Tiny Taos offers big delights

Like Santa Fe, Taos boasts wonderful restaurants, art galleries, and skiing. But it also has a lot of native culture, far fewer people, and not many stoplights.

Ron Schloemer was busy correcting college papers on a flight from Cincinnati to Albuquerque, N.M. "The trouble with these kids is that they don't read. That's why they can't write. All these flowery adjectives...."

His wife, Lyn, sat between Ron and me on the plane. Ignoring his mumbling, she turned to me: "The first time we drove through New Mexico, it was in '82. I said, 'If I ever have to live here, I'm going to cut my throat,' Isn't that right, Ron, isn't that what I said?"

"Uh huh."

"I mean, it was tacky. All those signs: 'See the bear,' 'Visit the snake farm.' But that was 20 years ago. Things have changed."

Since that time, Ron's job as a pilot (he's now a college professor) required that they live in Alabama, California (twice), and Korea, among other places, and now Ohio. And, oh yes, they also spent several years in New Mexico.

So where are they looking to retire? You guessed it.

"You're just going to love New Mexico," said Mrs. Schloemer as we disembarked in Albuquerque.

My destination was Taos, about a two-hour drive from the airport, a rather sleepy back-water of about 5,000 laid-back folks, many of whom simply dropped in one day and never dropped out.

Jules Cahalane and her husband, Robert, moved here a number of years ago. Coming up the highway, turning a corner, and coming face to face with the mountains, she knew "this was the place." They settled in and started a "bread and breakfast" (Robert does the bread, Jules does the breakfast.) Their Inn on the Rio is one of the dozens of B&Bs here.

"Ten minutes from my house I'm in Carson National Park," Mrs. Cahalane says, "and I can hear coyotes howl. People come here for the environment."

Quick to praise Taos, Cahalane proudly notes what it doesn't have. "We don't have mosquitoes," she boasts. But she neglects to mention a couple of itty-bitty nuisances – such as scorpions and rattlesnakes.

If you're used to a town with buildings more than two stories high and traffic lights that can be counted on more than one hand, well, Taos isn't like that. The largest building around is the ancient Taos Pueblo.

Since long before the arrival of Europeans in the mid-1500s, Taos has been at the crossroads of trade. Silver, beads, animal skins, and provisions were swapped with native and Plains Indians.

Trapper and military legend Kit Carson settled in Taos from 1828 until about 1840, and he dreamed of retiring here. His adobe house was built as a wedding gift for his third bride, Maria Josefa Jaramillo. Both are buried in nearby Kit Carson Cemetery in Kit Carson Park.

His house, now a modest museum-still in the works, stands on Kit Carson Road. Most of Carson's personal possessions are scattered, but a desk and trunk, thought to have belonged to him, are here, among furniture of the period.

Taos has an almost mystical feeling – with its flat, arid, and barren spaces, and with the Sangre de Cristo and Jemez mountain ranges as a backdrop. The town boasts more than 300 days of sunshine annually. Sunsets; clear air; and warm, bright light have attracted droves of artists since the 19th century. More than 100 art galleries and shops burst with their talents.

But it's not all traditional paintings of local Indian tribes making pottery or grinding corn. In fact, few such galleries are to be found. Abstract paintings and sculptures predominate.

A visit to Lumina Gallery and sculpture garden at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House, a short walk from the center of town, is a must. The home has sheltered such luminaries as D.H. Lawrence, Ansel Adams, Martha Graham, Carl Jung, and Georgia O'Keeffe.

In the town, the Total Arts Gallery and Mission Gallery are among the best.

With all its attractions throughout the year (Taos is also a major ski destination), tourists flock to the small town. And where there are tourists, there are bed-and-breakfast inns. Whatever your taste, style, budget, Taos has a comfortable place for you to bunk down.

Elizabeth Taylor and I stay at Alma del Monte, an adobe home filled with warmth, hospitality, and romance. (OK, so we don't stay there together; the one time I was there she was back in LA.)

The similarities – and differences – between Taos and its big sister, Santa Fe, beg to be addressed. Not having been to the other sibling, I could only query those who were familiar with both places. The obvious difference is size: Santa Fe weighs in with a population about 60,000 to Taos's 5,500.

"Santa Fe is more cosmopolitan and has a lot more galleries and wonderful restaurants," said one owner of an art gallery. "Anglos are the majority there, but here native Americans and people of Spanish descent are the majority. Taos is more intimate, more 'spiritual.' "

That may be true. A local religious directory lists, along with Catholic, Jewish, and most Protestant denominations, Tibetan Buddhism, the Church of the Creative Spirit, and the Gadohi Usquanigodi Native American Spiritual Center.

At fine restaurants such as Joseph's Table, owners/chefs Joseph and Gina Wrede have raised the bar on haute cuisine in Taos. Other restaurants worthy of a meal include Stakeout and Lamberts.

Certainly the most important spot to visit is the Taos Pueblo, just two miles from the center of town. For more than 1,000 years the Taos Pueblo Indians have inhabited this very spot. Warning: The pueblo is often closed to visitors during religious observances, so it's best to check before you go. Alas, it was closed during my visit.

Taos has much to offer. But it doesn't have lawns. So when lawn mowing and watering no longer hold their appeal, this may just be the place to retire, right next door to the Schloemers.

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