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Jack Smith

Climbing Back Into a Golden Time and Place

July 26, 1988|Jack Smith

On the morning after we saw "Cosi fan Tutte" in a thunderstorm, our group took the Discover Santa Fe tour bus to Taos, the village famous as an art colony since the turn of the century.

Like Santa Fe, Taos (one syllable, like house ) favors the adobe style of construction inspired by the nearby Taos Pueblo, the Western Hemisphere's oldest apartment house.

We drove out to the pueblo and parked in the ancient plaza between the north and south pueblos. Once a ceremonial ground, the plaza has been reduced to that most unromantic of spaces, a parking lot.

Surely everyone has seen pictures of these golden brown adobe structures, stacked like boxes, one above the other, with stepped-back roofs, connected by rude ladders, standing against the 12,000-foot Taos Mountain.

The protruding ends of the timbers that support their ceilings are characteristic of these structures. It is believed that the pueblo, its two sides separated by a swift clear stream, was built in 1450, nearly a century before the Spaniards came.

Straw was used as a bond in the adobe, and it was this straw, shining gold in the sun, that caused the Spanish explorers to report "cities of gold" in northern New Mexico. The rush of Europeans followed.

Aside from the parked cars, there are few signs that the pueblo has been degraded by the Spaniards and the new Americans with their greedy goals and sin-soaked religions. The apartments are still occupied by the Taos Indians, who live by the ancient tribal rules. They have no electricity and no indoor plumbing.

But the once-pristine facades bear the marks of commercialization. Once entry was only through a hole in the roof and descent by interior ladder. But windows and doors have been cut into the walls of the ground-level rooms, so that visitors may enter to buy curios, baked bread and even soft drinks. The private apartments, however, remain sacrosanct.

Despite the rule against electricity, I saw a portable generator chattering away on the ground in front of the south cluster, and Taos men were working with power tools on the remodeling of a ground unit, evidently making it into a store.

One of the other men in our group said to me, "Spielberg would bulldoze this down and rebuild it with more authenticity."

I suspected he was right.

Between the north and south pueblos stands the tiny Catholic Mission of St. Jerome, its painted adobe walls a dazzling white in the sun. A white stretch limousine was parked at the gate, and the church door was crowded with children looking in. Obviously a wedding was taking place. It seemed to be attracting more of our group than the pueblos. Such is the universal appeal of that ancient rite.

We didn't have time to wait for the bridal couple to emerge. As we left the compound we saw the ruined adobe bell tower and cemetery of the old church, a relic of the 1847 Rebellion in which some of the Taos Indians joined with the valley's Mexicans in revolt against the conquering Americans after the Mexican War.

The rebels made the mistake of killing and scalping the first U.S. territorial governor, and American troops marched on Taos from Santa Fe. The Taos Indians took refuge in the church, but the U.S. cannons prevailed; 150 Indians were killed then and several more were later hanged.

From Taos we returned over a highway that followed a trail built by the U.S. Army to connect Taos and Santa Fe. It wound through a wilderness of ponderosa pine and quaking aspen, climbing to 9,000 feet and passing through several Indian villages.

Our guide, a man named Douglas Starkweather, had spent most of a long life in Santa Fe. What he didn't remember, he had read. His spiel was non-stop. He had a way of starting a long historical story, only to be distracted by some passing phenomenon, then returning to his abandoned subject without any apparent loss of continuity.

All the way back to Santa Fe he told us, with numerous interruptions, the story of Mabel Dodge Luhan, the rich, willful, bohemian New Woman who hoped to make Taos the artistic and spiritual capital of the world.

Actually, she was Mabel Ganson Evans Dodge Sterne Luhan. I'll get back to her.

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