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TAOS: Like Santa Fe Used to Be : This New Mexico Town Has Retained Its Unique, Unvarnished Character

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I first visited Taos when I was 6 or 7 years old-- more years ago than I would want to admit--and ever since it has been a special place for me . . . a never-never town somehow stuck in space and time.

The trouble, of course, with childhood memories is that they rarely, if ever, survive a revisit later in life. Yet Taos, to which I have returned often through the years, always seemed to. Even the old Hotel Martin, renamed the Taos Inn in 1946, looks exactly as it did when I stayed there with my parents so many years ago, running up and down the sidewalk in front and asking everyone I saw if they were, truly, an Indian.

Santa Fe, 70 miles south of Taos, was once such a special place for me, but a recent tourist boom and a seemingly unashamed hustle for every tourist’s penny has transformed it, to my mind, into a destination so contrived that it seems more like a Southwestern-themed Disneyland than the once-proud,romantic and ancient city at the end of the Santa Fe Trail.

So having heard rumblings of plans to expand the Taos airport, to build a hotel and shopping center on land where the Pueblo people have huntedrabbits for centuries, to build 300 condominiums, I was more than a little anxious about what I would find when invited to visit recently.

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Take heart--there may be five or six stoplights instead of the one of 20 years ago, and a lot more traffic, but the essence of Taos remains . . . a place where one can still escape from the familiar into different cultures and experiences without the bank-busting cost of many foreign destinations, an oasis for the mind and body in today’s high-speed world.

Far smaller (the resident population is about 5,000) than Santa Fe, Taos supplies all the things northern New Mexico is famous for--clear air, stunning vistas and a vigorous tri-cultural experience found nowhere else in America--and fall is the perfect time to visit. The summer crowds have left, and the skiers haveet to arrive to enjoy the famous powder of the Taos Ski Valley and nearby Angel Fire and Red River. A long Indian summer that can stretch well into November provides near-perfect weather for outdoor activities such as hiking, riding, fishing, even hot air ballooning.

Or you can do nothing--kick back, breathe in the sage- and pinon-scented air and lazily watch the aspen turn to gold in Taos’ special light. Everyone makes a stab at describing the unique light . . . to me it is so crystalline that it seems to glitter at the edges of vision.

Wanting to do a little kicking back myself recently, I chose to stay not in town, as I usually do, but at the Quail Ridge Inn, four miles north of Taos on Ski Valley Road. As I approached bycar in late afternoon, through what seemed to be miles of chamisa bushes and acres of wild, bright-yellow daisies, Quail Ridge looked perfectly inviting. The setting sun was turning the low-lying, adobe-style structures and the backdrop of mountains flaming red--hence the name of the mountains themselves: Sangre de Cristo, blood of Christ.

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Quail Ridge bills itself as a complete resort, and indeed it is. The complex’s 110 units, including both hotel-type rooms and apartments that can accommodate six people, encircle an outdoor 20-meter pool (heated to 90 degrees in the winter), six outdoor tennis courts and a fitness center that encloses three racquetball courts and exercise machines. All amenities, including special programs such as Jazzercise classes, are available free to guests (except for tennis workshops and the use of the all-weather bubble that encloses an additional pair of tennis courts for which nominal charges are made). Many of the units overlook a sweeping vista that includes Wheeler Peak, at 13,161 feet the state’s loftiest, and Taos Mountain, sacred to the Pueblo people.

Taos--the name means “the place” in Tiwa, the local Pueblo dialect--is perched at 7,000 feet on a tremendous plain sweeping west from the Sangre de Cristos to the awesome gash cut by the Rio Grande River. The famous multilevel pueblo just north of town has been continuously inhabited for nearly a millennium, long before the vanguard of the Spanish conquest reached the village in 1540.

Taos’ present renown, far transcending its size, began around the turn of the century when a group of European-trained artists straggled in, lured by the translucence of the atmosphere and the opportunity to paint the local Indians. The work of those artists, among them J.H. Sharp, Oscar Berninghaus and E.I. Couse, made Taos famous (mainly through Santa Fe Railroad calendar illustrations) as an artists’ colony, a fame that continues to this day. There are, in fact, more art galleries in Taos than there are restaurants and bars .

