Taos, New Mexico is famous for striking scenery, a vibrant mix of Anglo, Hispanic and Native American cultures, and the calaboose where Jack Nicholson was jailed in Easy Rider. Taos still retains a small-town feel even as it now attracts billionaire second-homers, jet setters and other flotsam and jetsam of globalization along with its more traditional assortment of artists, artisans and counterculture refugees. The breathtaking landscape, limpid light and natural charms that enchanted the likes of Georgia O'Keefe and D. H. Lawrence are still to be found along with ski slopes, chic boutiques and high-end spas the town's founders never imagined. I fired up the soundtrack of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid on my iPod and headed southwest from Denver.
Old Taos County Courthouse
On the central plaza, the Old Taos County Courthouse looks like it's right out of an old Western, though it was actually rebuilt in 1934 after a fire. You'll find the cage-like lock-up immortalized in Easy Rider on the ground floor. Don't miss the WPA-era frescos on the second floor by Emil Basttram, a student of Diego Rivera and one of the early titans of the Taos art scene, illuminating themes of justice and society. A torrent of law books issuing forth from a domed capitol topples Justice and crushes men and women in the mural Superfluous Laws Oppress, while another, Sufficient Laws Protect, shows the books sheltering industrious tradesmen, a Madonna-like mother with child, and contented chickens.
The image most closely associated with the town is the Taos Pueblo, a multi-story adobe village that has been continuously inhabited since pre-Columbian times. While many of the living spaces have been converted into shops for Pueblo Indian craftspeople, do not dismiss this as a kitschy tourist trap. The Pueblo Indians have diligently protected and preserved their culture. Parts of the pueblo are off limits to visitors, with strict visiting hours for those that are open. The tribe licenses images of the pueblo for commercial photography though you can snap pictures for personal use, and it's a photographers dream.
I met friendly people moving at the speed of life ready to share their stories. Such as Carpio Bernal, or Water Crow. When I told him I live in the East Village, he recounted touring with the legendary La Mama Experimental Theater (just down the street from my apartment) and the Native American Theater Company, working (and more) with Helen Mirren, Dean Stockwell and Neil Young.
In another shop, the couple selling dream catchers told me about their children they home schooled. One entered college at the age of fifteen and plans to work for the FBI in cybercrime. They are proud to have kept their kids away from drugs and alcohol, a scourge among Native Americans, even in this picture postcard setting.
Whether your palate favors road food, fine dining or both, you won't go hungry in Taos. I found myself addicted to the green chile and eggs at the Taos Diner, a breakfast joint popular with locals on the main drag near the road to the Taos Pueblo. If you can't make up your mind between the red and green chile, order the Christmas chile - red and green. I smothered the home-made corned beef hash with green chile while reading the Taos News. Front page below the fold, an image of the Virgin Mary swaddling baby Jesus was seen in a knot in a timber of the ancient church in Questa. "It has gotten people seeing the beauty in everything," said renovation project coordinator Mark Sideris. On an inside page, a Paris billionaire won approval to build a subdivision of "10-15 acre luxury ranchettes" next to the Taos Pueblo. I failed to see the beauty in that, though the would-be ranchetters won't have swimming pools due to concerns about the "over-appropriated water basin" in this high desert valley.
Mexican food aficionados (like me) won't want to miss the Guadalajara Grill, a formica and fluorescent mecca specializing in seafood with yummy ceviche and fish tacos. For fine dining, the Love Apple is right up there with what you'll find on either coast, with a creative menu featuring local ingredients and a northern New Mexico accent.
The last time I hiked in a painting was on LSD, but you don't need chemical assistance to have that experience on the Ghost Ranch. This is where Georgia O'Keefe created her iconic Southwest images. Shifting light and colors startle. Red, lavender and yellow mesas look like mounds of ice cream topped with whipped cream clouds in the sapphire sky. The ochre chimney rock appears translucent in the late afternoon sun. You can do your own thing, or lectures and tours will guide you through the ranch's O'Keefe heritage and more ancient history: it's the site of a rich dinosaur quarry.
O'Keefe had a home in the village of Abiqui and made the chalk-like badlands outside town famous as the White Place, or Plaza Blanca. Dar al Islam, a non-profit dedicated to interfaith understanding, now owns the land as well as an adobe mosque, and welcomes hikers.
After a day of hiking, the region's abundant natural hot springs beckon. Ojo Caliente, a spa resort at the foot of a mesa, has outdoor mineral pools of various temperatures open to the day visitor as well as guests who book multi-day stays. It has all the modern amenities, though the hot springs have drawn fans for centuries before bathrobes and lockers were provided. A trail takes you to the ruins of an ancient pueblo, countless pottery shards mute testimony to the departed populace.
For a more rustic experience, you'll find the au natural Stagecoach Hot Springs down in the Rio Grande gorge near Arroyo Honda a couple of miles north of Taos. At the end of a trail, a few clothing-optional sand-bottomed rock pools in the river are as close to nature as you can get. Ask locals for directions and conditions - if water levels are low, it's no go. Otherwise it's hippie heaven. This is Easy Rider territory after all.
Another Roadside Attraction
The Classical Gas Station Museum on Route 68 south of town is an homage to an earlier era when road trips meant two lane highways and oddball roadside attractions rather than interstates and standardized franchise chains. This tin roof shed with a collection of ancient rusting gas pumps and period metal advertisements is itself folk art, outsider art or something. Maybe it'll be acquired by the Smithsonian or earn designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Or maybe not. But it should.
Tatooine meets Mad Max
Neither Mad Max nor Star Wars were filmed at the Earthship community outside Taos, but they could have been. A cross between Tatooine and Thunderdome, an architect once described this collection of buildings as environmentally friendly but ugly. I saw an example of creative recycling in its edifices of bottles, cans and old tires. If you have lemon make lemonade, if you have a pile of junk, make a house. It is actually quite the tourist attraction - several people stopped by just in the few minutes I spent there.
For Taos' more traditional architecture, don't miss the adobe masterpiece the San Francisco de Asis church in Ranchos de Taos.
Get in the mood
If you want to catch up on the cinematic heritage of the region, besides Easy Riderr and Westerns too numerous to list, don't overlook Ace in the Hole, aka The Big Carnival, written, directed and produced by Billy Wilder in 1951. Film noir in the desert sun, it stars Kirk Douglas as Chuck Tatum, a seedy, down-on-his-luck reporter running on empty in Albuquerque. When a pothunter gets trapped in a cave, Tatum smells his ticket to the big time. It's a portrait of sensationalist journalism that exploits a story for maximum gain. Nothing like that would happen today, right?