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Taos: Reviewed, Sort Of 8 June 2011

Posted by magicdufflepud in Reviews, Travel.
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If you enjoy tourist tchotkes, turquoise jewelry, and jokes about whites’ conquest of the West, visit Taos. For a better experience, skip the city altogether and visit Taos Ski Valley, just up the road, or the surrounding countryside, a moonscape of sage and volcanic hills straight out of 3:10 to Yuma.

To east rises the southern extension of the Sangre de Christos, verdant against against the dusty plain. North of the Colorado border, they scrape above 14,000′, here topping out at 13,161′ on Wheeler Peak. And to the west, well, that’s the west you see in movies. It’s brush and scrub, so dry your eyes will water and your skin will crack. It’s a place that makes Denver feel humid.

The Bureau of Land Management, who runs these parts, will remind you that it was not always so. That landscape of sage once included grassy plains as well, but as humans and their cattle moved in, the grass disappeared into hungry mouths and the sage spread. We’re altering the landscape still with grazing, road-building and extractive industries; the result is what you’d imagine: wild dust storms which strip tons (literally) of newly-freed topsoil and deposit it on Colorado snow pack.

The city itself remains a more permanent fixture; by some accounts, it has persisted for more than a millennium, making it the oldest continuously-inhabited place in America. If you’re into superlatives anyway. The pueblo began as a settlement for the roving Anasazi peoples, who may have moved from the Four Corners region to the Rio Grande Valley in search a of more consistent source of water. Today, the Taos Pueblo roots the town itself and still holds out as a dwelling for a permanent population of 150.

White folks discovered the area in 1615, dispatching with most of the native population and naming the town Fernandez de Taos. Armed resistance from the Pueblo peoples continue until 1696, when the Spanish Reconquest (not to be confused with the Reconquista) put the kibosh on all that. The John Wayne-style stuff stuck around longer with folks running all over the place fighting Comanches, and the citizens even staged a revolt after learning they’d been taken over by America in 1847. The newly-appointed governor, Charles Bent, met his untimely demise on the streets of Taos during that revolt—well before he’d received the chance to do much actual governing.

Taos’s reputation as a haven for artists emerging at the beginning of the 20th century. You can read about that part here, then ignore all of it, except maybe RC Gorman, who might appear in bar trivia at some point, and visit the hot springs instead.

From the city, head north to the light at Highway 64, then hang a left. A couple miles away on your right is Tune Rd. Follow that to its dirt parking lot terminus and pull out your swimsuit, backpack and beverages. The hike down is short, only about 400′ of vertical. At the bottom of the gorge lie two pools, one bathtub temperature, the other offering something closer to real “hot” spring heat. You’ll also find the remains of structures designed to corral the water, which has since chosen its own path. Across the way, an old stage road descends precipitously from the canyon rim. If you see “Harvey” whose name appears in chalk everywhere around the springs, sucker punch him for me, please. Thanks.

If you’re of a less adventurous mindset and public nudity gives you the willies, you might prefer the Rio Grande Gorge bridge, which features more folks from the elderly and Indian set, all of whom will be carrying cameras. It’s not the Grand Canyon, Canyonlands or anything approaching that category of beauty, but why not? You’ve already spent too much time in Taos, so it’s worth the trip just for a change of scenery.

I’m told that if you return to Taos, you’ll find an old pueblo there, dating back some thousand years or so. The Best Western on the drive in advertises authentic Indian dances every night, too, and if you drive up some road a ways to somewhere, you’ll also find real Indians dancing. I suppose Taos’ allure dwells in these sorts of things, but I can’t help but feel that it’s all a bit too reminiscent of Wall Drug, South Dakota’s largest tourist trap after Crazy Horse. There, and in Taos, authenticity implies curation. Taos has been done already, cultivated into a destination, and while I’ll stop short of calling it “lost,” it’s certainly a place that makes it difficult to find much of anything. Taos lacks the joy of discovery.

So discover the countryside, take in the art if you’d like but don’t come to Taos to wander. There’s so much else to explore.

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