The ‘other’ High Road To Taos
October 25, 2007
A face full of wind.Looking into the western sky as the sun set over the mesa, a rush of warm wind caught me jaw high. It felt good. It was the end of an October day that had started in the gloom of a mountain snowstorm and ended with fresh autumn air in Taos, N.M., one of my favorite places on earth.My wife and I have made the trek to Taos for periodic rejuvenation for a number of years from our home here in Aspen. Taos provides a sort of refuge. No one knows us, the hotels are funky, the art inspiring and the restaurants exceptional. Oh, and there’s one of the best ski hills in all the West.
We had opted for what we call “the high road” to Taos (the actual “High Road To Taos” runs from Santa Fe through Truchas to Taos). Our chosen path would take us over McClure Pass to Ridgway, where we would spend the night, and then over Red Mountain and Molas Passes on the incomparably beautiful Highway 550, down through Pagosa Springs and finally to the high desert straightaway that leads to the Rio Grande Gorge and Taos. In all, we’d count eight to 10 hours of drive time, about five-plus hours longer than the direct route over Independence Pass. The high mountain scenery, coupled with the decompression that comes naturally as the wheels roll down the road, would be well worth the extra time.But this year, weather forced a serendipitous change of plans. When we awoke in Ridgway, heads foggy from the previous evening’s margaritas – a Taos trip tradition – we found that it had snowed 9-plus inches on the high passes. Time to adjust and improvise.A patrolman said the only pass open that fall morning was Buffalo Pass on Highway 114, a road we had never traveled that dropped us into the San Luis Valley. It turned out to be one of the most beautiful roads in the state. We followed the winding creek through canyons, red rocks rimmed with morning snows, farms and ranches with cowboys moving Black Angus and shepherds herding sheep, up the mountain pass where the sun broke through on the still-golden cottonwoods.It was a magnificent drive, and though we had to wait for a pair of Texas trucks to be pulled from the creek where they had slid on that icy morning, we could feel that the trip to Taos was going to be a good one.
Taos has an ancient history. Human habitation is said to go back as far as 12,000 years in the Rio Grande Valley, and it is believed the Anasazi had outposts in the region before their mysterious disappearance. The Taos Pueblo, one of 851 UNESCO World Heritage sites around the world, is thought to have been built between 1000 and 1400 A.D. In the late 1500s, the first Spanish explorers began to arrive in the region and colonization, conducted by missionaries, followed. By 1625 the Spanish had built as many as 50 churches in New Mexico, and the tensions between the cultures was palpable. In 1680 the Indians, in a violent revolt led by the residents of the Taos Pueblo, forced the Spanish out of the region. But the Spaniards under the leadership of Don Diego de Vargas returned to conquer the lands a decade later.The Taos Pueblo is considered the oldest continuously inhabited community in the U.S.A. About 150 residents live there full time, with close to 1,900 still residing on Taos Pueblo lands. The original “apartments” in the adobe structures are constructed of earth mixed with straw. To this day the original pueblo has no electricity or running water. Interestingly, about 90 percent of the Pueblo Indians practice Catholicism, the religion brought to the region by the Spanish.Guests are welcome at the Pueblo daily, and it is well worth a visit.When entering Taos, one notices that this is a different place. To the west, the earth slopes to flat desert land. To the east are the mountains, majestic and rugged. The two-lane main street into town is an amalgamation of gas stations, art galleries, hotels and the other trappings of a tourist town. But once one gets to the town center, with its historic plaza and low-slung, adobe-style buildings, the feeling is uniquely Taos – old, rich, colorful and more than just a little funky.
The best way to get one’s bearings in Taos is to take a seat in the lobby of The Historic Taos Inn at the Adobe Bar, order a margarita and sit back. In time, generally a short time, you’ll begin to get a feel for the people and the place. Once we arrived in Taos we did just that. Within less than an hour’s time, I spoke with a tweed-jacketed art historian from the East who was in town to appraise a collection, a young couple from Boulder who had just finished finals in business school and had brought bikes and kayaks to play in the outdoors, a Taoseno silver artist and a couple of Pueblo Indians. The Taos Inn’s living room is the de facto crossroads of Taos. Each night there is music (except for Mondays, when poets take the stage for an open-mic night), and each night a myriad of stories weave together under the spell of songs and tequila. It has been in operation for 71 years and is one of the special rooms in this country.Taos Inn has 41 rooms of varying sizes and shapes in three adobe buildings. This trip, we stayed in a room in Sandoval House that was complete with a kiva fireplace, four-post king bed and little sitting room, and opened onto a private courtyard.In addition to the Taos Inn, there’s a plethora of exceptional bed-and-breakfasts, casitas and cozy inns that reek of history and charm.For history, try the Mabel Dodge Luhan House, which was once the home of a New York arts patron. The walls have hosted artists and writers who helped the shape the 20th century, including Ansel Adams, Willa Cather and Georgia O’Keeffe. In the 1970s, Dennis Hopper owned the home and his guests included Bob Dylan. Behind the Taos Inn, amidst shady grounds, the Luhan House was built in 1804 and still feels like the 1800s. For charm, we found two beautiful 200-year-old casitas on historic Ledoux Street. Artist Inger Jirby has outfitted a pair of high-ceiling adobes with big windows, quirky furnishings and bright, bold, beautiful art to create the kind of place you wish you owned. The casitas are adjacent to Inger’s studio, across from the Blumenshein Museum and a short walk from both the Taos Inn and the main plaza.
