Taos, New Mexico

Taos is a small town of about 5,700 people in the high desert of northern New Mexico. It’s home to artists, ranchers, naturalists, vagrants and the oldest inhabited indigenous community in the U.S.—the Taos Pueblo, an UNESCO World Heritage Site, a National Historic Landmark and thousand-year-old residence of the Tiwa-speaking Puebloan people.

Not many people have heard of Taos—including many in the surrounding region—but it’s probably better that way. No major highways run near it (driving through a maze of winding roads it’s about four hours south of Denver and two-and-a-halfish hours north of Albuquerque), it has no major economic influence, it’s about 7,000 feet above sea level and it’s surrounded by expansive mountain ranges, including the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and the 13,000-foot Wheeler Peak, the highest point in New Mexico. It’s a miniature somewhere in the middle of a massive and mysterious nowhere.

To get to Taos, my wife and I flew into Denver first to visit some nearby family for the night and sample the taste of Colorado before heading down to Taos early the next morning. The weather was cool and partly cloudy.

Driving south from Denver on I-25 is a giant yawn until you get south of Pueblo, Colorado, when the billboards start disappearing and the sky opens up. We fueled up and grabbed lunch in Fort Garland, Colorado, a town of 433 people a few miles north of the state border. Of course I ordered a green chili burger, because that’s what you do when you’re in Rome.

Then we hit the last stretch of road into Taos, still not knowing quite what to expect. I only heard of it a couple of years ago when I first visited in New Mexico for an artist’s residency in the town of Truth or Consequences, about four or five hours south of Taos. Like many towns in New Mexico, Truth or Consequences is part rural, part Bohemian and part mystical (New Mexico is the Land of Enchantment, after all). I was enamored of T or C, which is famous for its hot springs and occasional UFO sightings, but my whole time there, people kept saying, “You need to see Taos—there’s nothing like it.” Since then, Taos’ reputation has lingered in my imagination, fueled by occasional Instagram hashtag searches. After a rough winter, including the death of a family member, my wife and I finally figured there was no time like now to see it with our own eyes.

We weren’t scheduled to check into our AirBnB until the early evening, so our first stop in Taos was the Taos Pueblo:

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In addition to a small nearby casino, the Pueblo is a minor revenue generator for the reservation which covers roughly 95,000 acres in the greater Taos area. The cover charge of $16 per adult lets you walk around the main pueblo area and enter some of the small souvenir and food shops operated by the residents—which is as far inside as they’ll allow any gringo (fine with me). According to the Pueblo website, the Puebloan people “have a detailed oral history which is not divulged due to religious privacy.” A polite way of saying that it’s none of our business.

While we walked around the pueblo, taking pictures and watching the resident dogs mope around the puddles and sleep in the shadows, we heard the ceremonial drums and chants of the tribespeople somewhere deep inside the pueblo. There was no way for us to tell where it was coming from, and no way we could ever really know. Instead I imagined the history and the secrets hidden behind its cool adobe walls. Who knows what’s inside, or underneath?

As far was religion at the pueblo goes, it’s a mix of indigenous ritualism and Roman Catholicism—a vestige of the region’s Spanish colonization which began in 1540. At the time, the Spanish were mostly focused on gold. When they failed to find that, they imposed religion (as a mechanism of subservience, obviously). At first the Taos people resisted, with some bloodshed, but after a couple more decades and finding some common enemies, the pueblo eventually ceded to the Spaniard’s ideological inquisition. They named Saint Jerome the patron saint of the Taos Pueblo and erected the pueblo’s St. Jerome Chapel in 1619, which was subsequently destroyed and rebuilt several times over the next few centuries in various tribal and territorial wars. The original chapel site was finally abandoned in 1846 and by 1850 the Puebloans had already completed the new chapel a few hundred yards away. It’s still used by the Taos people today while the original chapel still stands at the edge of the village as a burial ground:

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Aside from the Taos Pueblo, the other thing Taos is “known for” is an ongoing sustainable housing experiment, Earthship Biotecture. Pioneered by outsider architect Mike Reynolds, earthships are homes hand-built using sustainable and recycled materials, solar and wind power, and passive heating and cooling techniques controlled with solar harvesting, interior greenhouses and earth berms to create a 100% off-the-grid living experience. I used to write for sustainability magazines and be credentialed by the U.S. Green Building Council, so I was excited that our next few nights in Taos were in the “Spectacular Taos Earthship,” which AirBnB describes as:

“…constructed using recycled and reclaimed materials such as tires, bottles and cans. It is extremely solid and built into a berm at the back. The roof is made of vigas timber, entire pine tree trunks. It is a passive solar home – heated by the sun via the angled glass at the front and the thick structural walls. Year round temperature inside is about 72°F regardless of outdoor climatic conditions. All water is rainwater collected from the roof and double filtered for drinking and all electric power comes from the solar array on the roof. Water is also heated via the solar array with propane heater backup for cloudy days.”

