Originally created 02/21/99

Undiscovered nature

TAOS, New Mexico -- Like postcards from the past, the artists who came to this enchanted village left a vivid record of first impressions.

There is the century-old story of Easterners Ernest Blumenschein and Bert Phillips, whose ill-equipped carriage lost a battle with a rutted trail. While the wagon's rear wheel was being fixed, they founded the nation's most enduring art colony.

Another painter, Oscar Berninghaus, entered northern New Mexico by narrow-gauge train. An accommodating conductor strapped him to the top of a freight car for a better view, from which he saw Taos Valley for the first time. Switching to a mail stage, he arrived "late in the afternoon, the sun casting its glowing color over the hills that gave the Sangre de Cristo mountains their name."

In 1922, poet and novelist D.H. Lawrence made the trek with his wife, Frieda, at the insistence of a displaced New York heiress, Mabel Dodge Luhan, whose adobe salon would also attract such disparate giants as Georgia O'Keeffe and Thornton Wilder.

In a memoir, Ms. Luhan wrote "Lawrence caught his breath" with his first view of Taos Valley. What he saw, she said, "was an oasis, emerald-green beyond the sagebrush, drinking water from the high mountain lakes and streams."

From the secluded Casa de Las Chimeneas inn, we took walks down streets shaded by willows, maples and aspens and into Kit Carson Park to read the tombstones of the fabled scout and other Taos pioneers. We also climbed the short hill on Morada Lane, which ends at the sprawling former homes of Mabel Luhan and legendary artist Victor Higgins.

Ms. Luhan's home, occupied during Taos' hippie period by actor Dennis Hopper, is now a bed and breakfast bearing her name. Mr. Higgins' residence is now a gallery, adjacent to the spectacular Ridhwan Sculpture Garden.

To be sure, Taos has its share of curio and T-shirt shops, but in many adobe enclaves live some of the area's estimated 1,000 artists, an incredible number for a town of 6,000 and a county of perhaps 26,000. There are almost 90 galleries, ranging from simple nooks to the headquarters of ubiquitous Native American artist R.C. Gorman. Most are within walking distance of the town's ancient plaza.

The bonus is meeting the artists themselves, whether on formal occasions like Taos' two main art festivals in the spring and the fall or simply because your innkeeper or the gallery owner gives them a ring.

Take Mary Dolph Wood, an emerging impressionist whose subjects burst from the canvas with splashes of reds and yellows. She admits, "I have no anonymity in town," given her ruby red 1964 Chrysler New Yorker hardtop and her red hair. With a call, she's driven downtown to meet a couple who just purchased one of her works. Her appearance aside, her speech drips modesty and delight that someone noticed her work.

"Mine is the usual story of a lot of women too busy to be doing things that require that much attention and time," she says of her painting career. Now a grandmother in her late 40s, she raised three children and was a waitress in 1991 when a couple from Dallas bought her first painting in the cafDe where the owners let her exhibit.

Her still lifes can be found on world-famous Canyon Road in Santa Fe, in Scottsdale, Ariz., Greenwich, Conn., and in New York City. So, why stay where she is? "Nothing has a draw like Taos visually. It is very beautiful, creatively inspiring."

Perhaps she is not a modern-day Blumenschein, but her story and his have similarities. They were on a journey and decided to stay. Hers was "a spiritual quest" in 1971, leading her from Minnesota to a commune near Taos she read about in a book. That experience lasted less than a day, but she found another haven, then a husband and, with the mentoring of the Taos art community, her artistic calling.

"I have more than one friend who have become permanent residents after their own version of the famous wagon wheel story," says Susan Vernon-Rios, owner of Casa de las Chimeneas and herself a 1980s immigrant. Originally a two-room farm house with a blanket draped across the entrance, the inn now has eight guest quarters, each with a kiva fireplace and private entrance.

To prepare for 1999, Ms. Vernon-Rios and her staff planted 8,000 new bulbs, crocus for the early color, low growing tulips and daffodils for the windy advent of spring and longer stems for later. For summer, there will be geraniums and daisies, as well as essential herbs and vegetables, and for the fall, marigolds and chrysanthemums. The blooms persist until the first hard freeze.

The seasons dictate the inn's signature breakfasts and late afternoon hors d'oeuvres, too. In the winter, hearty soups and stews wait for guests who have spent the day outside in the cold. Summer brings gaspacho, crustini with goat cheese or perhaps tomato and fresh pesto made from the garden's basil crop. At apple harvest, expect apple fritters for breakfast. The same goes for upside-down French toast with just-picked apricots, served at a rugged dining table that encourages conversation among strangers.

There might be a hiker there in summer or a skier in winter. Or two nonacademics attending a symposium on D. H. Lawrence. Or a couple on an annual art-buying pilgrimage. For sure, tourists can see the art that the scenery and the blend of ancient cultures has produced and, at the same time, witness each "miraculous day" -- a phrase from Mr. Lawrence's wife -- that has inspired the artists themselves.

"Nothing thrills me more, when in the fall, the aspen and cottonwoods are in color and with the sunlight playing across them," said E. Martin Hennings, who joined the Taos art colony in 1917. "All the poetry and drama, all the moods and changes in nature are there to inspire one to greater accomplishments from year to year."

In winter there is skiing at a little resort on a big mountain, 25 miles from Taos. The trails are fast, often narrow and uncompromising and -- best of all -- usually uncrowded.

