Taos in February is not necessarily Taos at its best, and visiting at what some may feel is an inauspicious time allows us the opportunity to see the area without the rose-colored glasses that would be easy to don at another time of year. (If we were ski enthusiasts, perhaps we might feel differently as the snow continues to fall.)
As is our luck on this journey in general, the weather has been colder, cloudier and snowier than most years at this time, and while there have been several days of brilliant sunshine, the majority of our visit so far has not been the most favorable weather one could hope for. Still, the beauty of the area shines through no matter the weather, and when the mountains emerge from the clouds and the sun burns off the fog, it is, in a word, spectacular.
Last night, visiting old and dear friends in Arroyo Seco, a community just outside of Taos, both of our cars were mired in snow and ice on the driveway (our son and daughter-in-law arrived to dinner an hour later than us), and it took until 2am to convince AAA and the local towing company to come fish us out. Being spoiled New Englanders, we expected a 3-ton tow-truck to valiantly rescue us. Instead, an old Chevy Suburban with a winch mechanism and a bunch of chains was dispatched, and with a fair amount of pushing from three of us positioned behind each car, we managed to extract both vehicles and land them back on the road for the icy drive home.
Here in the Taos area, contradictions abound. The infamous Donald Rumsfeld keeps one of his many oversized homes just outside of town, and even Julia Roberts and Val Kilmer have homes nearby. Meanwhile, low wages and a relatively high cost of living keep the majority of residents struggling to make ends meet. Why do they stay? It's incredibly beautiful, cultures are rich, and those who love Taos hang on for dear life in order to reap the benefits of such a place.
From what we have learned, racial tensions are still periodically an issue here, with Anglos controlling the majority of the wealth and the Native Americans and Hispanics often feeling either disempowered or overwhelmed by the economic clout of the Anglos. Underlying tensions can make some transactions difficult, and cultural sensitivity and tact are often called for, and Anglos who speak Spanish can sometimes have an advantage in terms of communication and cross-cultural connection.
Our friends who have lived here off and on since the late 60s tell stories of fights, turf wars and violence over the years, and even in recent times tensions have flared. With gangs prevalent throughout New Mexico, and nearby Espanola being one of the black tar heroin capitals of the country, drugs and violence are understandably a reality. Apparently, Rio Arriba County---the county in which Espanola sits to the north of Taos---had the highest rate of drug fatalities in the country between 2001 and 2005, and that's really no surprise since drugs, poverty and economic hardship exist hand in hand most anywhere that the conditions are ripe for such an unlucky combination.
Aside from these challenges mentioned above, Taos abounds with culture, free music, art galleries, shops catering to tourists, and what some might feel is unsurpassed natural beauty. In the town's cafes, remarkably attractive young baristas serve up relatively pricey lattes and coffee, kitschy shops sell dream catchers and other ersatz Native American fare, and the art galleries peddle what some might feel is mostly bland pedestrian art to visitors (with some exceptions, of course). Economic hardship, however, has also hit the merchants of Taos, and our friends tell of closed galleries and slow business throughout the area.
In the small villages and clusters of adobe homes and trailers that dot the landscape, people carve out their existences as best they can, and homes can range from the ramshackle to the magnificently beautiful. A sizeable number of people live in EarthShips on the nearby plateau, Earthships being energy efficient passive solar homes made of recycled tires, rammed earth, bottles, and other salvaged materials.
Surrounding the town of Taos, small villages (like Arroyo Seco where we were briefly stranded last night) offer an escape from the busy traffic of Taos, villages where affordable New Mexican and traditional Mexican cuisine can be found away from the majority of tourists.
In terms of natural beauty, one must take into consideration the awesomeness of the surrounding mountains, the nearby hot springs, the trails, and the huge open sky suspended over the area like an azure dome. Just a few miles away, the Rio Grande has cut a spectacular gorge into the heart of the plateau, and its beauty is certainly spectacular.
Meanwhile, as our rig sits in the yard, we watch the weather carefully. Nights are still in the single digits, but just yesterday the bright sun and temperatures in the upper 40s turned the earth around the rig into a sea of mud. When we're ready to shove off to southern New Mexico (our next destination in our search for intentional community and a new place to call home), we may have to pull out at night when the mud has frozen over. March is official "mud season" here in Taos, but as the days warm up even now, the moist soupy earth has begun to make its presence known.
They say that Taos Mountain either welcomes you warmly or it eats you up, spits you out and summarily rejects you. It seems fairly likely to us that we will not be testing that hypothesis any time soon. With good friends and our son and his wife living here, we are certain to return to explore the area more thoroughly, but settling in and making a life here is probably not in the cards for a variety of reasons (the tow truck incident last night being only one factor in that interesting calculus).
For the moment, we're still here, and after further visiting and exploring, the call of the open road and warmer climes will certainly magnetize us southward on our continuing journey. Taos won't have the chance to spit us out, but we'll have a little more time to chew and digest what the area has to offer before moving on.