The Earthship Biotecture neighborhood is the closest thing you’ll find to a subdivision in Taos, though if you didn’t know what you were looking for, you’d miss it. It’s about a half-hour drive from Taos’ town center, past the Taos airfield and the Rio Grande Gorge, which carves an 800-foot-deep canyon into the vast desert mesa. The earthships are nestled into the hills with southern-facing exposures that double as greenhouses for air scrubbing and climate control (and in some cases, food; the greenhouse in our earthship had figs, bananas, aloe and other plants):

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Because the earthship neighborhood is deliberately energy-conscious, and miles from any reliable electrical infrastructure, there’s no light pollution and no peeping neighbors. Our earthship had a king bedroom, multi-leveled bathroom and large living and dining area providing sweeping views of the mountains and the night sky. We sat for hours in almost complete silence, watching the clouds march across the horizon.

The owners had decorated the interior of the earthship with tribal and psychedelic art. As the sun set and the clouds parted for the moon and stars, the combined effect of the high altitude, the remoteness and the indigenous history of the region swirled together in my imagination, reminding me again why New Mexico is the “Land of Enchantment.” While larger metro areas in the area, such as Denver, Colorado Springs, Santa Fe, or Albuquerque, have a certain Western character, their sprawling subdivisions, industrial machinations and commercial centers effectively sanitize their endemic charm and native appeal. It’s the small towns and communities, like Taos, where you start to feel the strange sense of enchantment that makes New Mexico feel almost otherworldly.

You can feel this vibe especially strong in Taos, whose history not only dates Western colonialism but is home to a long-standing indigenous community that continues to be a major cultural and social presence. The Puebloan’s guarded air of mystery and complex, occult history sets the ecological and spiritual tone of the area. Combined with the thin air, bright stars and big skies, it’s impossible to feel ordinary in Taos. I think this is why artists are attracted to the area—not necessarily popular, commercial artists, but those interested in individual and idiosyncratic expression, whose creativity complements and expands the Taosian mystique.

After a night of strange dreams and silence, we woke up the next day for an early hike along the edge of the Rio Grande Gorge, which is also home to one of America’s great engineering accomplishments, the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge—the seventh highest bridge in the U.S. spanning more than 1,200 feet and standing 565 feet above the gorge bottom. Wikipedia says it has been in movies like Natural Born Killers, Twins and Terminator Salvation. It doubles as a jumping-off point for the painfully depressed or those with six-figure student debt:

As we hiked along its edge, I thought of the old travelers and pioneers who stepped onto the plateau and thought, hey, this looks easy to cross—only to find an impassable chasm that stretches 50 miles north into Colorado. Thank God for modern engineering.

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After a six mile out-and-back hike along the gorge, we headed into the town of Taos to check out the shops and goings-on. It’s like a miniature version of Santa Fe with more hitchhikers and barefooters and fewer rich retirees and opera patrons. Did a little art gallery browsing and souvenir shopping, picking up the requisite Hatch chili powder, Albuquerque incense, and Taos coffee mugs, as well as a few rocks and minerals from Taos Gems & Minerals—which has been in operation for almost 50 years.

And then we closed out our last night in Taos at the awesome Taos Mesa Brewing Company, a local microbrewery housed in an aircraft hanger near the regional airport:

The brewery shares a parking lot with the local Taos radio station and is next door to a salvage yard, and doubles as a community center. We ordered a couple of beers (I went with the 7.5% ABV Great Scot Scottish) and a couple of burgers (green chilis again, of course), while families and farmers alike talked about the weather and played a few games of ping pong on the tables in the middle of the room in front of the stage, where a woman eventually announced that “Story Night” was starting now—which meant that we needed to stay to see what it was all about.

Typical of the young, tattooed bohemes in town, she was both sincere and irreverent, opening with a ad-libbed story involving alcohol, rooftop trespassing, vomiting, dodging cops and large-breasted friends. Meanwhile, a few kids were running around the hanger, complaining that there was no more ping pong and largely oblivious to the PG-13 tale unfolding on stage.

When she wrapped up her story, she invited anyone else on stage who had something to share. Another young woman, mother to one of the ping pong-deprived children, volunteered to go next. Without much introduction, she said, “This is going to get dark pretty quick, but this is a story about how my sister committed suicide a few months ago.” Anywhere else, this would have killed the mood, but in New Mexico—or at least in Taos—this kind of vulnerability seemed to go unjudged. She talked about how her sister had gone down a bad path, and how she found her sister dead, and how rude it was for people to kill themselves. Then she mentioned off-hand that her father had died a few months before all of this, while the bar patrons went on eating their chips and guacamole and watching the sunset. It was a moment straight out of a Coen Brothers movie and a fitting end for our time in Taos.

The next morning we started our drive back to Denver, opting for the long route because we had some time to kill:

Unfortunately, it was snowing all across the Rockies that day, so it became a 6ish-hour drive through a mix of foggy and whiteout conditions on winding mountain roads. But we saw a lot of horses, and that counts for something, right? I also had a brush with Colorado law enforcement, who flashed their lights at me for driving 25 miles per hour over the speed limit. I learned my lesson.

But mostly on the road back to Denver, I kept thinking about Taos. We only scratched the surface and didn’t get to hike to any of the natural hot springs or explore the ski areas and mountain trails that draw a lot of people to the area, but even for a short taste, it was filling, and I can’t wait to go back for more.

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By Ben van Loon

Writer, Researcher, Chicagoan

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