Homing in on the range; New Southwesterners May Trample What They Came Here To Enjoy

The air in northern New Mexico as clear and sharp as Venetian glass. In the warm spring sun it's like breathing ice water. It sharpens the edges of the shadows that clouds throw across the sage, spit-polishing the pinon pine and the buckskin-tinted earth. Sun comes to earth undistracted.

With the quality of light here, perhaps, the story begins.

The atmosphere makes this place many pilgrims' perfect answer to the 20th century. The stylish and the affluent - who can pick and choose their way of life - put cowboy boots on under their gray flannel trousers and shift their life styles into a lower gear. ''Members New York Stock Exchange'' appears in carved wooden letters on the quaint sign hanging outside the office door. No bustle and throng here. The money has been made somewhere else.

Long before the Anglo-Americans came from the East, this was the land of enchantment, the northern reach of the land of clear light. Pueblo Indians developed an adobe architecture from the mud. Mexican penitentes dug acequias to irrigate their farms centuries before they became Mexican-Americans.

Now in the past year both Time and Newsweek have dubbed Santa Fe the American Salzburg. Esquire has alerted its young, upscale readers that this town of 50, 000 is the ''right place'' to live. Cosmopolitan, U.S. News & World Report, Rolling Stone, The National Geographic, and the New York Times, among others, have surveyed the Santa Fe phenomenon.

Notables like Neil Simon, John Ehrlichman, Amy Irving, Greer Garson, and the Duke and Duchess of Bedford have bought houses here.

Retailers like Horchow and Lord & Taylor are putting out lines using the Santa Fe theme, while denizens of the New York art world fly west to spend their money in Santa Fe galleries.

The town has style, atmosphere, ambiente. It's a regional art center at a time when art is digging for its regional roots. But more than that, it's an environment that apparently speaks to something many affluent Americans from the East and North are seeking.

These are refugees from a fast-paced consumer culture, but they threaten to simply consume the culture that drew them here.

North of Santa Fe in Espanola, a Mexican-American working for the power company talks of hooking up houses lately for people with ''funny names'' from places like Minnesota and Pennsylvania.

Farther north in Taos, city planner Allen Vigil observes: ''People came who never intended to stay that have stayed and don't know why.''

''A lot of people burn out on L.A. and New York, and they want an alternate life style,'' novelist John Nichols said over a Mexican dinner in a Taos plaza restaurant. He paints a broad-brush portrait of the new migrants: ''They're knocking down 50 grand selling stocks on margin,'' he said, when they decide they need to slow down, move to Taos, and become carpenters - out-hustling skilled locals for jobs.

And there are many stories here of those who packed up and left after a couple of years, either because their restlessness followed them here or because they couldn't find work they could live on.

Even those brought up in northern New Mexico often have to leave to find a job. Mr. Vigil, a young native Taoseno with a Pancho Villa mustache and the easygoing manner that characterizes the place, counts himself lucky. ''A lot of my friends got degrees and would love to live in Taos, but there's nothing you can do with a degree in Taos.''

The newcomers come for a life style and for an atmosphere. The land and the light. The style here, widely adhered to, is the native pueblo. Real adobe is admired most, but simulated adobe or adobe-colored stucco are cheaper and more frequent. Indian crafts and Spanish colonial furniture and tile are the prevailing motifs.

It's rural and it's cosmopolitan. It's culturally diverse, with strong American traditions much older than America itself. Real estate prices are soaring.

This is the irony of Southwestern chic. This Anglo passion for Indian and Spanish tradition threatens to crowd the Mexican-Americans who have lived here for a few centuries right out of their traditional homes.

''It's crazy . . . crazy,'' murmurs Santa Fe's city manager, William Sisneros , shaking his head. It's crazy, because while land prices are rising everywhere, northern New Mexico is faced with an influx of people and money from the hyperinflated real estate markets of the East and West Coasts. So local prices are skewed accordingly.

