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Another World

Another World

Travel
By Lois Friedland
posted: 08/09/2000

To grasp the essence of Taos, you need to get a visual on its landscape and understand a bit about the region's history. Situated in Northern New Mexico, where the mesa meets the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the vistas are part sage brush and sand, part forested mountains and snowmelt rivers. The adobe architecture is so prevalent that at first glance, the visual effect is misleadingly mono-cultural.

Taos is in fact an amalgamation of cultures with a long and often tumultuous history. Native American Indians settled the area 1,000 years ago. The Spaniards arrived in the 1500s, followed by the Anglos three centuries later. The ensuing clashing and blending of traditional Native American and Spanish cultures, and the big-money lifestyles brought here by many Anglos in recent decades, has created the mosaic that is Taos today.

"It's like a melting pot. You have so many different cultures, and then there are the movie stars, writers and artists," explains George Tsouhlarakis, a local jeweler whose professional name Naveek combines letters from the Navajo heritage on his mother's side and his father's Greek legacy. Even though Naveek grew up on a Navajo Reservation in Gallup, N.M., he came to Taos because it's such an inspiring setting for artists and jewelers. From his adobe home, he has 360-degree views of Taos County, which encompasses a spread of more than 1.4 million acres. It stretches east from the town of Taos, through hamlets on the mesas, to the slopes leading up to Taos Ski Valley, 20 miles north of town. The county butts up against the 100,000-acre Taos Indian Reservation, with its famous 700-year-old Taos Pueblo structures. The reservation starts at the town line and reaches high into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

The town, which sits on a high mesa valley, is home to approximately 6,200 residents. A laid-back ambiance is one of the traits that draws people to live in Taos and is why locals refer to Taos as a lifestyle rather than a spot on the map. "I've never liked things neat and tidy," explains inn-owner Susan Vernon. "I don't want to live in a subdivision where my house is the same as the third one down the street because they were all built by the same builder." Instead, she lives in and owns Casa de las Chimeneas, an upscale B&B set within the walls of a hacienda.

A stroll from the Casa to the plaza reveals a typical Taos neighborhood. Along the quiet back streets, small houses with rusted cars in the yard are intermixed with million-dollar homes shoe-horned into tiny lots. In a town where the average home price is $178,500 but the average income is only $24,831, many long-time residents have "grown" their houses. They started with a trailer home (arguably the most common form of housing here), then added a room or two at a time until the trailer was surrounded, then covered the whole compound with stucco so it would look like a house.

Despite the economic divisions, Ann McGee, the ski resort's VP of Administration and a 19-year resident, says, "This is the first place where I haven't been compelled to keep up with the Jones. I've never felt as if there are haves or have nots."

Mickey Blake, the resort's general manager, provides another perspective. His father Ernie Blake, the infamous yet beloved Taos Ski Valley founder, first brought his family to the area in the spring of 1954. "There was almost nothing here other than the original foundations of the copper mining town, a few chickens and a cow," reminisces Blake. The following fall, they began clearing the forest and constructed the first lift. Blake opened the resort for business the next December. In October of 1957, they brought in the parts for the mountain's first Poma lift and laid all the pieces on the ground. That night it snowed 3 feet, and they didn't see the parts again until spring. "We shoe-stringed it all the way," he laughs.

Today, the area logs more than 300,000 annual skier visits, and the tiny valley floor is lled with lodges, restaurants and the other signs of a successful ski resort. There's even a mayor-the ski resort's vice president of marketing, Chris Stagg-in this 150-person community, incorporated only a few years ago mainly to handle infrastructure issues.

Getting to Taos Ski Valley from downtown is simple. Just head north from the plaza on Route 68 (which becomes 64) and turn right onto Highway 150. Take the arrow-straight road past the mesas, until you reach Arroyo Seco 10 miles north. This formerly bedraggled gaggle of buildings now boasts a more cleaned-up, tourists-stop-here look and Casa Fresen, a bakery that makes the perfect latte-and-scone stop on a snowy morning. Less than a mile down Highway 150, the land falls steeply away to the Rio Hondo, a ribbon of water surrounded by fields controlled by Spanish land grants (sometimes wielded to help block growth). New $200,000-plus adobe homes hug the foothills on the far side. For the next 9 miles, the world shrinks and mountainsides hover over you, leaving room just for the road and river as they wind up toward the canyon's end: Taos Ski Valley. In the ski valley the culture is "more American than anything else," says Lee Varoz, Jr., the assistant lift maintenance supervisor. His dad was one of the resort's first employees, and his story reflects the increasing influence of the ski area on local economics. "When I was in school, townspeople didn't know much about skiing and looked at some of us that came skiing as kind of different, especially with me being Hispanic. Now, townspeople are mostly employees in the ski valley in the wintertime."

Taos Ski Valley has a burly reputation as a resort for hardcore skiers only (snowboarding is still verboten). But there's much more to this mountain than what you see when gawking from the parking lot at the bumps of Al's Run and the tight trees of Inferno. On the backside there's a network of rolling intermediate runs surrounded by raw, treeless peaks. And beginners even have a dedicated learning area at the base. All told, green and blue runs make up a surprising 49 percent of the mountain's terrain. From most of these trails, skiers have a front-row view of experts challenging the ridges and chutes tumbling from the mountain's peak. Then there are Angel Fire and Red River. While most visitors think the valley is the only place to ski, locals also frequent easy-going Red River 36 miles north of town and the slopes of Angel Fire 25 miles east.

