Travels in New Mexico: Taos

April 24, 2018 • 8:30 am

I arrived in Taos two days ago after a too-short drive over the famous High Road from Santa Fe, a road that goes through lovely scenery and appealing small towns. Although it was Sunday, and hardly anybody was to be seen, I enjoyed the quiet.

But before I left Santa Fe, I had to return for breakfast to the place where I got those fabulous blue corn pancakes with roasted pinon nuts. Tecolote, which has moved in recent years because of its popularity, now lives in a strip mall, but who cares when the food is that good?

This time I had another house special: Huevos Yucatecos, described like this on their menu:

I had posole, known in English as “hominy.” This belly-busting breakfast also came with a bakery basket containing three sizable muffins: jalapeño, blueberry, and raisin. It was a superb meal, and kept me full till dinnertime, a dinner that consisted of a salad and some fruit (I need to detox before I resume my gluttony):

Out in the parking lot I saw this license plate, which I’d dearly like to have on my car:

The High Road (see link above) goes through scenery that looks like the next two pictures:

In the small town of Las Trampas sits a well known adobe church, San José de Gracia, which Wikipedia describes this way:

The San Jose de Gracia Church, also known as Church of Santo Tomas Del Rio de Las Trampas, is a historic church on the main plaza of Las Trampas, New Mexico. Built between 1760 and 1776, it is one of the least-altered examples of a Spanish Colonial Pueblo mission church, with adobe walls rising 34 feet (10 m) in height. It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1970.

Shortly after arriving in Taos and booking a cheap room (yes, they left the light on for me), I headed for perhaps the most famous of New Mexican adobe churches, San Francisco de Asis Mission Church, built between 1772 and 1816, and also a National Historic Landmark. Its rear faces the road, so it’s easy to miss. But the rear of the building is, as artists have found, more visually interesting than the front:

The front, with two cross-topped bell towers:

One reason the church is famous is that it’s been depicted by many painters and photographers, most notably Georgia O’Keeffe and Ansel Adams:

Here’s O’Keeffe’s painting (below) and her take on the building:

The Ranchos de Taos Church is one of the most beautiful buildings left in the United States by the early Spaniards. Most artists who spend any time in Taos have to paint it, I suppose, just as they have to paint a self-portrait. I had to paint it—the back several times, the front once. I finally painted a part of the back thinking with that piece of the back I said all I needed to say about the church. I often painted fragments of things because it seemed to make my statement as well as or better than the whole could. And I long ago came to the conclusion that even if I could put down accurately the thing that I saw and enjoyed, it would not give the observer the kind of feeling it gave me. I had to create an equivalent for what I felt about what I was looking at—not copy it.

And an Ansel Adams photograph:

The entire landscaped front:

And, of course, since this is a Catholic church, there’s a recent “memorial to the unborn.” It wouldn’t be as affecting if the picture was the single cell of a fertilized zygote.

The inside of the church with its wooden ceiling:

The main altar, repainted in 1981:

One of the two paintings flanking the entrance. The Mary and Jesus is complemented on the other side by Jesus holding his bleeding heart.

A closeup of the adobe exterior, showing the straw mixed with the dried mud:

Of course all of us amateur photographers have to have a go at a picture, too, and this is mine. Sadly, the morning light wasn’t great and the photo turned into what I call “Adobe Buttocks”:

My next visit was to what is probably Taos’s premier visitor destination: Taos Pueblo,  The website says it’s the oldest continuously inhabited community in the U.S.:

Taos Pueblo is the only living Native American community designated both a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and a National Historic Landmark. The multi-story adobe buildings have been continuously inhabited for over a [sic] 1,000 years. The Pueblo is 3 miles northeast of Taos Plaza.  Archaeologists say that ancestors of the Taos Indians lived in this valley long before Columbus discovered America and hundreds of years before Europe emerged from the Dark Ages. Ancient ruins in the Taos Valley indicate our people lived here nearly 1000 years ago. The main part of the present buildings were most likely constructed between 1000 and 1450 A.D. They appeared much as they do today when the first Spanish explorers arrived in Northern New Mexico in 1540 and believed that the Pueblo was one of the fabled golden cities of Cibola. The two structures called Hlauuma (north house) and Hlaukwima (south house) are said to be of similar age. They are considered to be the oldest continuously inhabited communities in the USA.

