By Peter Rigby & Jacqueline Lang
Flush with fond memories of Santa Fe, New Mexico, we point the trusty Ford Edge northeast and head for its little sister, Taos.
It’s an easy run of about 90 minutes into the Sangre de Christo Mountains.
As we wend up, the blue winter skies quickly turn grey, and we’re belted with rain, hail, and snow. But it’s back to sunshine as we pull into Taos, “the place of the red willows.”
We grab a map and a coffee (a tepid, murky substance) from helpful staff at the Taos Visitor Centre, then tootle into town to the Historic Taos Inn, our digs on the main drag.
Our room is adobe style with wooden beams and a fireplace – modest, but comfy enough after long days on the road.
The inn has a colourful history: cowpokes and actors, outlaws and heiresses have stayed there over the decades.
It consists of a cluster of adobe houses dating from the 19th century, one of which was home to Taos’s first physician, Thomas ‘Doc’ Martin, who hosted the first meeting of the Taos Society of Artists in 1915 – the genesis of the town as an American arts Mecca.
After Doc’s death, his widow converted the houses into a hotel, which opened in 1936 and has hosted Greta Garbo, D. H. Lawrence, Georgia O’Keefe and wild-west showman Pawnee Bill.
More recently, celebs like Robert Redford and Jessica Lange have been spotted sipping margaritas in the lobby.
The inn boasts an award-winning restaurant, Doc Martin’s, known as one of the best country nosheries in New Mexico.
Across the road, we find Taos Plaza (yep, the Spaniards built this place, too), which dates to the late 18th century. Since that time the Plaza has been the central meeting place in the valley.
Taos feels like a tiny version of Santa Fe. It’s peppered with adobe facades, galleries, colourful shops – all catering to the year-round tourists and beaming locals.
The arts scene continues to thrive and is the heart and soul of Taos.
Artists began to settle in Taos just before 1900. Many paintings were made of local scenes. The Taos Art Colony became one of the best-known in the US. In the early 1920s, much-married Manhattan salon hostess Mabel Dodge founded a literary colony in Taos.
Thanks to her, D.H. Lawrence and other artsy utopia-seekers flocked to the area. (Now you can enjoy her hospitality as well: her home is a handsome, comfortable inn, The Mabel Dodge Luhan House.)
Wander around this tiny town and you’ll spot some of the artists’ studios preserved for visitors to wander through.
A few minutes out of town, we see one the most unusual and unique places of worship in the US. San Francisco de Assisi Mission Church was built between 1772 and 1816. It is located on the plaza in Ranchos de Taos, itself a quaint historic district.
The church is adobe, like so many others in New Mexico, but this one is really is something. It’s the subject of several paintings by O’Keeffe, and photographs by Ansel Adams, Paul Strand and Ned Scott – and millions of tourists!
This extraordinary edifice was described by O’Keeffe as “one of the most beautiful buildings left in the United States by the early Spaniards.”
The locals tell you the church is “the most photographed in the United States,” and who are we to argue?
While taking some snaps, we meet two scruffy 20-something documentary filmmakers and give them a lift back into town, near-buried by our skis, luggage and supplies.
The chirpy duo from Chicago have spent the last year roaming the US, filming hotspots and interviewing folk. They are “blown away” by Taos and surrounds. Can’t wait to see their film.
Back in town, we wander about the historic district, popping in to the home of former frontiersman Kit Carson, now a house museum. No Taj Mahal, it’s typical of the austere dwellings designed for the area’s hot summers and cold winters.
With dusk upon us, we remember it’s Oscars night and wonder where in town we might watch the awards on a big screen.
We hit Google, and find something is on at a place called Taos Centre For The Arts, which is apparently, hosting its own Oscars party “all welcome!”
We ask our guy at the Inn’s front desk where that is, and he points “about five yards that way.”
Which is how we’re soon mingling with folk clad in sequined gowns, tuxedos and garb from characters in their favourite flicks (some shot in Taos).
“Welcome,” beams a Garbo look-alike, proferring some home-made dip, after we’ve wandered in like two lost hobos onto a swish red carpet.
The Centre, the town’s artistic hub, includes a stage, Klieg lights and whirring vintage movie cameras. Dozens of townfolk are milling in the foyer, while the adjoining auditorium boasts a huge screen airing live coverage of Hollywood’s big night.
