By Victor Block
Countless art galleries line many streets of the tiny town. Reminders of its past as a Spanish colonial outpost and frontier settlement are everywhere. Trendy shops attract discriminating buyers. The brooding remnants of pueblos offer evidence of the lasting influence of Native American culture.
Taos, New Mexico, would be worth a visit for its setting alone. It's surrounded by high-country plains interrupted by towering peaks. The Rio Grande River cuts a jugged gash through the desertlike terrain.
While the population of Taos is only about 6,000, it makes up in appeal and attractions what it lacks in size. Let's pick up the story in 1540, when a Spanish expedition arrived in the area to find magnificent pueblo structures in which the Tiwa Indians lived.
The Spanish established Taos around 1615. Its heart was a fortified walled square enclosed by adobe buildings. Today the Plaza, like the rest of Taos, reveals the blending of Native American, Spanish and Anglo-American cultures that have created a rich tapestry. Other colorful threads were added by fur traders, mountain men and later by artists.
If you prefer modern structures sheathed in glass, you won't find them here. Instead the scene is soft, and the ochre color of the Pueblo-style architecture blends naturally with that of the surrounding desert. The Plaza continues to serve as the core of town and is the logical place to begin an exploration.
Four rooms in the Ernest L. Blumenschein Home and Museum formed part of the defensive walls that surrounded the original settlement. Later they were incorporated into a home where the artist and his painter wife lived and worked during the first decades of the 20th century. In addition to paintings by its former occupants, the collection includes works by members of the Taos Society of Artists. In the early 20th century they earned the town worldwide recognition as a major art colony.
Paintings by Taos Society members also hang in the Taos Art Museum at Fechin House, named for the Russian emigre who came to town in 1927 and evolved into a leading portraitist. Other museums, some located in homes of former residents, also relate chapters of the intriguing history of Taos. The Harwood Museum displays works by outstanding 18th- to 21st-century painters.
The story of the Millicent Rogers Museum involves the high-society scion of a wealthy industrialist who came to Taos to recover from a failed romantic affair with Hollywood actor Clark Gable. Her collection includes textiles, pottery and other arts and crafts endemic to the area.
Along with its claim to fame as a center for a fascinating fusion of artistic genres, Taos is a shopping mecca. The challenge becomes how to narrow down an overwhelming selection of cowboy and cowgirl paraphernalia, Native American items and a long list of other goods.
As if that weren't enough shoppers' overload, some museum stores offer unusual and often unique merchandise. For example, a museum-quality collection of Native American art and handicrafts echoes that which is exhibited in the Millicent Rogers house. In keeping with the nationality of Nicolai Fechin, Russian art and crafts share shelf space with local offerings in his former home.
A very different experience greets visitors to the Taos Pueblo. That historical monument is one of 19 pueblos (Spanish for towns or villages) dotted around northern New Mexico. The complex of multistoried earthen structures is considered to be the oldest continuously inhabited place in the country, and life there goes on much as it has for some 2,000 years.
While many of the pueblo's residents live in modern dwellings scattered about the expanse, about 150 continue to cling to the old ways in the original apartments. They make do without electricity or running water and bake bread in outdoor beehive-shaped ovens called hornos. Some rooms of ground-floor apartments function as shops selling handmade jewelry and paintings by Native American artists. A better deal, I decided, was paying $4 for a snack of fry bread, cooked to order and served with a choice of powdered sugar, cinnamon or honey.
I chatted with a teenage boy who proudly displayed a row of arm tattoos of famous Native American chiefs. Pointing to the face at the top, he identified the image as Sitting Bull, a renowned leader who led his people during years of resistance to the U.S. government.
Along with this and other major sites, I came across several that may lie beneath some visitors' radar yet which I deem well worth a look. The Bent House Museum was where the first American governor of New Mexico lived and died in 1847 when he was scalped during a Native American uprising. The house contains original furnishings, and a hole dug in the wall through which some of its inhabitants escaped is still visible.
Kit Carson was a multitasking frontiersman, trapper, scout, Indian agent and Army officer who became a legend due to stories about him in news articles and dime novels. The low-slung adobe house where he lived for almost a quarter-century is a repository of artifacts that illustrate the various phases and accomplishments of his career. That house and its former occupant typify the captivating tales, historical tidbits and cultural melange that draw visitors to Taos.
WHEN YOU GO
For more information: www.taos.org(SET CAPTION2) A statue of a Native American stands outside the Millicent Rogers Museum in Taos, New Mexico. Photo courtesy of Victor Block. (END CAPITON2)
Victor Block is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
Some families live as their ancestors did centuries ago at Taos Pueblo in Taos, New Mexico. Photo courtesy of Victor Block.