All this in one of the poorest regions of the country. The middle-class pilgrims to this mythical, sun-baked land are pounding a heavy-footed path across the society already here.

The Indian and Hispanic communities here are the substance behind the style so sought after, the raw material of the artists' depictions. The Indians have their tribal lands. But the Mexican-Americans have centuries-old families and farms sustained by a subsistence way of life that is drowning in a cash economy.

John Nichols came to Taos in 1969 after burning out in New York himself. Since then he has written a trilogy of rather bitingly comic novels set in a fictional Taos (''The Milagro Beanfield War,'' ''The Magic Journey,'' and ''The Nirvana Blues''). He has also written a personal memoir of Taos life (''If Mountains Die''), and a forthcoming book (''The Last Beautiful Days of Autumn'') that includes his photos of the stunning local landscape. A dedicated leftist, he is one of the best-known and most critical observers of life in northern New Mexico.

''Middle-class Americans have no stake in the local culture,'' he says in frustration. ''They move every two or three years. They come and they leave.''Taos is going to get wrecked,'' he warns, ''just like Aspen.''

It all started at the end of the last century when a painter of Indians, Joseph Henry Sharp, discovered Taos from stories he heard of the town while in Santa Fe.

Santa Fe was at the end of the Santa Fe trail, but Taos was not on the way to anywhere. So the Pueblo Indian and Hispanic villages here were little touched by commerce with industrial America. Sharp's compelling accounts of the place to artists he met elsewhere lured some other painters to the village.

Six established artists settled there and formed the Taos Society of Artists, so that they could get their work out and exhibited around the country. Others followed as word spread of the light, the expansive vistas, and the picturesque Taos Pueblo.

But it was Mabel Dodge, a wealthy socialite and writer, who came in 1916 and made the art colony's international reputation glow. She brought out D.H. Lawrence, and he bought a ranch nearby before moving down to Mexico. His wife, Frieda, lived out her days here.

Georgia O'Keeffe, probably the best-known painter in the region, first visited Mabel Dodge in Taos in the late 1920s, then settled in Abiquiu across the Rio Grande, where she lives now.

These people planted the seeds of the Taos legend.

The writers and artists in Taos and Santa Fe in the '20s were romantic about the local color. According to Elaine Bradbury, director of Santa Fe's Museum of Fine Arts, they made a very conscious effort to codify the style of the place. It worked.

Just as Mabel Dodge was settling into the established art colony at Taos, Edgar Hewett, director of the Museum of New Mexico, set off to bring some Eastern artists to Santa Fe.

This helped set up the state capital as something of an art center in its own right. But Taos reined in the arts. Santa Fe's artists didn't have the money to travel and show their work around, Ms. Bradbury notes. So they didn't generally remain top-flight.

The scene has changed radically in the past five years or so, she says. Collectors like Elaine Horwitch, Linda Durham, and Heydt Bair have lit up the fine arts landscape in Santa Fe. It has emerged as the art capital of the Southwest, with some 70 galleries in town, and the work here, Ms. Bradbury says, is ''really first-rate in anybody's book.'' New York dealers come here now, and artists live here who don't even have galleries here.

There are no real schools or movements. The only common denominator, Ms. Bradbury says, is the earth and the light. ''You could tell someone was painting in the Southwest. You might even be able to tell they were painting in New Mexico, but I don't think you could tell they lived in Santa Fe.''

At the same time that the arts flourish, the local style of architecture and the design traditions here have grown more popular.

''It could be a reaction to the slick, modular stuff of the '50s and '60s,'' she offers as an explanation. It's human scale, she says, and it has survived here because of the region's isolation, the same way it has in small villages elsewhere - in Italy or Mexico, for instance.

It's earth-colored architecture, easy to look at. It's low to the ground. It's energy efficient. It's handmade, at least traditionally. And it has roots.

