There’s much to love about Taos – the cultural richness, the strong, often eccentric nature of its people, and, perhaps foremost for me, the landscape: the forest-lush mountains that border the eastern half of the valley, the plain that marches for fifty miles to the west, interrupted by the gash of the Rio Grande gorge, and beyond it the distinctive silhouettes of the Pedernal, Tres Orejas, Kiowa Peak and at the northern edge hump-backed San Antonio. Over the years these have become visual essentials for me, landmarks that somehow orient my psyche. When I’m away from the valley for any extended period of time I get a vague sense of rootlessness.
I try once a week to get into the woods, hike a familiar trail or bushwack up an unexplored slope. A few days ago in need of some elevation (literally and figuratively) I headed up the South Boundary Trail, which begins just as Hwy. 64 enters Taos Canyon and loops up the top of mountain guarding the east side of the valley. I hadn’t been to the top in several years and vaguely remembered that it took about an hour and a half to get there. By that point my thighs were burning, I was having to stop occasionally to catch my breath and the summit looked to be at least another half hour away. But the day was beautiful and I was determined, spurred, as I often am by the thought that something was waiting to be discovered.
At the top I sat on a rock, drank some water, and looked over the valley. My heart sank, for stretched out to the west, nearly to the gorge, was what I can only call Taos Sprawl, roads slashed through the sage, clumps of houses like cultures of bacteria growing on the mesa. I’m being unfair, I’ve seen this sight many times before, never happy with it but never quite so disturbed, either. What had happened to MY gorgeous little town, the place I’d fallen in love with 38 years ago? Sitting up there the other day, I thought of a conversation I’d had in the late 1970s with the great writer Frank Waters, who back then was ruing how Taos was growing and changing. “But,” he said sadly, “we can’t put up a wall around the place and turn it into a museum.”
With that thought in mind, I turned my back on the sprawl, walked over the rim to the east side of the slope. Fifty yards away I was suddenly in the most heart-stoppingly gorgeous aspen grove I’d ever seen. The leaves were at their glowing golden peak, the sky was perfect blue and the scene sent me to my knees. I was reminded that I never have to go very far from the sprawl to find a place as beautiful as it was 38 years ago, or probably 3,800 years ago. No picture can quite do the experience justice. You just have to close your eyes . . .