taos, now merged in the greater mass, and outliers Arroyo Hondo and beautiful Arroyo Seco, are the abodes of hippies and Hispanics, some filthy rich and the food stamp poor, working stiffs and ski bums being priced out of the market, apprehensive undocumented salt of the earth fleeing Arizona, and 2,000 Taos pueblo Indians whose ancestors have been around a very long time.
A true melting pot of cultural diversity, modern Taoseños are reputed to live in blissful harmony. Maybe, although that wasn’t always the case because the history of Taos includes sordid tales of violent conflict. The 1600s saw the Taos valley rocked by pitched battles between Spanish settlers, the Crown and pueblo Indians. At one point the Indians won, driving their oppressors out of the territory during the bloody Pueblo Revolt of 1680. But that didn’t last long. Don Diego de Vargas roared back a few years later with brutal vengeance and reestablished the Spanish Crown’s control here, and elsewhere, by the early 1700s.
Spanish land-grant settlers began constructing large mud-and-timber homes by 1796, quadrangular structures which functioned as fortress thwarting unpredictable Indian raids. Sadly, ancient Taos was routinely gutted by too many fires and became worn down by the mere passage of time. Today’s plaza and bulky buildings crowded with galleries and decorated in red-chili motif date back to the 1930s. And it all screams “ART!”
With a mild touch of envy I’ve developed immense respect for those gifted with the talent to create and appreciate the higher order they ascribe to. Like many, I process pretty things on a profoundly complex level – either I like it or I don’t. Determined to better myself with a sophisticated dose of Taos culture I embarked on a mission to do the local art scene and traipse through 100-plus galleries and art-centric establishments that vie for our rapt attention. Like a pinball trapped in a picturesque maze of ancient Spanish pathways and colonial byways coursing along smooth adobe walls and around sharp corners, I buzzed from shop to shop like I was pollinating the place.
That didn’t last long and left me with swollen feet, sweaty armpits and a fuzzy head full of turquoise necklaces, silver bracelets, concha belt buckles, dancing kachina dolls and expressionist renderings of somber Indian maidens in long skirts posing beside crooked adobe shacks under swirling Taos skies. My brain throbbed from the same mountain landscapes and the same lumpy gourds and black-and-white pottery and cornfields and Zuni fetishes and fiery sunsets, and that really, really famous old Catholic church with those imposing buttresses down at Ranchos de Taos that captivated the imaginations of Ansel and O’Keeffe, the San Francisco de Asis Church. And some of the art around here is pretty good, and some of it brilliant and occasionally perfect.
Huffing and dripping I found myself on a park bench in the plaza under the shade of a giant cottonwood beside a man advanced in years, possibly a venerated Taos pueblo elder who could trace his lineage back to Popé, a leader of the 1680 Pueblo Revolt. Or perhaps he was a revered great-grandfather of noble Hispanic heritage, a descendent of Padre Antonio José Martinez, one giant of a man who acquired the first printing press in the Wild West and established a seminary and law school. Or maybe he was just some old white guy who’s been laying out in the sun too long. He smelled of peppercorn and garlic and babbled incoherently about Holly in a tree, or a piece of wood, something about wood, waving gnarled hands in front of a gnarled face like he was fanning flies. I leaned over and asked the obvious: “Say what?”
“Hollywood,” he blurted, fanning more flies. “All this,” he said, indicting the fabled Hotel La Fonda De Taos and the many specialty shops and jewelry stores lining the plaza’s perimeter – all of Taos for that matter. “It’s all Hollywood now, not like the old days. And the trees,” he pointed, misty-eyed, “there use to be more trees and lots of shade before they cut them down for that thing.” That thing he was addressing was the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and as for the shade, he probably had a point. Before I could muster a defense for “The Biz” and our war dead the old man staggered to his feet, waited for the earth to stop spinning, then shuffled off for a talk with the parking meters.
The loss of those big trees made me sad, and needing respite from the clamor and incessant drone of cars circling the plaza in futile efforts to find an empty parking space, I closed my eyes, stuck my thumbs in my ears and went searching for my happy place. But I must have taken a wrong turn because I ended up in 1847 in the dead of winter at 117 Bent Street watching a loud angry mob of rabble-rousers, mostly Indians, gathered in front of Charles Bent’s home, now a museum. Bent, a merchant of considerable renown and the first governor of the Territory of New Mexico appointed by the new American government, was trying desperately to reason with the locals while his mortified family, hiding inside, frantically dug a hole through the wall attempting to flee.