Below is a photo of the “north house” (I couldn’t approach the “south house” as it’s off limits; as Wikipedia notes, “The Taos community is known for being one of the most private, secretive, and conservative pueblos”.).

The two “houses” are big adobe apartment buildings, with each door opening into a single-family unit. There are up to three stories, with the upper units accessible only by climbing a ladder. (I wonder how the older people manage that). There are also isolated, smaller houses.

Other views of the north house. There is no electricity or running water; water comes from a creek running through the pueblo that debouches from a pure mountain lake in the mountains behind. It’s a sacred lake, and was made 100% Tiwa-speaker property by decree of Richard Nixon.

I have no idea how many people live in the Pueblo. I took a tour from a woman who was a member of the tribe and studying biology at a local college, intending to go into “native medicine.” She told me there were 15-20 people living there permanently, but others visit from time to time or during ceremonies. Each unit is passed down within a family.

The way to get to an upstairs unit:

Some of the residents sell basked goods and handicrafts from their homes. Their own baking is done in outdoor adobe ovens that look like this:

It’s a breathtaking structure, and of course requires maintenance to keep the adobe uncracked.

I am told that the wooden racks are used to dry vegetables and other foodstuffs:

Some adobe bricks ready to be used:

A view from the courtyard of the local church, built by Indian labor under the Spanish whip:

Red Willow Creek, the source of the Pueblo’s water:

The Pueblo residents fiercely resisted Spanish occupation, attacking the killing several priests and the Governor General. Their last big revolt was in 1847, when the Spanish attacked, forcing the residents to hole up in this original church, which was then knocked down with cannons. The bell tower and original bell remains, surrounded by a graveyard that one isn’t allowed to photograph:

The rest of the day I wandered around downtown Taos, including the plaza, which is full of ritzy stores. Nearby is the home and grave of the famous Kit Carson (1809-1868), a frontier polymath, or, as Wikipedia describes him, “an American frontiersman. . .a mountain man (fur trapper), wilderness guide, Indian agent, and U.S. Army officer.” His deliberate murdering and scalping of many Indians has taken a lot of the shine off his image. Here are the first and last known photos of Carson, followed by my photo of his grave:

Finally, the home of Mabel Dodge Luhan (1879-1962), a wealthy heiress who moved to Taos in 1917 with her third husband, becoming a patron of the local art scene.  She also entertained many famous artists and writers. From Wikipedia:

D. H. Lawrence, the English author, accepted an invitation from her to stay in Taos, arriving with his wife, Frieda, in early September, 1922. He had a fraught relationship with his hostess, however, later writing about it in his fiction. Dodge later published a memoir about the visit entitled, Lorenzo in Taos (1932). Editor and book designer Merle Armitage also wrote a book about this time in New Mexico. Taos Quartet in Three Movements was originally to appear in Flair Magazine, but the magazine folded before its publication. This short work describes the tumultuous relationship of D. H. Lawrence, his wife Frieda, artist Dorothy Brett and Mabel Dodge Sterne, a wealthy patron of the arts.

. . . In New Mexico, Dodge and Luhan [Tony Luhan, her fourth husband and a Native American] hosted a number of influential artists and poets, including Marsden Hartley, Arnold Ronnebeck, Louise Emerson Ronnebeck, Ansel Adams, Willa Cather, Walter Van Tilburg Clark, Robinson Jeffers and his wife Una, Florence McClung, Georgia O’Keeffe, Mary Hunter Austin, Mary Foote, Frank Waters, Jaime de Angulo, Aldous Huxley, Ernie O’Malley and others.

All those luminaries stayed here:

I didn’t go inside, but you can see more pictures of the house, inside and outside, here. And here, left to right, are Mabel Dodge Luhan, Frieda Lawrence, and British painter Dorothy Brett.


