On any given morning in historic Taos Plaza, a young man sits under a rotunda, sheltered from the northern New Mexico sun. He’s putting together fragrant sagebrush smudging sticks-burned to cleanse the air of negative energy-and selling them to passersby for $2. Come afternoon, he rides his Harley around the plaza, singing loudly to no one in particular.
Meanwhile, local resident Julia Roberts stops in at Taos Tin Works on Paseo del Pueblo Norte to pick out hand-tooled metal wall mirrors, not a paparazzo in sight.
In either instance, no one seems to care-because no one really does. That’s the kind of laid-back town Taos is. Located 7,000 feet above sea level in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Albuquerque Airport and 70 miles from Santa Fe, the home of the “red willow” (the meaning of taos in the native Tiwa language) has for years attracted those with adventure in their souls and creativity in their hearts.
Painter Georgia O’Keeffe, novelist D.H. Lawrence, and numerous adventurers and European ex-pats have been transfixed by the area’s vivid colors, back-to-the-land sensibilities, and Native American desert cultures that still remain vibrant.
A visit to the 1,000-year-old Taos Pueblo-a World Heritage site-shows how the Native Americans, 150 of whom reside in the Pueblo full time, live much as their ancestors did before the Spanish arrived in 1540. The multistoried, red clay-colored adobe city with the Rio Pueblo de Taos flowing through it has no electricity as Native tradition dictates, but it is lighted well enough for a tourist to pick up a bargain turquoise necklace and homemade fry bread, especially delicious dipped in honey.
A local religious practice based around Mother Earth is practiced in the region. However, the St. Francisco de As├îs Mission Church, built in 1772 and one of New Mexico’s most-photographed edifices, points to the early introduction of Catholicism in the area. The church is a National Historic Landmark.
With such a mix of history and culture, the museums here are as world-class as they are eclectic. The Millicent Rogers Museum, named for the late art patron, has one of the country’s best Southwestern art and design collections, with religious and domestic art, turquoise jewelry, and crafts from all over northern New Mexico.
La Hacienda de los Martinez, a former Spanish Colonial “great house” built in 1804, holds a mirror up to 19th-century frontier life. The 21 low-ceilinged rooms, studded with typical Southwestern vigas (beams), housed workers and stored crops. They now store a display of santos-colorful, hand-painted figures of saints. The rooms surround two open courtyards where tradesmen and locals once gathered. Now visitors gather here as well on San Geronimo Day and numerous other year-round festivals featuring elk stew and prune pie.
The Blumenschein Home and Museum is the former dwelling of Ernest L. Blumenschein and his family. Blumenschein and another young American artist stumbled upon Taos in 1898 on their way to Denver. They stayed and helped establish the famed Taos Society of Artists. Today the Museum houses fine European furniture, Spanish Colonial┬á antiques, and outstanding local art.