I’ve never made such a quick visit to New Mexico, but I decided a Taos News former employee reunion was an excuse to hit the road Saturday morning, spend a little time high in the Sangre de Cristos and catch up with some old friends, among other things.
Taos is one of those places that hits you like the sting of a Hatch green chile served searing hot in your eggs at the Taos Diner. The culture and landscape there are ones of extreme contrasts, with the Rio Grande Gorge threading through a broad valley (an extension of Colorado’s San Luis Valley) sacred to the nearby Taos Pueblo. It spreads out beneath 13,000 foot peaks, the highest in New Mexico. And there’s something about the light in Taos, reflecting off the adobe. It’s hard to explain. You just have to go.
We took the scenic route home, around the Enchanted Circle through Red River and Eagle Nest, and eventually through Cimarron, Philmont Scout Ranch, Raton, and Interstate 25. Eastern Taos County and Colfax County have Texas flags waving all over the place and more Texas license plates than local ones. Like parts of the San Juan Mountains of Colorado with their fried catfish delicacies advertised on restaurant signs in Lake City and places like it, it’s easy to think that Texas may have annexed northeast New Mexico. To wit:
The trip reminded me of a column I wrote nine years ago before I moved to Taos to work for the local weekly paper. For the previous two years, I’d been working for the Mountain Mail newspaper in Socorro, New Mexico, which is about an hour south of Albuquerque. That summer, I managed to score a sabbatical to work at Philmont Scout Ranch east of Taos. Soon, I found myself moving there. I wrote a regular outdoors column called “Saltwater to Sagebrush” for the Mountain Mail. Here’s my last dispatch for that paper as a southern New Mexico resident in December, 2003:
Have you ever awoken, surrounded by those you love, or at least those who give you inspiration, and stepped outside to witness unspeakable beauty and said to yourself, “This is the place?”
Magdalena’s own Stephen Bodio wrote a book about such a place – one that feels ultimately safe and serene. He called it his “querencia,” the namesake of his masterpiece. Magdalena, New Mexico, is Bodio’s querencia, and I encourage all to read about it.
I haven’t found my querencia yet.
Still very much a transient, I have tasted true serenity in places here and there: Beneath a lone piñon in the center of a meadow with a breathless view deep within Philmont Scout Ranch; in the Valle Vidal area of the Carson National Forest; swimming below Yellowstone Falls in North Carolina’s Pisgah National Forest; beneath the outdoor chapel overlooking hundreds of acres of untrammeled marshland at Camp Ho Non Wah on South Carolina’s Wadmalaw Island; the green, grassy backyard of the house I grew up in next to a water hyacinth-clogged lake that was a haven for wildlife in the midst of the ugly abyss of suburbia.
There may yet be one other, but I’m not sure I could describe it as a place of profound serenity — yet.
It’s been nearly six years since I drove my clunky blue Dodge Omni through the Rio Grande Gorge and down N.M. 68 where the highway ascends from the rocky banks of the Rio Grande and climbs atop a hill overlooking the whole of Taos and the gorge itself, which cuts a magnificent rift through the valley as if the west is literally breaking away from the east.
It’s a scene that is quintessentially New Mexican; the sheer enormity and nakedness of the land surrounding such a great crack left me breathless the first time I saw it. It still awes me today.
Highway 68 then descends into Ranchos de Taos and then into Taos proper, where you soon encounter U.S. 64 at the edge of the Plaza.
For me, at this congested junction of highways, a choice must be made. I can turn east on U.S. 64, penetrate the Sangre de Cristos and allow this nearly trans-continental highway to take me back to the Cimarron Mountains, home of Philmont Scout Ranch, and eventually through to the southern Appalachians and the Carolinas, where I grew up.
I can turn west and allow the highway to whisk me off to the Colorado Plateau, one of my favorite places to explore. I can turn around and head back toward the population centers of Santa Fe and Albuquerque and eventually back to Socorro, where I’ve lived now for more than two years.
Or, I can stay.
I can stay in Taos and, if perhaps temporarily, immerse myself in this tumultuous town.
Taos is many things to many people.
It’s the ultimate tourist trap and ski resort, full of kitschy trinket shops that gleefully price-gouge affluent Hummer-driving snobs on their way to their high-mountain chalets in Taos Ski Valley.
It’s a liberal, over-developed tie-dyed new-age organic marijuana-smoking hippie haven where people drive VW Buses plastered with peace symbols and Dennis Kucinich bumper stickers.
It’s a troubled town where the disparity between rich and poor seems to gape as deep as the Rio Grande Gorge and whose native populace is said to resent the tourists that pack its streets and art galleries.
It’s a place where racial tensions run deep, the kids say they have nothing to do and gang violence has produced multiple homicides.
It’s a scenic little berg where the astounding towering 13,000-foot peaks clash — or compliment, depending on your perspective — with the complexities of the town far below.
Taos is many more things. More than 4,000 people call it home, including Julia Roberts and sometimes Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
For me, because of the complexities of the local culture, the beauty of the land and the desire to understand what makes it all tick, Taos is a place that is endlessly interesting. It has intrigued me for six years and I plan to explore it even more.
On Friday, two inches of snow fell in Taos, veiling the Sangre de Cristos in a blanket of white and leaving the town in a cloud of fog Saturday morning, dropping the ambient temperature to a vicious-cold 11 degrees.
As I drove out to the Rio Grande Gorge bridge to watch the fog lift, revealing a winter-white scene like none I’ve ever witnessed in Socorro, I said to myself, “This is the place.”
The Place, that is, for the next few years, perhaps – longer if all goes well.
So, I decided to stay, meet new people, explore this rugged and beautiful land and try to make Taos my querencia like I’ve always known it can be.
As snowflakes surely tempted avalanches on Wheeler Peak, I accepted a job at the Taos News where, beginning December 30, I will serve as that paper’s environmental and education reporter.
I will continue to write “Saltwater to Sagebrush” for the Mountain Mail until the logistics of writing it or the schedule of my new job demand otherwise.
The message I hope to send you as I leave Mountain Mail Country, and, I believe, the recurring and underlying theme of my column, is this: Venture into the wilderness, the mountains, the distant canyons, along the open highway and you will discover in their profundity the geography of your life, the wondrous nuances of your world, beauty like you’ve never imagined it and more about yourself and those you travel with than perhaps you ever knew.
You may even decide all you see is worth protecting.
Copyright © 2003 by Bobby Magill