32 thoughts on “Travels in New Mexico: Taos

  1. … was made 100% Tiwa-speaker property by decree of Richard Nixon.

    They ain’t making Republicans like Dick Nixon anymore. Never thought there’d come a day I’d say that with longing rather than relief.

        1. Yeah, he had a vibe that journalists don’t capture anymore. Perhaps they’re not allowed adrenaline gland inspirations. gack!

          In light of the Trump fiasco, your link is required reading for the people today. Yes, much appreciated.

  2. We visit Las Trampas about once every two years. It is the only painting in our house. Those are some good photos.

    There was a mass there a few years ago and only two people showed up. Warmed my heart. Like Europe, I am hoping some of these churches are just really nice buildings to look at with chamber music concerts for the public.

    1. And that’s not counting the even more spontaneous abortions, many before a woman even knows she’s pregnant. Presumably God changed his mind? Or perhaps he made multiple errors and didn’t see fit to admit it by making the woman aware she was pregnant?

      Who forgives God when He makes a mistake? Or is it the case that if God does it, it’s not wrong? Can He say, “The Devil made me do it.”

  3. Wonderful post. I am among the “artists” who have depicted the Ranchos de Taos church, from the front rather than the more common backside. I hope that you got to experience the smell of pinon burning in fireplaces.

  4. A marvelous travelogue! Don’t know how you find time to travel and explore with all this writing, but we benefit from it.

  5. Are the valley and low lands we see in the photos below the high road part of the shallow inland sea 100 mYa? Amazing views!

  6. You are not that far from Chaco Canyon; are you planning to visit it? It is my third favourite historical site, after Olorgesailie and Termessos. (I have this curious taste for places where people lived, rather than temples and palaces.)

    1. Chaco is one of my favorite Four Corners destinations. I only wish I had been able to visit it before some of the amazing sites were closed to tourists and some were reburied to protect them. If you love Taos, you’ll also love Pueblo Bonito (five stories high, football field length) at Chaco. The region was replete with amazing pueblos, roads, agricultural advances, etc.

      Recently, I mistakenly mentioned Acoma as the oldest continually lived in pueblo in America. I was wrong. Taos is.

      I wasn’t able to walk around the site of Cahokia across the river from St. Louis, MO
      when I visited several years ago (too hot), but I still hope to some day. It is one of the oldest and largest Native American cities in the US, although no longer resided in. There are a number of other smaller mound cities to see that still give a sense of what life was like there. Poverty Point, LA is one such (a UNESCO World Heritage site). There used to be mound cities along most of the rivers and creeks associated with the Mississippi River. Many of them are no longer visible due to being plowed under by farmers. In many respects, the cities and cultures of the Americas were equal or superior to those of Europe in the same time frame.

      Archeologists, W. Michael and Kathleen O’Neal Gear, have written numerous fictional works on Native American cultures, including a three volume set on Cahokia: People of the Morning Star, Sun Born, and Moon Hunt.

  7. Re posole:

    Yes. Posole is hominy. Nixtamel also is. I seldom (maybe almost never) hear of posole referred to as other than a thick, tasty soup (usually with pork) that is served on special occasions. The version I prepare includes pork, onion, garlic, jalapeno, tomatillos, broth and the accompanying cabbage, radishes,
    corn tortillas, cheese for toppings. Wonderful stuff!

  8. If you keep going north for another hour, you are going to show up at our ranch. I would offer an invitation, but we are still mostly snowed in.
    But enjoy your trip.

  9. That breakfast was something else. What did you like better the huevos or the pancakes?

    Thanks for posting all these travelogues; they are informative, interesting, scenic and appetite stimulants.

