The road before us swoops down around a big turn, and then it backs up to the mesa. A horizon of dusty blues and tarnished browns meets a brilliant blue sky. At first, it is the grandness of the view I notice, like arriving at the ocean.
Then, as I sweep my gaze, I notice the town of Taos, tucked in the middle of the vast valley. On the left are sparse, snow-capped mountains. To the right, cutting through the high desert, is a dark blue zigzag. I can barely see the cliffs plunging down to the Rio Grande River on its way to Mexico from this spot in “New” Mexico.
I’ve made a decade of visits here, yet the view continues to make my heart swell. At 7,000 feet, the light — that wonderful light that inspired artist Georgia O’Keeffe and writers like Natalie Goldberg, John Nichols and Tony Hillerman – covers the area in liquid gold. With the car windows rolled down, the crisp scent of sage and juniper rushes in. Dirt roads go off in many directions, offering so many ways to explore this high desert.
Taos, with its fluctuating population of about 6,500, is the jewel of northern New Mexico. It’s a hard place to make a living; so many come for just a ski season. I’ve eaten at most of the restaurants here, perused the galleries, attended two weddings and a birth, ridden my mountain bike, hiked, walked, skied and enjoyed more than one incredible margarita from the margarita master bartender, Doug, at the Adobe Bar inside the historic Taos Inn.
In the summer months, the narrow two-lane road through the heart of town smells more like diesel than sage. It’s best to just park the car and walk. Original adobe homes (small windows are a clue) mixed in with adobe-style buildings are a big part of Taos’ charm. The browns, reds and tans most people used to paint these dwellings blend perfectly with the muted greens of the low-lying sage and pinions. And surging upwards, like some gigantic rogue wave, are the Sangre de Cristo Mountains with 13,161-foot Wheeler Peak at the top of the crest. Hidden from view are the slopes of Taos Ski Valley.
Taos Ski Valley is about an hour’s drive from town. It’s known as one of the premier ski areas in the U.S., partly because it’s in Taos, and partly because the ski area is steep with dry powder. But it’s not for snowboarders; Taos is one of two ski areas in the U.S. that does not allow boarding.
Visiting skiers often leave their lift pass on their jackets for months. It’s like they’ve earned a cool badge by skiing there. Beginners are intimidated by the advanced runs that shoot right down to the base, but nearly half the mountain is for beginner and intermediate skiers. The rest, including the challenging Kachina Bowl, is definitely for experts.
Once the snow melts, hiking out from the resort and up towards Bull-of-the-Woods is an excellent way to spend the day. Plenty of avalanche paths along the way remind hikers it is one steep area. Non-hikers can get a ride on the chairlift to the top of Al’s Run, ($10 for adults; tickets available through the ski resort).
Besides skiing and hiking, there’s river rafting on the Rio Grande, fly-fishing in one of the many streams, mountain biking for miles in the national forest, backpacking with big-horn sheep in the mountains or picnicking near the petroglyphs. There so much adventure here, that it’s easy to never even get into town. You’d miss the traffic, but you’d also miss the spicy roasted green chilies and incredible arts.
Ed Gorman’s popular Indian art is available here in Taos, but there’s so much more. My favorite artisan is Ed Morgan, a master engraver whose work is shown in the Morgan Gallery.
“I engrave for the sheer love of it,” he says of his work. “My favorite subject is the Native American. I do personal ceremonial stuff in my art. I try to blend the ceremony with fantasy, and I put it in my terms.” Morgan applies watercolor or silk and sometimes gold leaf to the limited edition images he creates. The people, buffalo and horses seem to rise up from the paper.
There are other artists, too, whose work will inspire visitors. Walk through town and you’re sure to discover a personal favorite. In late May to mid June as the snow is melting from the high country, the Taos Spring Arts Celebration offers art shows, poetry readings, storytelling, music, dancing and workshops. In the fall, the heady scent of roasting green chilies fills the streets. The smell is intoxicating. If you’re not careful, you’ll end up driving home with a bushel of chilies in your trunk.
Green chili-laced food is everywhere – on beans and eggs at breakfast, in a burrito for lunch, in the salsa on the dinner table and in the ever-popular posole (Mexican soup), tamales (corn meal stuffed with pork and steamed inside a corn husk) and other Mexican and New-Mexican dishes such as traditional enchiladas stuffed with feta and yams and drizzled with crème brulée.
For the most part, there is a comfortable truce between the old and the new in Taos. The Taos Pueblo on the north side of town is a traditional, Native American pueblo inhabited for nearly 800 years. It’s a living example of the old ways mixed with the new attitudes. On one hand, in order to make a living, the Pueblo Indians just opened a casino on the edge of their property – tasteful and small, but still a gaming hall.
The Pueblo Indians, who speak the Tiwa language, also open their pueblo to tourism. It feels a bit awkward to wander through the pueblo – as beautiful and majestic as it is – knowing that I am walking through the homes of others. But the Pueblo Indians do it both to generate income and to help build respect and understanding about their culture.
The Taos Pueblo has strict rules about where you can go and what you can do while visiting the pueblo. There are fees for entry, parking and to photograph, videotape or even sketch. Still, you can see grandmothers cooking bread in large outdoor ovens or watch a traditional ceremony on a winter night. Proceed with gratitude and appreciation – it’s certainly worth visiting this picturesque piece of living history.
Graceful adobe churches like San Geronimo can be found in and around Taos, a reminder of the strong Spanish influences.
On my last visit to Taos, this time with my husband and our kids, we hiked to a creek near the edge of town. No trails or signs marked the way. We wove our way through the prickly pear cacti, sage and junipers. Our two boys headed for the small rock cliffs on one side of the creek. As I watched them head up, I saw that they climbed through a gallery of petroglyphs. Hunters and deer, birds and spirals adorned the rocks. I’d seen these images all around Taos. I’d seen them in the museums and galleries and down near the Rio Grande River. I could feel the ghosts of those storytellers, wrapping their blankets of history around me.
As we drove north, through the upper Rio Grande Valley, we went past the turn-off for author D.H. Lawrence’s shrine, (he once wrote that visiting new Mexico was one the greatest experiences he ever had), past the blackened trees from the fire near the Lama Foundation (a spiritual retreat) seven years ago, past the molybdenum mine around Questa and past the out-of-place Buddhist stupa (a shrine) near the Colorado border. Woven into our hearts were the old and the new, the wild and the wonderful, as we drove once more through the liquid light of northern New Mexico
IF YOU GO:
Local artists offer traditional and modern work in Taos’s museums and galleries.
The Taos Chamber of Commerce
Georgia O’Keeffe Museum
201 Johnson, Santa Fe, NM
The Historic Taos Inn
Paseo Del Pueblo Norte, NM
Taos Ski Valley
4 Bent Street, Taos, NM
The Taos Pueblo