With today's information onslaught, smartphone appendages and retail profiling, getting off the grid may seem like a uniquely 21st century desire. But the northern New Mexico town of Taos has been a go-to physical and spiritual oasis for people looking to escape since the early 1900s.
Artist Ernest Blumenschein, novelist D.H. Lawrence and arts patron and salon hostess Mabel Dodge Luhan were among the first wave of creative types to head to the remote area once occupied by Native Americans and Spanish colonials.
But perhaps no one did more to popularize Taos than Millicent Rogers, the Standard Oil heiress and fashion icon whose life was a fast-moving swirl of exquisitely decorated homes, haute couture dresses, European vacations and handsome paramours, before she escaped to New Mexico in 1947 following a messy breakup with Clark Gable. Rogers took to the town immediately, renovating an adobe home called Turtle Walk and collecting chunky silver Pueblo jewelry, which she wore with broomstick skirts she had specially commissioned in New York by her lifelong collaborator, designer Charles James.
This spring, while I was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's "Charles James: Beyond Fashion" exhibition, in which nine of Rogers' incredible James evening gowns were displayed, I started thinking about Taos and wondering whether it still had the same allure it had for Rogers and many others all those years ago. So one weekend in June, I flew to Santa Fe and took the scenic drive through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to Taos.
As I approached Taos on New Mexico 68, it wasn't the beauty that first struck me but the string of fast-food restaurants and the Wal-Mart. Clearly, getting off the grid wasn't going to be as easy as it was in Rogers' day. Which is why after stopping for the best chile relleno lunch of my life at the Taos Inn, I drove about 15 miles northwest of town to Earthship Biotecture, a planned sustainable community with 75 homes, five of which are available as nightly rentals. I wanted to try a day of living contemplatively in a structure built of natural and recycled materials, with thermal solar heating and cooling, renewable energy and integrated water systems.
The community is the brainchild of architect Michael Reynolds, who for 40 years has been researching, developing and building Earth-friendly housing in Taos and around the world for what he calls "radically sustainable living." (His efforts are chronicled in the 2007 documentary "Garbage Warrior.")
Turning off U.S. 64 and into the 650 acres of mesas known as the Greater World Earthship Community is like driving onto the set of "Mad Max," with dirt structures, futuristic-looking turrets, solar-paneled roofs and supporting walls made of recycled tires and glass beer bottles glinting in the sunlight. What had I gotten into? Then I reminded myself that this was off-the-grid lite, with all the modern conveniences — running water, an indoor bathroom, even Wi-Fi and Apple TV.
After a tour of the visitors center, which has an exhibit and a couple of short films explaining the Earthship design principles (as well as cheeky gift shop items such as a bumper sticker that reads, "Climate Change? Bring It. Earthship.com."), I followed one of the college-age guides down a dirt road to check into my Earthship, a structure that had been christened the Lone Tree II.
It looked a bit like a Hobbit hole nestled into the side of the mesa, with a north-facing wall of windows and an indoor greenhouse with skylights. The décor? Rustic modern with a full kitchen, living room, bedroom, bath and modest furnishings. I plugged in my phone and settled on the couch for a nap, letting the shadows dancing on the mountains outside lull me to sleep.
I ventured out for dinner, though I could have cooked at my home sweet Earthship, as some of the rentals even have indoor vegetable gardens.
On the way to Taos Mesa Brewing, I stopped at the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, two miles east on U.S. 64, to gaze at the water cutting through dramatic slices of earth, and to take in the scene along the side of the road, where locals had set up tables to sell jewelry and crafts and where an enterprise called the Bus Stop Ice Cream and Coffee Shop was operating out of an old yellow school bus.
I watched a cool character streak by on a motorcycle, "Easy Rider"-style, with what looked like all his belongings, including a guitar, strapped to his back. I could see why Dennis Hopper, who visited a commune here to prepare for his role in the 1969 film and lived here on and off afterward, loved Taos. "It was the place that gave him the creative freedom he desired throughout his life," his daughter Marin said on the occasion of the first Dennis Hopper Day, held May 17, 2014, in Taos, and featuring a bikers rally at the site of Hopper's 2010 funeral at Rancho de Taos, an "Easy Rider" ride and a screening of the film.
Taos Mesa Brewing is housed in an old converted airplane hangar, four miles east of the bridge on 64. Outside on the patio, strung with electric lights, tourists mixed with locals, bicyclists and boozers. I ordered a beer sampler and chuckled at the names on the menu (the "Fungus Amungus" mushroom burger, for example). The sunset was so sky-sprawling that no iPhone pic could capture it, and the sounds of the evening's live music filtered out on the cooling breeze — someone singing Bob Dylan's lyrics: "Any day now, any day now, I shall be released."
That night, I shared the Earthship with a particularly boisterous mouse, which was OK, I guess. After all, this dirt mound was really more his than mine. Turning on the Apple TV didn't feel right, so I picked up a book instead. I can't say I slept soundly, but at least I had the chance to catch the celestial light show outside, brighter than any I'd ever seen.
After a gray water shower the next morning, I headed back to Taos to explore and, later, experience more luxurious accommodations at El Monte Sagrado resort. I stopped at Taos Diner for a breakfast burrito "Christmas style," with red and green chiles, that was big enough to feed a family.