While skiing is the wintertime lure, the local arts and the ancient structures at Taos Pueblo are the big summertime draws. Less than 50 people live within the old village walls of scenic Taos Pueblo, in two five-story buildings made of adobe and mud construction with vigas (timbers) supporting the roofs. Electricity and plumbing aren't allowed within the old village walls, so many of the 2,200 Pueblo People live on surrounding tribal lands where modern amenities are permitted. The reservation has its own governing board, which works with local, state and federal governments on broader issues. Each culture uses its own power to influence the growth that's currently flooding the community. "There's an old saying," Vernon explains. "The power structure of Taos is divided into three: The Indians own the land, the Hispanics control the politics, and the Anglos have the money. That continues to this day."

Taos' mayor, Frederick Peralta, insists that the various cultures are all fighting for a common cause-retaining the community's aura-even if they approach it differently. "The majority of the people who live in this community want to preserve what brought them here," says Peralta. "It doesn't make a difference what culture you come from-there's an ambiance about this community. So people here try to preserve that from their own perspective." Those unique perspectives let Taos be Taos. The locals wouldn't have it any other way.

Almanac: Taos, New Mexico

Population 6,200 (Town of Taos) 26,634 (county)
Elevation 6,967 feet
Median Home Price (in town) $178,500
Property Tax (in town) $873
Main Business Tourism
School Population 5,025
Average Household Income $24,831
Local Ski Areas/Vertical Rise Taos Ski Valley, 2,612 feet; Angel Fire, 2,077 feet; Red River, 1,600 feet
Skiable Acres Taos Ski Valley, 1,100; Angel Fire, 455; Red River, 242
Average Annual Snowfall Taos Ski Valley, 320 inches; Angel Fire, 210 inches; Red River, 218 inchesSeason Pass Taos Ski Valley, $1,400; Angel Fire, $550; Red River, $650
Daily Lift Ticket Taos Ski Valley, $42; Angel Fire, $39; Red River, $39
Best Annual Events Winter: Taos Pueblo Procession of the Virgin, a bonfire and procession held on Dec. 24. Summer: The Taos Annual Fiesta, a three-day communal party; Taos Pow Wow, a non-ceremonial gathering with tribal dances. Both are held in July.
Locals' Favorite Restaurants In Town: Ranchos Trading Post Cafe (fun atmosphere with reasonably priced food), Lambert's of Taos (fine New American dining), The Kangaroo (Thai and "modern Australian"), Apple Tree (casual fine New Mexican and New American cuisine). On the reservation: The Tiwa Kitchen. Taos Ski Valley: The Inn at Snakedance (regional cuisine), Thunderbird Lodge (ski fare), The Bavarian (on-slope fine dining)
Locals' Favorite Hangouts In Town: Sagebrush (for country and western dancing). Taos Ski Valley: Hotel St. Bernard bar, Tim's Stray Dog Cantina.
Getting There Albuquerque, 135 miles south, has the nearest major airport.
Information Town of Taos Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Drawer I, Taos, N.M., 87571; www.taos.org (800) 732-8267; Taos Ski Valley: (505) 776-2291; Central Reservations (800) 776-1111. 6,200 (Town of Taos) 26,634 (county)
Elevation 6,967 feet
Median Home Price (in town) $178,500
Property Tax (in town) $873
Main Business Tourism
School Population 5,025
Average Household Income $24,831
Local Ski Areas/Vertical Rise Taos Ski Valley, 2,612 feet; Angel Fire, 2,077 feet; Red River, 1,600 feet
Skiable Acres Taos Ski Valley, 1,100; Angel Fire, 455; Red River, 242
Average Annual Snowfall Taos Ski Valley, 320 inches; Angel Fire, 210 inches; Red River, 218 inchesSeason Pass Taos Ski Valley, $1,400; Angel Fire, $550; Red River, $650
Daily Lift Ticket Taos Ski Valley, $42; Angel Fire, $39; Red River, $39
Best Annual Events Winter: Taos Pueblo Procession of the Virgin, a bonfire and procession held on Dec. 24. Summer: The Taos Annual Fiesta, a three-day communal party; Taos Pow Wow, a non-ceremonial gathering with tribal dances. Both are held in July.
Locals' Favorite Restaurants In Town: Ranchos Trading Post Cafe (fun atmosphere with reasonably priced food), Lambert's of Taos (fine New American dining), The Kangaroo (Thai and "modern Australian"), Apple Tree (casual fine New Mexican and New American cuisine). On the reservation: The Tiwa Kitchen. Taos Ski Valley: The Inn at Snakedance (regional cuisine), Thunderbird Lodge (ski fare), The Bavarian (on-slope fine dining)
Locals' Favorite Hangouts In Town: Sagebrush (for country and western dancing). Taos Ski Valley: Hotel St. Bernard bar, Tim's Stray Dog Cantina.
Getting There Albuquerque, 135 miles south, has the nearest major airport.
Information Town of Taos Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Drawer I, Taos, N.M., 87571; www.taos.org (800) 732-8267; Taos Ski Valley: (505) 776-2291; Central Reservations (800) 776-1111.

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