Taos does suffer a bit from its intimidating reputation as being a mountain for the expert.

Yes, many of the steeps are so vertical that just looking down from the top can give you the willies. "This run eats intermediates," warns one cautionary trail sign.

There is, of course, an easier route down from nearly any part of the mountain.

"Just because it's easier doesn't mean it's easy," says instructor Terry Tankersley, a 50-something native Texan. Like many of the instructors here, Mr. Tankersley has spent his adult life in pursuit of his passion -- teaching people to ski.

"OK, y'all," he tells his three students before taking off like a rocket down the slope, loudly humming the familiar bars of the Blue Danube. "Let's ski this sucker!"

"Feel the rhythm!," Mr. Tankersley commands. "Dance on those skis!"

For many skiers of all levels, the centerpiece of the Taos experience is its renowned Ernie Blake Ski School, named for the sports pioneer who founded the ski valley.

The area has no gondola, no high-speed lifts, no high-tech snowmaking and, outside of some top downhill racers, few celebrity faces.

At a time when the real growth in the ski industry, especially among the younger crowd, is snowboarding, Taos still bars boarders from the mountain.

What it does have is a vertical drop of 2,612 feet from a peak elevation of 11,819 feet. On average more than 320 inches of snow fall here each year.

A lot of the folks you'll meet at Taos are loyalists, skiers who return year after year, enchanted by the area's small-town friendliness and abundant powder.

Many of the Ski Valley's restaurants offer first-rate dining and you can enjoy a cold beer, a fine glass of wine or a good martini, a Taos tradition, in any of the bars.

But, alas, there's not even one chic apres-ski disco. So if it's dancing you're looking for, you might want to try Aspen or another of those Colorado mega-resorts.

At Taos, you'll have to make do with towering mountains, plenty of snow, New Mexican sunshine, European-style hospitality and the company of skiers who love to strap on the boards and point 'em down the hill.

If you go ...

GETTING THERE: Taos, which rhymes with "house," is 135 miles from Albuquerque, the nearest major airport, and 300 miles from Denver. From Albuquerque, take I-25 to Santa Fe, then U.S. 285 and New Mexico 68. There are car rentals and shuttles at Albuquerque. From Denver, take I-25 to Walsenburg, Colo., U.S. 160 to Fort Garland, then Colorado 159 and New Mexico 522. If it's your second trip, take the scenic High Road, New Mexico 76 and 518, through the villages of Chimayo and Truchas.

GETTING AROUND: Most likely, it's your car or your feet. Plaza parking is crowded, so walk as much as possible. You'll need to drive to the Pueblo and to Ranchos de Taos, which is three miles south of downtown.

LODGING: Prices range from $115 to $175 per night at Casa de las Chimeneas, not much different from Taos' other top bed and breakfasts or luxury inns. A two-course breakfast and afternoon hors d'oeuvres are included. You could almost skip dinner with the latter. In ski seasons, rates may be higher. There are economy motels for as low as $50 per night among Taos' 2,600 guest beds. Check ahead, though. The town was full the week after Christmas.

DINING: There are plenty of restaurants. At the top are the Villa Fontana in Ranchos de Taos (new Italian) and Lambert's near downtown. The highest priced entree at Lambert's the "lavender and rose peppercorn crusted filet of beef" -- $20. Doc Martin's claims one the best wine lists in the region. You'll like the Apple Tree near the plaza, especially if the temperature invites a courtyard seating. Less expensive is Fred's Place, a storefront with New Mexico-style Mexican food. The best for atmosphere and food combined could be the Trading Post in Ranchos de Taos, which rotates local artists on exhibit like many of its competitors.

WEATHER: There are four seasons, but nights are cool to cold year-round. Sunscreen, sunglasses and lip balm are a must. Wear a hat and drink water. You are almost 8,000 feet above sea level. In the spring and fall, be prepared for change and for differences depending on elevation. There can be a car with skis on top going north and one hauling a kayak going south at the same intersection.

EVENTS: The Taos Spring Arts Festival is May 1-16, featuring local artists. The Chamber of Commerce is planning a four-day walking gallery tour, too. The Taos Fall Arts Festival runs throughout the month of September. A major artist, yet to be selected for 1999, is honored. In the fall festival, there are two shows, the Taos Invitational, and Taos Meets Taos. The latter is a Taos tradition, open to any local resident bold enough to show his or her work. Perhaps the oddest event is the annual golf and ski championship, held on the same March weekend.

MUSEUMS: For $20, you can see seven, ranging from a restored rural hacienda to the home of the co-founder of the Taos Society of Arts. Also included is the Millicent Rogers Museum, containing the remarkable Southwestern collection of Millicent Rogers, a society heiress who moved to Taos after a fling with Clark Gable. Not included in the package is the ranch where D.H. Lawrence once wrote. Avoid it anyway, for it's suffering from inattention.

INFORMATION: Visitor information is available at (800) 732-TAOS. Or visit Web sites such as www.taoschamber.com and www.taoswebb.com, with links to individual Web pages of inns and other vendors. Casa de las Chimeneas, for example, offers a virtual tour. The Collectors Guide is a 500-page, full-color volume of gallery listings in northern New Mexico and can be purchased via e-mail at artinfo@collectorsguide.com. The Web version of the book is at www.collectorsguide.com.


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