Here, there’s an atmosphere like it’s grand final night back home. Whenever somebody wins an Oscar, the crowd breaks into a roar. During breaks in the live coverage the Arts Centre stages its own dancing and music extravaganza – perhaps not as flash as Tinseltown’s bash, but we’re suitably enthralled.
Back at the Inn, with numerous T-shirts, caps we’ve bought to support the Arts Centre we nod off, happy we’ve made some new pals and enjoyed a genuine Oscars celebration in the US of A.
The next day is the last of our road trip; we must be back in Aspen by nightfall. We have a typical southwest breakfast of a huge Huevos Rancheros in a local diner, check out of the Inn and we’re away.
We check out the Taos Pueblo from a distance on our way out of town, as it was officially closed to visitors for ceremonial reasons during our visit. This amazing adobe complex borders the town of Taos on its north side and has been occupied for centuries. The pueblo, built between 1000 and 1450 A.D., is considered to be the oldest continuously inhabited community in the United States.
Located in a tributary valley off the Rio Grande, The Pueblo, five stories high in some places, is a combination of many individual homes with common walls. There are about 150 people who live at the pueblo year-around. The Taos Pueblo was added as an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992.
We then head for the world-famous Earthship community, close by. This unforgettable place – in the middle of nowhere – is constructed from recycled materials, off the grid and is totally self-sufficient.
The Earthshippers’ mission statement:
“Produce our own energy, harvest our own water, contain and treat our own sewage, manufacture our own bio-diesel fuel, grow much of our own food; our buildings heat and cool themselves and are made utilizing discarded materials of modern society.”
They do it all.
As we park, we’re greeted by an ex-US Army solider, muddied and toiling away in the grounds. He tells us he’s come to Earthship to heal after serving in the Middle East. It seems a calming place to be after the trauma of those wars, which have affected so many veterans.
We tour the facility, which uses the latest technology in recycling, growing food and alternative energy.
The Earthship folk live an admirable alternative lifestyle, a great demo of how we could all be doing it.
It’s now time to drive 570km back Aspen, and we must hasten. Another winter storm is due to sweep over the Rockies.
We could either get back by going via Denver with hassle-free driving on the Interstates, yet adding hours to the trip; or risk taking the smaller roads, as the crow flies, and cutting up through the mountains and high passes. The problem is, these can get icy and snowed in very quickly if the weather changes, and boy can it change fast. Visions of being stuck on a mountain precipice in a blizzard drift through the mind’s eye.
We peer to the north and see dark clouds drifting over the high country, but set off regardless. After an hour or so the sun is still shining so we take the gamble and choose the “short cut” charging up the heart of the Rockies, crossing back into Colorado.
We cut through fertile high country up the central valley – with an ever-watchful eye on the sky. North of Alamosa we see the Great Sand Dunes National Preserve, where huge dunes buttress up against the mountains.
We pass by the San Isabel National Forest and slow to see historic Salida, one of the oldest Spanish settlements in North America.
The sun is still out as we roll into Buena Vista, “the crossroads of the Rockies”, wolf down a forgettable greasy lunch in a local diner and hit the road again.
At Twin Lakes, frustratingly, we are only 40kms from Aspen, but the only way there is over the mountains via Route 82, closed in winter. Independence Pass is on the route and features some of the most beautiful and spectacular mountain vistas in America.
But we must take the long route (210 kilometres) via Leadville which, at an elevation of 10,152 feet (3,094 m), is the highest city in the U.S.
Large, dark clouds are rolling in over the mountains from the west. We take the 10th Mountain Division Memorial Highway, named after the renowned US alpine army unit.
We weave our way through another hairy high pass and finally start descending through beautiful sunlit snowy country, beating the storm – phew – and looping back to Aspen.
We’ve closed an amazing wide loop around the southern Rockies, having seen four states, all featuring extraordinary natural beauty and friendly, fascinating people.
Pooped but content, we check into the value-plus Tyrolean Lodge for our final night in town, then step out for a bite.
The snow and wind come swirling in, but we’ve made it here just in time, safe and sound.
Over dinner we’re already making plans for our next trip. There is so much more to see.
Starfish Photographs by Peter Rigby & Jacqueline Lang
Thanks to Joanie Griffin, Griffin And Associates, New Mexico.
We stayed at: The Historic Taos Inn. http://www.taosinn.com