  10. The Indians may not have been “savages,” but they were not exactly benign, either. By the time of the Mexican War they had established a reign of terror over northern Mexico as far south as Zacatecas, and throughout New Mexico. Raiding parties of Comanches, Apaches, Utes, and several other tribes rode through the territory almost at will, murdering and scalping men, women and children, running off the livestock they depended on for a livelihood, and stealing their food, occasionally kidnapping some to sell as slaves. The Indians were the biggest slave brokers in the area. The Mexicans were helpless because they had no Second Amendment, and had been disarmed by their government. In northern New Mexico Indian tribes allowed Mexican villages to exist near them, treating them more or less as the ancient Spartans treated the helots. The idea that Kit Carson went about gratuitously scalping harmless Indians is nonsense. He was nearly killed by them and scalped himself. The Indians boasted of the ease with which they could kill and scalp the whites taking supply wagons south, and the wagons of settlers on the Sante Fe trail bound for California. They were also constantly at war with each other, scalping, killing and wiping out each others’ villages. This is all a matter of historical fact, attested to by a wealth of source material. See for example, “Adventures in Mexico and the Rocky Mountains” by Frederick Ruxton, a young British adventurer who landed at Vera Cruz and traveled the length of Mexico and New Mexico into the Rockies at the time of the Mexican War, or the “Heroes and Incidents of the Mexican War,” by Isaac George, one of the Missouri soldiers who accompanied Col. Doniphan’s famous march through Sante Fe into northern Mexico. Both are available free at Google books to anyone who cares to read them. It is beyond me how anyone who claims to support “human flourishing” and “moral progress” can shed crocodile tears over the takeover of the territory by the United States, which ended the slavery of the vast majority of the Mexican population by the wealthy “Ricos,” (they were all in debt, and could not leave the land or refuse to work until their impossible debts were paid), and led to the flourishing state of New Mexico today.

    1. Thanks for the snark about my “crocodile tears.” Well, the Indians did engage in some reprehensible acts and wars, but I still maintain that what the U.S. government did to them is also reprehensible. That is unless you think our sticking them on remote reservations was a good thing.

      You sound as if you think the U.S. government’s treatment of Native Americans was a really good thing, ending all that “savagery”. Do you?

      1. Those wishing to get a feel for what it was like in those terrible times should read “Blood Meridian’ by Cormac McCarthy; that’s if you have the stomach for it.

      2. I’m affected by evolved behavioral predispositions, including those that account for the existence of what we refer to as morality, like the rest of my species. Sometimes I let the relevant emotions show, but when pressed I would never claim they represent anything but personal whims. I don’t think the behavior of either the U.S. government or the Indians was “good” or “bad,” because these categories only exist as subjective whims in the minds of individuals. On whose authority should I claim that the U.S. government was “bad?” God’s? We all know about Plato’s Euthyphro. Is there some spirit or ghost of morality hovering out there that somehow makes these judgments legitimate? I’m an atheist, and don’t believe in spirits. I also don’t believe that my emotional responses to historical events give me some kind of right to dictate to others what is “good” or “bad.”

        OTH, when the U.S. government took over, the entire territory as well as much of what is now northern Mexico was being ravaged by Indian raids. Much of the population had been driven into small, defensible outposts. The Indians were promiscuously murdering and scalping everyone around them, including each other. They were well armed and highly mobile. I fail to see what practical method could have put a stop to this behavior other than putting them on reservations. As I noted earlier, the U.S. government also put a stop to what amounted to slavery for the Mexican peons in the territory. From my own personal, subjective point of view, I consider the end of the murder, scalping and misery caused by a few tens of thousands of Indians so that millions of all races in New Mexico and Arizona could live in plenty and prosperity, and the end of slavery, “good.”

        1. I think you know very little of New Mexican history and even less of the physical pain, deprivation and humilation suffered by the Pueblo, Hopi and Apache tribes at the hands of Franscian missionaries on the one hand and Spanish colonials government officals and the other for over 250 years.
          As a Hispano/Meztizo direct descendant of the founders of the first European and settlements of New Mexico in 1598, I can say with knowledge and experience that the Christian superority of the Spainards always got in the way of understnading and accepting Indians as rational human beings other than godless and barbaric savages.

  11. In 1821 Mexico became indpendent of Spain and the kingdom of New Mexico became a deparemnt of Mexico therefore, it was the Mexican government not the Spanish who laid seige to the Chuch where the Pueblo were holding out in 1847.

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