Heir to that artistic tradition, and certainly Taos’ best-known resident, is the Navajo artist R.C. Gorman, who moved here in 1968. “I came as a tourist and refused to leave,” says Gorman. “Taos is the most beautiful place I know; you can’t beat the light and it lends a huge amount of privacy to me.” That privacy is due, in no small part, to the fact that it is easier to fly from Los Angeles to New York than to get to Taos. Still, the 1 1/2-hour flight to Albuquerque and subsequent 2 1/2-hour drive to Taos (through breathtaking scenery) isn’t that difficult, and serves as a perfect decompression period preceding a memorable vacation.

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Like many Western towns, Taos was built around a plaza which, after centuries, remains the nerve center of the community. With a few notable exceptions, the Taos Pueblo being one, most of the town can be explored within easy walking distance of the plaza.

The first thing that will be apparent to any visitor is that Taos looks very, very different than Santa Fe. For one thing, the boutique boom that has transformed Santa Fe into a showcase for some of the most cliched art in the Southwest (if I never see another howling coyote image it will be too soon) hasn’t really happened in Taos, yet. In fact, one of the most prominent stores in town is the local J.C. Penney, where, for the past several winters, free coffee and cookies were available to anyone who wandered in.

And, unlike the bleached-wood-and-pastel-colors combo that has been exploited as the Santa Fe look, in Taos you are far more likely to see wooden furniture that looks like wood, matched with colors that look like they came from the earth. The ubiquitous “Taos blue” of the Santa Fe look was actually the result of the Pueblo Indians’ successful attempt a century and a half ago to make paint that matched the color of their sacred Blue Lake by boiling indigo-dyed sugar wrappers with salt and milk, at least according to the late artist Eric Sloane.

Yuppies and yuppie pretensions are, mercifully, still few and far between in Taos, as are Range Rovers, the cars of choice in Santa Fe. (There, I once witnessed a gallery owner’s put-down of a friend who had elected not to include rhino bars--an $800 option protecting front and rear lights from, presumably, the charge of a wild rhinoceros--on his otherwise identical new Range Rover.) In Taos, you may even see a mangy dog wandering down a dusty road past a rusting Tecate beer can. Consider yourself lucky.

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In the fall, the people you see are, basically, the people who live in Taos going about their business, sharing an early morning coffee at the Garden Restaurant on the plaza or lunch at The Apple Tree, a delightful restaurant in an old house a block from the plaza and a favorite of my teen-age son.

The area’s three cultures--Anglo, Indian and Latino--remain very separate. And prejudice sometimes seems as much derived from the length of time you have lived here as what race you are, except, possibly, when Anglos (who have a far disproportionate share of the local wealth) clash with Latinos (who control the local politics) over a development plan or the like. The Indians, historically both Taos’ main draw and its poorest population, generally live apart, in the pueblo a couple miles north of town or in the village adjacent to it. In town, some wear blankets, but few if any peddle jewelry, as is done everywhere in Santa Fe.

Other Taos residents are artists, writers, characters, some social dropouts. And what of the hippies, who were everywhere in town a couple decades ago? “Most of them have cut their hair, sell insurance and send their kids to private school,” says one longtime resident. Near the plaza is my favorite in-town hotel, the Taos Inn. Originally converted from a group of private homes, some dating back centuries (one room in the inn’s fine restaurant, Doc Martin’s, was the local doctor’s birthing room years ago), the 39-room facility operates at near capacity year-round. The rooms, most with fireplaces, are furnished with antiques and handcrafted traditional furniture. Appropriate to its location in the center of things, the Inn’s Adobe Bar is the center of much of the town’s after-hours life these days.

Over the years, I have also stayed nearby at the Kachina Lodge and El Pueblo Lodge, both adobe-style, motel-like facilities that are quite nice, if predictable. For the budget-minded, the small Koshari Inn, located east of town on the road to the Angel Fire ski area and alongside a gurgling acequia (irrigation ditch) is delightful. They even lend guests mountain bikes. Bed and breakfast homes for all budgets abound.

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South of town is the famous mission-style Sagebrush Inn, whose management always reminds people that the artist Georgia O’Keeffe painted in a room on the third floor. Both traditional rooms in the original 1929 building and modern condo units are available, many with fireplaces, all furnished with handcrafted furniture. For me the place remains memorable for an evening spent with Taos’ famed iconoclast Mable Dodge Luhan in the hotel’s once-tiny bar just months before her death. For many others, the Sagebrush Inn is notable for nightly country and Western dancing.

Mable Dodge Luhan, incidently, is a name you will hear often in Taos. She was, in her time, the local legend --a dynamic woman who more or less created Greenwich Village’s intellectual environment early in the century and among whose lovers was John Reed, the only American buried in the Kremlin wall (the subject of Warren Beatty’s film “Reds”). Eventually, she moved to Taos, married a Taos Pueblo Indian, Tony Luhan, and subsequently attracted to the town an incredible succession of theatrical and literary luminaries--among them D.H. Lawrence.

