clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Taos: New Mexico town offers a mix of art and adventure

Kit Carson came along the Sante Fe Trail.

Ernest L. Blumenschein, after losing the flip of a coin, arrived with a broken wheel from his surrey in hand.

Millicent Rogers came to get over a love affair with Clark Gable.

They, and others both like and unlike, came to Taos and found something that caused them to stay. They put their own imprint on the place, added their own colorful threads to the tapestry that history wove.

This little town nestled in the Sangre de Cristo mountains of northern New Mexico, where the population (6,213) almost equals the elevation (6,967 feet), has long been a place of blended cultures, exotic atmospheres and eccentric characters.

That combination has given Taos an artistic and adventurous soul that has continued to lure visitors through the years. Ancestry, arts and adventure are three good reasons you might want to come to Taos.

Ancestry

The first peoples to arrive in the area were the pueblo-dwellers, who may have migrated from Chaco Canyon, although legend speaks of their arising from the depths of Blue Lake. These earliest peoples left no written records, but modern pueblos still preserve many of the ancient ways that have been handed down by oral tradition.

The Taos Pueblo, one of 19 still in New Mexico and a UNESCO World Heritage site, is home to about 1,500 tribe members. It is open to the public except during ceremonial events, which are scattered throughout the year. The public is also invited to special feast days, such as the Turtle Dance, the Corn Dance and the annual Powwow. You can get a sense of the spirit of both continuity and adaptation that has been a way of life here for countless ages.

These pueblo dwellers had settled into their kivas centuries, perhaps even millenniums, before an expedition sent out by Coronado looked over the valley in 1540 A.D. But the early Spanish obviously liked what they saw, and over the next century they arrived in increasing numbers, both searching for gold and bearing the banner of God. Cultural clashes are remembered in accounts of the Revolt of 1680 and the Massacre of 1760, but they eventually learned to live with and learn from each other.

A reminder of that period can be found closer to town at the Hacienda de las Martinez, one of the few surviving examples of the Spanish-Colonial era — although you see the same look repeated throughout the town. The thick-walled adobe hacienda was finished in 1803 by rancher/merchant Antonio Severino Martinez. Over the years, the fort-like structure, which grew to include 21 rooms and two courtyards, became an important commercial and political center in the valley.

There's also the San Francisco de Asis Mission, also on the outskirts of Taos, built between 1710 and 1801, and recently restored by the parishioners in traditional adobe fashion. It is one of the most-painted (it was a favorite of Georgia O'Keeffe, who lived in nearby Abiquiu), most-photographed churches in the Southwest.

American fur trappers and mountain men discovered the Taos area in the early 19th century. Kit Carson arrived at the age of 17 in 1826, and it became his home base through the rest of his life — in between his hunting and trapping excursions and his jaunts as Indian scout and army officer.

Carson married a famous Taos beauty named Josefa Jaramillo; their home is now a museum. The 30-inch adobe walls and traditional ceiling beams of the home are characteristic of the style and period (it was built in 1825). The Carsons lived in the humble, four-room home for 25 years. The rooms are now filled with exhibits and artifacts, but you get a sense of what life might have been like in those days.

Arts

Taos history took a turn in a different direction on a summer day in 1898. Bert G. Phillips and Ernest L. Blumenschein, two artists who had met in Paris and shared a studio in New York, were heading to Mexico to fulfill their dream of painting the Southwest when their carriage broke down just outside of Taos. Blumenschein lost the coin toss, which meant he had to take the wheel into the town for repairs. But he came back with such glowing reports that the two decided to end their odyssey there.

Phillips ended up staying permanently; Blumenschein left for a time, debated between Paris and Taos but eventually returned to the New Mexico town. In 1912, the same year New Mexico became the 47th state, the two men joined with four others to form the now famous Taos Society of Artists.

For the next several decades, Taos not only attracted artists but also art patrons and their literary friends. One of the most famous of the patrons was wealthy socialite Mable Dodge, who not only fell in love with Taos but also with a Taos Indian. Shortly after her arrival in 1917, she dumped her third husband, married Tony Luhan, and settled down to pursue her dream of establishing a great colony of artists and writers.