The mob was instigated by Catholic priests and Spanish landowners who knew their considerable influence and grip on power was waning. Practicing politics the old-fashioned way these pillars of the community lit the match that unleashed a series of brutal massacres that claimed the lives of Governor Bent who was shot and scalped alive by that mob, and numerous Anglo landowners throughout the territory. Fortunately the governor’s family broke out in the nick of time and escaped with their lives.
Not to be outdone, the United States military quenched the rebellion and avenged the massacres and Bent’s murder using measures beyond the pale. Over 100 terrified pueblo Indians, women and children included, hid in the old San Geronimo Church which was bombarded and torched to the ground, killing all. Deep breath. And then I saw fire and heard screams. And I smelled donkeys.
With a pop my eyes snapped open at the sound of combustible backfire and standing before me in the plaza were two hippies, beatniks maybe, I forget what they’re called now, some kind of subcultural crossbreed on account of the ropy hair. One male, one female, dressed in matching fluorescent tie-dye outfits, their dilated pupils hidden behind shoulder-length dreadlocks. Each clutched a bongo and stared at me like I was the freak. “What?” I barked, watching them jump back, flip me off with a peace sign and with a snappy pirouette skip off to thump their drums under the banyan tree.
Actually, I didn’t want them to run away as I had questions about their grandparents, the real deal, the genuine article, those freewheeling bohemians who descended on Taos en masse in the late 60s and 70s with their radical cooperative notions and hand-holding communal ways, sharing all things in common including each other, in tangled piles of pink flesh to the horror of local conservative Catholics of Spanish descent who could only imagine the lurid depths of such carnal depravity, if they tried hard enough.
Peyote-popping, humus-munching, Frisbee-tossing (not the Catholics) free-thinkers and doers coming together at New Buffalo in Arroyo Hondo and the Hog Farm at Peñasco and a half-dozen other places, all those naked grandparents under the influence stretching and bending under a harvest moon, skipping and flopping about the bonfire to the sound of tambourines and hollow drums, and the prancing and the dancing and all the hallucinogenic lollygagging and all that skin free for the taking.
Man, this was one vision I could do without, and feeling the dry heaves coming on, I swear, I thought I was gonna puke or die trying. And then I realized, hey, that’s where it all came from, the laid back, groovy vibes that continue to permeate the Taos valley. You see, in time grandma and grandpa sobered up, hopped in the shower, put their clothes back on and moved to town where they started selling things and keeping stuff for themselves.
Self-sustaining, holistic, green as grass and community oriented, the spirit and world view they brought with them was well-intentioned. They deserve credit because their lives and lifestyles are now woven into the Taos fabric and are reflected in the healthy food they eat and sell, hand-made clothes some dare to wear and solar houses the smart ones build. Much of the local fare is organic and free-range until it’s caught and slaughtered and comes sans hormones, steroids or antibiotics. Vegans love Taos, veggies are home grown, and aromatic coffees are rich and roasted right here in the neighborhood. In a way progressive Taoseños are showing the rest of the world a better way to live. Now, if they could just do something about those sun-worshiping New Age nut-jobs and their overpriced crystal trinkets.
No need to be rich to enjoy Taos, no need to squander your family fortune at one of those mystic luxury resort spas where they wax your back, rub you down with canola oil, stick an apple in your mouth and boil you in mud. Be cheap like me and indulge in cold ice cream and hot coffee at the Cow in almost-too-cute Arroyo Seco, a tiny spot on the way to the ski area near the entrance to Hondo Canyon clustered around sharp bends in the shady road and packed with picturesque galleries and specialty shops selling Tibetan tapestries and reclining Buddhas. Anchored by 200-year-old La Santisima Trinidad Church, it makes you wish there were more Arroyo Secos in the valley, home to artists burdened with visions destined for canvas, and old dogs asleep in the dirt under tall trees on hot summer days.
Photo Gallery of John Treadwell Dunbar.