In Taos, art is everywhere. The people of the Pueblo make a good piece of their living creating jewelry and leather goods for sale. Navajo Artist R.C. Gorman was a resident of Taos, and his gallery on Ledoux Street, established in 1968, has been a magnet for admirers of Southwestern and American Indian art. Gorman, once hailed by The New York Times as “the Picasso of American Indian Art,” has been copied and borrowed from by so many other artists over the years that his style has become prone to cliché. But a visit to the gallery to see how the master used color and form to create powerful images restores faith in his talents.Ledoux Street is an excellent place to get a feel for the fine art and artists of Taos. Originally constructed by the Spanish more than 200 years ago as fortifications, the buildings house various galleries, as well as the E.L. Blumenshein House and Museum and Harwood Museum of Art. Both museums feature work from members of the early 20th century Taos Society of Artists, a collective or salon of artists from all over the world who converged in the region to work, live and relish the light and beauty of Taos. There are more contemporary happenings on Ledoux as well. At the head of the street, a historic courtyard is the new home of a European-style coffee bar and art space called the Café LOKA. Across the street is 203 Fine Art, a gallery owned by Eric Andrews that features a collection of contemporary Taos artists.
A number of culinary artists call Taos home as well, perhaps the most renowned being Joseph Wrede, owner of the eponymous Joseph’s Table in the Historic Hotel la Fonda de Taos. Here’s how Joe, as he is locally known, describes his cuisine: “Contemporary Southwestern, even if the preparation is French-, Italian-, or Asian-influenced. The air and soil impart a region’s purest flavor. I now combine a culinary education in French techniques, my Italian-German family sensibility, and the exoticism of Japanese culinary stylization.” The room is romantic, with little alcoves where diners can close curtains to sup in privacy.On the more casual side, Wrede has also opened Joe’s Mainstreet Bakery, the perfect place to idle away a morning over coffee, cheese and green chile breakfast sandwiches and fresh blueberry pie. For 14 years, The Trading Post at the south end of town has been a favorite of ours. We always sit at the counter overlooking the busy kitchen and watch the chefs prepare Italian-Southwestern dishes. The garlic pork chop is moist, meaty and a signature dish. Pastas are terrific and the wine list is first-rate.Back at the Taos Inn, Chef Zippy White has helped to make Doc Martin’s, the upscale restaurant at the Inn, a must-stop when in town. Wild game with a sun-dried cherry demi-glace, ancho-crusted pork tenderloin with a mango-tomatillo salsa, a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence – it’s all great, and enough in itself to make Taos a destination for fine dining.Of course, this is New Mexico, and there are number of places for great chili dishes and other Southwestern favorites. We’ve always liked Rita’s Café, a small stand that formerly stood on the north end of town but has moved recently to the southern end of Taos. Nothing fancy, just great, fresh, spicy Mexican food that hits the spot.
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We were too early to ski on this trip, but if you have not skied Taos Ski Valley, you need to make a trip. The resort and the mountain are about 15 miles from downtown Taos up windy Ski Canyon Road. Getting there on a snowy morning can be tough, but there are a number of inns and condominiums at the base of the hill if you want to roll out of bed onto the slopes.The mountain is known for its steep, and occasionally deep, dry powder. Fifty-one percent of the terrain is listed as expert and that may be undercounting. The Kachina Peak Bowl is above timberline and wide-open. Off the Highline Ridge, skiers can find a number of challenging chutes. Intermediate skiers and beginners also have access to suitable terrain, but it’s really is an expert’s wonderland.Taos Ski Valley is also unique in that it is just one of four resorts in the United States that still does not allow snowboarders on its slopes. The other three are Alta and Deer Valley in Utah and Vermont’s Mad River Glen. It is a point that Taos aggressively uses in its marketing to differentiate itself from other resorts.
As we left Taos for our ride back to Colorado, there was one more stop to make. About 15 miles north of town is the D.H. Lawrence Ranch, which is now owned and operated by the University of New Mexico. Lawrence, the author of “Women in Love” and “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” spent considerable time in Taos in the 1920s, and Mabel Dodge Luhan gave Lawrence’s’ wife, Frieda, a ranch in the hills above the town. One of the visitors was the noted painter Georgia O’Keeffe. In 1929, O’Keeffe went outside to admire the stars. While lying on a carpenter bench she gazed upward through the branches of a tree at the stars beyond. Inspired, she painted the view in an oil she called “The Lawrence Tree.” The painting now hangs in the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn.I have visited the tree before and found myself lying on the same bench, gazing at the very view that O’Keeffe painted nearly 80 years before. This trip I stopped again but the bench was gone. No worries. I simply turned around and looked to the heavens. Like O’Keeffe, I was inspired.And at just that moment, I got a face full of wind.It won’t be long before Kelly Hayes, an Old Snowmass resident, returns to Taos.