Dining? One Southern California food writer has suggested that much of Santa Fe’s restaurant food is, generally, inferior to frozen Tex-Mex meals. That isn’t quite true for Santa Fe, and it certainly isn’t the case in Taos, where just about any taste can be satisfied (stay away from the local Chinese food, though; to me it tasted like it came from a can).

Near the Quail Ridge Inn--whose Carl’s French Quarter restaurant, unexpectedly featuring Cajun food, is pretty good--are Casa Cordova and Brett House, both relatively expensive restaurants, very popular (reservations a must) and often memorable.

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A gingered, cold orange soup served at a visit to Casa Cordova, located beyond Quail Ridge on Ski Valley Road, left my entire table of Taosenos speechless. The subsequent venison was equally splendid. Brett House, basically “New Southwestern” in style (they recently offered a sensational soup made from local wild mushrooms picked by chef Chuck Lamendola), is housed in a historic adobe at the junction of Ski Valley Road and Route 522 north. It was once the home of the late artist Dorothy Brett who, with Frieda (Mrs. D.H.) Lawrence and Mabel Dodge Luhan, more or less ruled Taos Anglo society between the world wars. In the opinion of many (myself included), Brett House is easily the best restaurant in New Mexico.

Dying for Tex-Mex? Try La Ultima south of town. But for real northern New Mexico cooking, don’t miss the carne adovada (a pork and red chile dish) at Andy’s La Fiesta in nearby Ranchos de Taos, four miles south of the Taos plaza, where you should also visit the ancient San Francisco de Asis Church. It is surely the most famous adobe structure anywhere, and a source of inspiration to thousands of artists and photographers, among them Ansel Adams and Georgia O’Keeffe. For green chile stew (a “bowl of green” has assumed near mythic status in the local cuisine), visit El Pueblo Cafe on the north side of Taos. This food isn’t for culinary sissies, however. “We don’t have a star rating system,” says local personality Art Bachrach, retired chairman of the psychology department at Arizona State University and co-owner of the Moby Dickens bookstore. “We rate by counting Maalox tablets.”

Shopping? There’s everything, from the expected (souvenir T-shirts) to the bizarre (a gift box from Chantal on the plaza, of soil collected from seven New Age sacred sites). In between, don’t miss the jackets made from Pendleton blankets at The Hole in the Wall just off the plaza in the nearby Dunn House Complex, minerals and crystals from La Tierra and traditional fashions (broomstick skirts and the like) from Martha of Taos nearby. Overland Sheepskin, out of town a bit, offers a huge selection of fleece-lined fashions--from moccasins to coats--but it was a little disconcerting to see a group of sheep peacefully grazing in a meadow adjacent to the store. As for art, Gorman’s work can be found at the Navajo Gallery on Ledoux Street; photos by Ansel Adams and other masters at the new Lumina Gallery across the road from Mable Dodge Luhan’s old home (now a bed and breakfast); contemporary art at the New Directions Gallery, and more traditional work at Magic Mountain Gallery.

But for me and many others, Taos is far more than shopping and eating and collecting. While there on this last trip, I was privileged to participate in a rare event--the re-consecration of a just-restored, 150-year-old Spanish descanso , an adobe shelter where once the bodies of the dead rested while a grave was prepared. The religious procession, led by a crucifer bearing a cross of green cottonwood branches and a group of penitentes , a non-ecclesiastical brotherhood of super religious--some say fanatically religious--men, provided a time-trip back to Taos’s Spanish roots.

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On Sept. 30, visitors can experience Taos’ Indian heritage just as intensely when the Pueblo’s harvest festival, San Geronimo Day, is celebrated. Highlight of the festivities (which include footraces and an evening powwow-style dance that visitors can join) is a pole climb by the young men of the pueblo, up a 50-foot ponderosa pine trunk greased with buffalo fat and crowned by a ritually slaughtered sheep. “It represents the hunt,” says Pueblo resident Soge Track, “but it also represents life, the goals in life.”

There is another way for visitors to explore this aspect of Taos--the intensely separate yet cooperative cultural interplay between the town’s Latino, Indian and Anglo population. That is by visiting the Millicent Rogers Museum. This is a jewel of a museum, founded by heirs of the late Standard Oil heiress who moved to Taos in 1947 after the breakup of her relationship with Clark Gable, and pioneered in collecting the best obtainable Indian jewelry and pottery.