Around a million tourists pass through Santa Fe in a year. Nearly the only jobs in town that don't rely on tourists are for the state government. Taos - with its nearby ski basins and the quaint look of a Southwestern Nantucket - is even more heavily a tourist town. Jobs are hard to find, and many middle-class newcomers are happily underemployed.

But under their skin, these are still Hispanic towns. Most of the people who live in them are Hispanic, and the sense of community is strong. Along the back roads between Santa Fe and Taos there are still relatively isolated, Spanish-speaking villages.

The names on houses in Cundiyo, for example, are variations on a theme: J.J. Vigil, E.B. Vigil. All 25 or so families in this little burg, set in the steep wall of a mountain canyon with a horse pasture and some cultivation on its floor , are surnamed Vigil. All are related by blood or marriage. Truchas, a town set on a ridge a few miles north, sports a junk heap pushed off the shoulder of the highway and brightly colored family cemeteries by some of the houses. No tourists here. Suspicious stares usher a passing car through.

Even in Santa Fe, there is a strong ''insider-outsider'' mentality, city manager Sisneros admits. The outsiders come with a generally wider range of work experience and compete with the local folks, he says. ''So it becomes a bread-and-butter issue.''

Meanwhile the migrants filter in. They buy land and build houses. ''It seems like for a long time all I was doing was helping friends build adobe houses,'' said Nichols.

The irony is that now it's mostly the affluent that can afford to build with adobe, and the traditional farmers are being slowly forced out of their long-held family plots and into trailers or cheap frame houses.

Mud is free, and in the barter economy that had helped farmers survive in this harsh soil, building someone a house became a community project. But now it is predominantly a cash economy, and the laborious, time-consuming construction of the kind of house locals grew up in is for those who can afford to hire people to have it done.

The lifeblood of the peasant communities has been the acequias, the communally maintained and regulated ditches that irrigate the fields. The property holders on a given acequia hold meetings to decide how the water is meted out and organize work parties to keep the ditch clean.

Nichols says he is virtually the only Anglo to attend his acequia meetings, although lots of them live along the ditches. (Two acequias cut through Nichols's 1.7 acres of alfalfa.)

New development is disrupting the acequia networks, he says, and well-drilling is lowering the water table. Looking over the Taos valley, he sees much more fallow ground than when he arrived 13 years ago. He has banded together with old farmers to fight various fights, including one against expansion of the ski areas. ''Everything about the development means the death of the little towns in the valley.''

Nichols has immersed himself in the Hispanic community, and he is pessimistic about its future. People who have passed their land on from generation to generation and think of it as part of the family can't afford it anymore. But the old farmers and ranchers Nichols has come to know have made a deep impression on him, he says.

''They still have their idealism. My friends hit 30 and were the most cynical people in the world.''

In the late evening, sitting in his cluttered kitchen - the table piled high with magazines, newspapers, correspondence, and a typewriter - Nichols gets up to stoke the wood stove he cooks and heats with.

''One of the questions people are always asking each other in Taos is 'How did you come to Taos?' ''

It was the young counterculture of the late '60s that ''sort of opened the door,'' he muses. They came about the time he did, they started communes, and they burned out in about three years. ''It's a terrible place to be a farmer.'' Water rights are nearly impossible to get, the growing season is short, the soil is not rich. Only the most tenacious can subsist. But the hippies, he concludes, ''turned out to be more middle class than anyone could have imagined. They had a lot of money, bought a lot of land.''

The migrants now are generally a different breed. Many are professionals. Many become entrepreneurs. Many just don't make ends meet and leave.

''Most people feel needs to get away from the tension and alienation that is bred in our industrial centers.''

Do they succeed? Do they find what they came for in these lovely New Mexican towns?

Not when they live the same way they did before, Nichols says. ''You can't create a new life by using the same rules you used to botch up the old life.

''Those who succeed, but just create private nirvanas, will find things get ruined for them.''

But too many of the footloose don't succeed. ''People leave and say, 'I'm going to check out Telluride (Colorado). I hear that's not wrecked yet.' ''

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