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Taos: Finding heaven in a hidden canyon

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At the same time we have been traveling to Taos almost annually since we moved to New Mexico over four decades ago, Mary and I continue to deliberate just how we really feel about the mountain artists’ community that Kit Carson called home in the mid-19th century.

Rio Grande Gorge Bridge west of Taos

How could we not love the town from which a visitor can view afternoon rain showers rolling across northern New Mexico mesas, canyons, and high peaks during the summer months?

How could we not long to be in Taos during the winter when the tops of Taos Mountain and Wheeler Peak are covered with snow and look like they belong in a Georgia O’Keefe painting?

How could I not want to spend the summer months not far out from the town and fishing the Rio Grande Gorge and dozens of other rivers, streams, and high mountain lakes for browns, cutthroats, and rainbows?

And for goodness sake, how could we not want to retire from work to go hang out in Taos where I first met my friend novelist Max Evans at an incredible annual festival called the Taos Talking Picture Festival?

Ol’ Max and a film festival in one small town? It’s gotta be a great place.

But still there is something in the Taos air or Taos water that makes us want to pull back from declaring Taos is heaven on earth.

Actually, a couple of weeks ago we spent two nights in Taos, and just about the entire time we were there, we were debating which of the heavenly experiences we were having was the best, whether it was while we were eating, watching clouds tripping over mountains, looking over the gorge bridge into the deep Rio Grande, or listening to live music on four different occasions.

Pathway to the music

In one of the experiences that will go down in our book of memories, Mary and I traveled 15 miles into the mountains east of Taos and into the Carson National Forest to drive down a dirt road called Calle Escondido and to listen to a quartet playing Bach’s Concerto for 2 Violins in D Minor, BWV 1043 and Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 1 in F Major, Op 18, No 1.

About three miles off of U.S. Highway 64, the Calle Escondido (Spanish for hidden lane) fell off into a lush-green and broad valley, and there at the end of the mountain road were around three-dozen parked automobiles and several colorful awnings that looked like they should be serving as shade for elk and deer.

Under the awnings are musicians Thomas
Weber, Violin I; Suzanne Schwartz, Violin II; Cory
McBraide, Viola; and Rebecca Caron, Cello.

Beneath one of the coverings, however, were musicians from a group called Taos Soundscapes, a nonprofit organization dedicated to bringing inspiring musical performances to Northern New Mexico.

This particular performance was called “Concert at Crooked Creek,” and it was arranged by Dave Wasserman and his wife Marney, who have a home in the beautiful valley. I visited on the phone with Dave earlier that day, and then for a few minutes as he was directing drivers where to park their vehicles, and then as he was serving wine to those who wished for the cocktail hour to start a little early on a Sunday afternoon.

Dave was such a congenial and friendly host, I thought he might have been born in Southeast New Mexico before he retired to the northern mountains.

Mary Harris with her wet husband under the umbrella

While we listened to the music, we did have two light and brief afternoon mountain showers — something Dave had warned us about — which caused us and the 135 other individuals and dogs in the audience to open up umbrellas and pull their lawn chairs closer.

But this was a crowd already feeling close because of the beautiful place where we were and the heavenly music coming from the musicians playing violins, cello, and viola.

Of course, this was not the live music Mary and I are accustomed to hearing in Austin at the Saxon Pub or the Continental Club where we regularly listen to the live music of Texas troubadours, such as Joe Ely, Ray Wylie Hubbard, and James McMurtry. But the live music east of Taos was heavenly and like it was from beyond the spheres and above the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

In fact, to have been in Taos for such a short time, we heard quite a bit of good live music on this trip. At the Alley Cantina we heard Christine Autumn singing sweet jazz standards, backed up by her band members on keyboard and bass.

Christine Autumn at Alley Cantina

At the Taos Inn Adobe Bar on two different nights we heard Salt and Pepper, a duo on keyboard and upright bass, and the solo guitarist Ryan Nobody, a “looper” who plays music Mary and I variously labeled electronica or new age. As far as I am aware or can remember, I have never heard or seen someone do the sort of thing Ryan was doing, laying down notes and a rhythm, which was instantly recorded and repeated in the computerized equipment at his hands and feet.

Continuing to lay down different sounds and adding them on top of each other, he produced a sound like a large band, some of the individual compositions lasting as long as 10 or 12 minutes.

At any rate, Ryan produced what we thought of as fascinating works, some of them with a heavy and hypnotic beat akin to 1980s dance music.

So Ryan Nobody’s Taos Inn performance was just another of the enchanting contemporary musical experiences to be had regularly in Taos.

However, its history is what makes the town with a pueblo such a draw for many of its visitors. And those visitors have been coming, and staying to make Taos their home, for several centuries.

Native Americans of various tribes camped and built pueblo homes there.

The Spanish came in the 17th century to Christianize the Native People and to search for gold they thought might lie in the creeks and mountains.

Beginning in the 1700s, mountain men from all over the American West rendezvoused in Taos to trade skins for essentials, and to party for weeks at a time, occasionally acquiring native wives.

In the early 1900s, artists and American tourists made Taos their vacation destinations and homes. Painters, sculptors, photographers, and literary artists found the setting inspiring. And they found the energy needed for their creative works. They came from all over the world.

British novelist D. H. Lawrence, for instance, built a ranch north of the town, a compound of buildings now owned by the University of New Mexico.

Kit Carson’s grave at Kit Carson
Memorial Cemetery in downtown
Taos

Then in the 1950s, Hollywood discovered Taos, and the stars descended to build homes around the plaza just as Kit Carson and other mountain men did a century earlier. Dennis Hopper is buried not far from where Kit Carson’s bones lie. Julia Roberts has a home north of the pueblo, and Taos is still a good place for tourists wanting to ogle movie stars.

In the 1960s, Taos was overrun with hippies, and communes dotted the forests around the town. Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda stopped to film several scenes for “Easy Rider.”

Of course, back in the 1990s, the Taos Talking Picture Festival brought trainloads of Hollywood types to town.

Perhaps the crowds would be a reason not to love the place, but still Mary and I talk about whether or not it was a good or bad thing we did in passing up the purchase of a ranchito next to Michael Martin Murphy’s home not too far south of the plaza.

Still the Taos siren calls us with its joyous vistas, its intoxicating weather, its music and other arts — a poetry reading on the plaza and a Shakespeare performance in the park — and finally its place in our book of memories from decades ago and from a few weeks ago.

Jim Harris is the director of the Lea County Museum in Lovington.
Burkett Shaw
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