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Deep in the soul of Taos

Home to native peoples, erstwhile hippies and generations of artists, it's a clear alternative to life in the urban fray.

October 12, 2003|Peter Wortsman | Special to The Times

Taos, N.M. — Taos, N.M.

Bolts of lightning etched burning zigzags in the sky, followed by a few muffled claps of thunder. A lone eagle circled low. Harold Cordova, a Tiwa from the Taos Pueblo, was driving us around his buffalo ranch in a red pickup when the late afternoon cloud cover suddenly burst and an otherworldly brightness spilled over the Three Peaks Mountains, flooding the lush prairie grass, the milky green sagebrush and the parasol-shaped juniper trees with light. The buffalo raised their noses. So did we, nostrils twitching from the strong scent of sage.

That's when Taos went to our heads, leaving us giddy for the rest of our five-day stay. The world looks different at 6,965 feet above sea level with all the superfluities filtered out.

My family -- wife Claudie, 13-year-old daughter Aurelie and 8-year-old son Jacques -- were celebrating a belated birthday (my 50th) and a wedding anniversary (our 15th) when we visited on Father's Day. We were badly in need of rejuvenation, and Taos was just what the doctor ordered. How funny -- and fitting -- that a frazzled family of high-rise apartment dwellers from New York City should find psychic renewal amid the original high-rise apartment dwellers of New Mexico. Of course, the Tuahtah Daeena (People of Taos) have been at it longer -- 1,000 years and counting.

Our first glimpse earlier that morning of San Geronimo de Taos Pueblo struck us as deja vu. It was as if we had been there before, and in a way we had. Taos Pueblo, called Place of the Red Willows by the Tiwas, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and U.S. Interior Department national historic site familiar from countless photos and paintings.

The pueblo sits at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, about 130 miles northeast of Albuquerque. North Village and South Village are each five stories, traditional adobe structures with connecting rooms for multiple dwellers. The thick adobe walls provide natural insulation. Built as a fortress to withstand the attacks of hostile tribes, the pueblo originally had no windows or doors. A round opening in the roof was the only entrance or exit.

The pueblo, inhabited for 1,000 years, has no electricity or indoor plumbing. Fewer than 50 members of the community live here today. Yet it remains the spiritual home to the 2,700 Red Willow People, many of whom have more modern houses nearby. The locals tend to be wary of outsiders, having weathered the onslaught of invaders, the coercion of missionaries and the prying eyes of curiosity seekers. Our Tiwa tour guide rattled off her spiel at lightning speed, insulating herself from overexposure with a parasol and a poker face.

We would have left the pueblo profoundly impressed by its beauty but largely untouched by its spirit had it not been for an encounter with Harold Cordova, a big-shouldered buffalo of a man, in his crafts store, Morning Talk Indian Shop. He burst out laughing at my son's extemporaneous definition of a buffalo as "a bull with a beard."

"Ever seen a buffalo up close?" he asked. Proudly showing off his herd that afternoon, he told us stories, including one about the time he found a newborn buffalo calf wobbling alone by the side of the road and took it home to nurture. Awakened near dawn by a rumbling round the house, he looked out to see buffaloes stampeding in circles. Rasta, a hefty 20-year-old king bull, bellowed and butted his horns against the gate. "I knew what he wanted," Cordova said. "I whispered a prayer and walked out with the calf in my arms. 'This is yours. Take care of your own kind.' " Harold turned to me. "You got to respect your elders -- even buffaloes."

That night we had rib-eye buffalo steaks and fresh corn on the cob from Cid's Market, a vast organic emporium in town. I did the honors in the kitchen of our rented 200-year-old restored casita. But having access to a kitchen didn't keep us from sampling the fiery fare that Taos is famous for -- chimichangas and enchiladas -- in restaurants plain and fancy all over town. The region is noted for one of America's most distinctive cuisines, a blend of old Spanish, Mexican and Native American cooking with a New World twist.

Perils of the past

THroughout its history, Taos, a frontier town that sprouted south of the pueblo, has attracted and cultivated its share of characters. In 1826, a mountaineer and Army scout named Christopher Houston "Kit" Carson came to town and made his mark on history. His old house downtown is a museum.

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