Driving the empty roads in the early hours, it was easy to see how Rogers and Luhan, women who had seen the world, could be charmed by this corner of it. "There was no disturbance in the scene, nothing to complicate the forms, no trees or houses, or any detail to confuse one," Luhan wrote in her 1937 autobiography, "Edge of Taos Desert." "It was like a simple phrase of music or a single line of poetry, essential and reduced to the barest meaning."
Luhan and her Native American husband, Tony, built a home that backs up onto Taos Pueblo land, just off Morada Lane. You can stay in the beautiful, rambling white adobe structure, now a bed-and-breakfast, where Mabel Dodge Luhan hosted Ansel Adams, Martha Graham, Georgia O'Keeffe and Carl Jung. Or you can just stop for a quick visit and a cup of coffee, like I did. The building was also home for a while to Hopper, who is remembered in a series of photos on a wall in the living room, a warm space with a kiva fireplace and Mabel's and Tony's portraits sitting on the mantel.
As soon as it opened at 10 a.m., before the day got any hotter, I toured Taos Pueblo. Bordering the town on the northern side, it's a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where the Taos-speaking Native American tribe has been living for more than 1,000 years. The pueblo's multistoried structures are impressive against the backdrop of wide sky, and the stark white San Geronimo Chapel is majestic in its simplicity. But even though it may look tranquil, the church has a violent history. Built in 1619, it was destroyed in the 1680 Pueblo Revolt against the Spanish, rebuilt and then destroyed again in 1847 by U.S. troops in retaliation for the assassination of Charles Bent, New Mexico's first territorial governor, who was killed by Pueblo and Mexican attackers. The current church was built in 1850. On most days, residents are on the grounds selling jewelry, totem animals and fry bread.
I picked up a pair of silver earrings and got back in the car, ready to venture into the heart of town. Taos is just shy of 6,000 residents and counts tourism (and nearby ski resorts ) as its primary industry. The center of the Downtown Historic District is Taos Plaza. But I didn't find the assortment of shops and restaurants there to be nearly as appealing as the ones on Bent Street, just off the square. Among the Bent Street offerings are FX18, which features locally made gifts and accessories; Chocolate + Cashmere, which has homemade chocolates in flavors such as lavender and honey, plus cashmere hats, socks and baby booties; and Coyote Moon, which offers colorful Mexican folk art and Native American jewelry.
After a sandwich at the Bent Street Café & Deli, I drove to the Millicent Rogers Museum, which was founded by her family in 1956 and contains her considerable collection of Spanish and Native American art and jewelry. The most impressive piece is a hulking turquoise necklace by Zuni artist Leekya Deyuse that Rogers bought in 1947 at the Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial in Gallup, N.M. It has 294 irregularly shaped pieces of blue and green turquoise and a huge pendant, weighing a total of 4 pounds. There are also pieces of jewelry Rogers made herself, which are quite abstract and modern-looking.
Another must-see is the Harwood Museum of Art, which features works that speak to the Anglo, Hispanic and Native American heritage of New Mexico, as well as the role Taos has played in the American art scene. The Agnes Martin Gallery, an octagonal room featuring seven of the Taos artist's serenely minimalist canvases, and four Donald Judd-designed benches for sitting, rivals the Rothko Chapel in Houston as a spiritual art experience.
Continuing the art theme, I spent an hour strolling the galleries on Kit Carson Road. At Living Light Gallery, Taos photographer Lenny Foster's images of hands — cooking, writing, praying and loving — were uplifting. Mission Gallery and the nearby Robert L. Parsons Fine Art had impressive collections of works by early Taos artists. I also popped into a store called Horsefeathers to check out the vintage cowboy boots. But I didn't buy much in Taos; the town is not about shopping. It's not Santa Fe.
After a day of sightseeing, I was ready for El Monte Sagrado, a hotel with 48 rooms, 30 suites and six casitas, leafy grounds with rambling brooks, and a spa with globally inspired treatments. While I was there, an upstairs gallery was featuring an exhibition of works by Hollywood actor, Taos artist and Hopper pal Robert Dean Stockwell, including his witty cross sculptures made of dice. The hotel's luxurious design and décor are inspired by Native American heritage, and many of the rooms are named after prominent Native American figures. (I stayed in the Chief Joseph suite.)
In the late afternoon, I had a glass of wine outside, sitting at the base of a green meadow laid out like a carpet below the Taos Mountains. I wished that I had time for another nap, or even just a little more time to waste. Maybe it was the altitude (Taos is nearly 7,000 feet above sea level). Or maybe I was, as Dylan wrote, being released.
For dinner, I drove north of town to sample Spanish cuisine at El Meze, which is in a historic hacienda with a lovely outdoor patio. Chef Frederick Muller prepared rustic comfort food with fresh regional ingredients, including New Mexico bolita beans and sharp white cheddar spooned onto grilled flat bread, grilled whole trout and lavender crème brûlée, with a nice selection of French and Spanish wines to wash it down.
As night came on, the waitress passed around blankets to keep diners warm. And when the sunset began to splash across the sky like the watercolors on one of Blumenschein's canvases, I resisted the urge to pull out my iPhone. I wanted to stay off the grid just a little bit longer.