She invited D.H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda to the area; they too fell under its spell and stayed on and off between 1922 and 1925. Both are buried in Taos. Swiss psychologist Carl Jung lived there in 1924-25.

Millicent Rogers, high-society heiress to the Standard Oil fortune and an avid collector of early Southwest art, moved to Taos in 1947 and further encouraged artistic endeavors.

You see this art legacy almost everywhere you look in Taos. Galleries line the streets that run in all directions from the Taos Plaza, the site of the original Spanish settlement and now the heart of the Historic District. Paintings, photographs, sculpture, pottery, jewelry — whatever you're looking for in the way of Southwest art, you can find it here. It probably won't surprise you to learn there are more artists and galleries, per capita, in Taos than in Paris.

Several of the homes and collections of early artists have also been turned into museums. The Blumenschein Home looks much the way it did when the artist and his family lived there. Art on display includes not only his work, but also a sampling of works by other Taos artists and a collection of European and Spanish Colonial antiques.

The Fechin Institute showcases the home and work of early Taos artist Nicolai Fechin, who came from Russia to join the promising colony in 1927. The Harwood Museum of Art, housed in one of the earliest examples of the Pueblo Revival Style, offers a look at both early Hispanic art (including a collection of retablos, or paintings on wood, collected by Mable Dodge Luhan) and mid- to late-20th Century art.

None is any more spectacular than the Millicent Rogers Museum, however. Rogers' original collection of Southwest art has grown to include traditional and contemporary Hispanic religious and domestic arts, pottery, paintings, photography and graphics as well as a wide range of arts and crafts from the many cultures of northern New Mexico.

Adventure

Geology and geography combine to give Taos a setting that not only inspires spectacular art, but is also conducive to all kinds of activities.

When Ernie Blake wanted to build a ski resort in the nearby mountains in the mid-1950s, people thought he was crazy. But Taos Ski Valley, which opened in 1955, has grown into a year-round attraction. It's ski school is consistently ranked in the top five in the country. In the winter, the resort offers 72 different ski runs (more than half in the expert category).

In the summer, the chairlifts take hikers and bikers to trails that range in skill and length from the l.3-mile (one-way) trail to Long Canyon Junction to the 7.2-mile trek to the top of Wheeler Peak, New Mexico's highest mountain. Summer activities such as barn dances, concerts and star parties are held in the Ski Valley village.

Hiking trails also wind their way throughout the Carson National Forest, a backdrop for much of Taos, and which provides an alpine tundra ecosystem that is rare in this desert environment. Here you find lush stands of Douglas fir, Englemann spruce and ponderosa pine as well as abundant aspen groves. High alpine meadows are scattered with wildflowers.

If you want to enjoy the backcountry without the burden of a heavy backpack, you might consider the advantages of llama trekking. Stuart Wilde, a transplanted New Yorker, operates Wild Earth Llama Adventures, which offers both "take-a-llama-to-lunch" day hikes as well as overnight and several-day treks. With the gentle and sure-footed llamas carrying all your gear, Wilde will tell you, "your body, mind and spirit are free to enjoy the beauty and wonder of the mountains." And if you're lucky, you might get a farewell kiss from one of the doe-eyed llamas.

One of the most striking vistas in the Taos area is that afforded by the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, which spans the gorge some 650 feet above the river. The bridge was built in the mid-1960s, an amazing engineering feat; at the time it was the highest bridge in the world. You can walk across the bridge for an even more spectacular view.

But if you want to get up-close and personal with that river, whitewater-rafting is another popular sport in the area. Companies such as Native Sons Adventures, Los Rios River Runners, Far Flung Adventures and others offer both whole- and half-day trips down the river in either kayaks or rubber rafts. Water levels are lower this year due to prolonged drought in the West, but there are still enough rapids to keep things interesting.

There's fly fishing and horseback riding and golf. But after all the doing, save some time for sitting, for soaking up the atmosphere, for pondering why so many people have been drawn to Taos over the years — and why you're happy to be among them.


E-mail: carma@desnews.com