Located north of town and down a road that is an insult to the Age of the Automobile, the nationally supported museum also houses the largest collection of pottery by the famed potter Maria of the San Ildefonso Pueblo. By employing both local Latinos and Pueblo Indians, as well as focusing on the local artistic heritage, the museum provides in its permanent and changing exhibits a highly rewarding trip through Taos’ cultural mix. The upcoming show of Taos Pueblo artists’ paintings, sculpture and poetry, associated with Taos’ Fall Arts Festival, is a perfect example. The museum’s gift shop (and its branch just off the plaza) provide visitors with a fine selection of modern and old pottery, jewelry and blankets. Don’t miss it.

GUIDEBOOK

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Taos

Getting there: Albuquerque International Airport is served by a number of carriers, including Southwest Airlines and AirWest from Los Angeles. Many visitors rent a car there for the 130-mile drive north to Taos.

Most major car rental agencies are represented at the Albuquerque airport. Shuttle services, including Pride of Taos (505-758-8340) or Faust’s Transportation (505-758-3410), also operate between Albuquerque International and Taos hotels.

One trip daily (1:45 p.m. to Taos, 7:30 a.m. return); $45 round trip. Reserve by calling the day before.

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Where to stay: Quail Ridge Inn, Ski Valley Road (New Mexico 150), telephone (800) 624-4448; rates $79-$220.

Taos Inn, 125 Paseo del Pueblo Norte, (800) TAOS-INN; $70-$155.

Kachina Lodge, 413 Paseo del Pueblo Norte, (800) 522-4662; $80-$140.

El Pueblo Lodge, Paseo del Pueblo Norte, (800) 433-9612; $80-$200.

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Koshari Inn, East Kit Carson Road, 1.8 miles from plaza, (505) 758-7199; $33-$40.

Sagebrush Inn, Paseo del Pueblo Sur, (800) 428-3626; $62-$100, including full breakfast.

Where to eat:

Andy’s La Fiesta, St. Francis Plaza, Ranchos de Taos; northern New Mexico cuisine; $6.95-$20 (lowest appetizer to highest entree; carne adovada $7.95); (505) 758-9733.

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The Apple Tree, 123 Bent St.; American/New Mexican; $4-$18.95; (505) 758-1900.

Brett House, Corner Route 522 and New Mexico 150; international/New Southwest; $14-$23; (505) 776-8545.

Carl’s French Quarter (at Quail Ridge Inn), Ski Valley Road; continental/Cajun; $12-22; (505) 776-8319.

Casa Cordova, Ski Valley Road, eight miles north of town (at Arroyo Seco); international/New Southwest; $5.25-$21; (505) 776- 2500.

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Doc Martin’s (at Taos Inn), 125 Paseo del Pueblo Norte; traditional and contemporary Southwest; $4-$20; (505) 758-1977.

El Pueblo Cafe, 625 Paseo del Pueblo Norte; American/northern New Mexican; $1.95-$9.95 (“Bowl of Green” $3.75); (505) 758-2053.

La Ultima, 703 Paseo del Pueblo Sur; Tex-Mex; $5-$9.50; (505) 758-3340.

Fall events:

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Sept. 20-Oct. 6: 17th Annual Taos Arts Festival; special exhibits in town, tours of artists’ homes, gallery receptions.

Sept. 29-30: San Geronimo Day (Harvest Festival) in Taos Pueblo; footraces, pole climb, Pueblo crafts, traditional dances.

Sept. 28-29: Taos Wool Festival (sheep shearing/weaving demonstrations) and Old Taos Trade Fair (re-enactment of Spanish Colonial trade rendezvous between Indians, Spanish settlers and mountain men).

Oct. 15-Dec. 12: Meet-The-Artist series, Taos Inn; well-known local artists discuss their art; no charge.

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Oct. 25-27: 9th Annual Mountain Balloon (Hot Air) Rally; launch site at Wymer Field on south side of town; parade, picnic, Balloon Ball.

Oct. 26: Taste of Taos; afternoon food and wine event where restaurateurs show off their best, at Kachina Lodge.

For more information:

Taos Central Reservations: (800) 821-2437.

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Taos Valley Resort Assn.: (800) 992-7669, for information and reservations.

Taos Bed & Breakfast Assn.: (800) 876-7857, for B&B; reservations.

Chamber of Commerce: (800) 732-TAOS.


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