Monday, June 29, 2009

Hiking, Biking, and Liking Taos

June 27-28

We had an action-packed day and a half in Taos. Here are the things we enjoyed the most:

Taos Pueblo, the oldest continuously inhabited community in the United States

The main living structures of the Pueblo are believed to be over 1,000 years old. While the structures follow the style that was used bakc then, it is hard to believe that they actually are that old, since they are built of adobe brick, plastered over with adobe mud, building materials that need constant maintenance to remain intact. We saw many homes in the process of melting back into the earth in the Pueblo, and some in the process of being repaired.

The homes were built side-by-side and layer-upon-layer with no doors, just openings in the roof, as a means of defense. Each family would climb a ladder to their roof, then pull up the ladder and climb down it into their home from a hole in the roof. Today the inhabitants have cut doors into the homes, and use the holes in the roof as skylights. In other ways, they live as their early ancestors did, without electricity or running water. According to our guide, there are 1,500 registered Pueblo people living on tribal land around the Pueblo, but only 70 actually live in the historic area. The rest have chosen to live in modern homes with electricity and bathrooms.

Most of the intact ground level Taos Pueblo homes are used as shops today. There are about 40 shops, selling baked goods, jewelry, woven goods, tee shirts, pottery, and every type of souvenir that one could imagine, all at exceptionally high prices. We popped in a few, but shopping was not the historical purpose of this place, and it disturbed our sense of stepping back in time, so we didn't fully savor this aspect of the Taos Pueblo experience.

The newest building in the Pueblo is the church, built in 1850. About 80% of the native population here is still Catholic, which is amazing, given their history with the religion. In 1619, Spanish priests built the first mission church here using native people as slave labor. The priests forced the Pueblo people into slavery and into Catholicism in order to "civilize" them. Although the Taos Pueblo people revolted in 1680, they only lived freely for about twenty years, until the Spanish conquered them again, and reconstructed the church.

That reconstructed church was destroyed by US troops in 1847, in retaliation for the killing of a territorial governor, which may have been the work of local townspeople, and not the Pueblo people. In the process of razing the church, the soldiers killed many Pueblo residents who had sought refuge inside. The remaining native people made the ruins of the church a cemetery, and built the church that stands today nearby. Services are held there at 7 am every Sunday, and all are welcome.

In addition to the Catholic faith, they maintain their tribal religious practices, passed down through the generations by family and tribal leaders. Their tribal religious ceremonies are private, with closely protected rituals—understandable, given their history of being oppressed and persecuted for their beliefs.

Mabel Dodge Luhan Home

We chanced upon this wonderful piece of Taos history while geocaching.
Mabel Dodge was a wealthy and prominent socialite and art patron from New York, who became enamored with the West in the 1920s, soon fell in love with a Taos Pueblo man--Tony Luhan. She divorced her third husband, married Tony, and took up residence in Taos, where she and Tony hosted the artists and thinkers of the time at lively salons and retreats in their eclectic home. Georgia O'Keeffe, Ansel Adams, Martha Graham, Carl Jung, and D.H Lawrence found inspiration while visiting, and so did we.

Now a historic inn, the home and its lovely grounds are open to visitors. There is a self-guided tour of the public spaces, which are spectacularly eclectic, artfully blending the adobe frontier architecture of the home that originally stood on the site with airy light-filled spaces that Tony and Mabel added later, echoing the Mediterranean influences they brought back to Taos after renovating their villa in Italy. Standing behind the house and looking up, we could see Mabel's sleeping porch and bathroom with glass on three sides, festively painted by D. H. Lawrence to hide Mabel's bathing rituals from public view.

Francisco de Asis Church, the most photographed church in the United States

We deemed it photo-worthy,
and took our photos against a perfect sky. Too bad they prohibit photos inside.

Hiking Carson National Forest south Boundary Trail We laced up our hiking boots and climbed the rocky, but easy trail that switch-backed up the side of a little mountain. We were shaded by pines, cedars and junipers, and cooled by light breezes as we walked. The hunt for a geocache brought us to a wonderful spot with two rock thrones where we could sit and rest in regal comfort,
looking over the outskirts of Taos in the valley below.

Biking the Rio Grande River Gorge West Rim Trail

We stopped in a Taos bike shop to replace my original bicycle seat, which is now lying beside the road somewhere in eastern Texas, having vibrated loose and fallen off after 2,000 miles. While at the shop, we learned about an "easy" mountain biking trail that runs along the rim of the Rio Grande River Gorge. It sounded like a good place to get our first taste of true mountain biking.

So, the next morning we packed up, grabbed lattes, pastries and the Sunday New York Times at The Bean (voted best Taos coffee shop), and headed for the gorge. We didn't see it until we were right upon it, because the gorge is a narrow snaking crack in the earth with such steep sides that the river flowing 650 feet below can only be seen by walking right up to the rim—or across the pedestrian friendly highway bridge that spans it.

Within less than half a mile of beginning our ride we realized that we might be in over our heads on mountain biking. Although the trail was not hilly, it was far from flat. Big rocks interrupted our pedaling progress, grabbing our pedals and twisting our wheels to the side or sending us a little bit air-born. We had to hop off our bikes and walk them several times.
We didn't mind, though, because the only times we were able to actually enjoy the scenery were when we were off the bikes. While riding, our eyes were riveted on the trail ahead—vigilant for rocks that could send us sprawling or rattlesnakes that might be disturbed by our passage.

Fortunately, trail conditions improved, as did our riding skills, as we continued, and we were able to enjoy the sage-covered range stretching for miles in all directions, trailside wildflowers, majestic mountains in the distance, and dizzyingly deep gorge panoramas beside us.

Partway through the ride, we realized that just a few days ago we had walked 750 feet down into Carlsbad Caverns, 100 feet deeper than this gorge. We were quite amazed with ourselves.

We turned around after cycling for an hour, covering just five miles, according to our odometers. Our return trip took fifty minutes. This was by far the slowest ten miles we have ever ridden. Mountain biking is a very different sport than road biking, and we have a lot to learn.

After we changed out of our biking togs at a highway rest stop conveniently located by the trail head, we walked out on the bridge with our cameras and captured more great gorge views, including pictures of rafters shooting the white water rapids below.

The Enchanted Circle Route

The Enchanted Circle is a popular 84 mile driving tour loop through the mountains and countryside encircling Taos. We took the long way around, then jumped out of the circle after completing about ¾ of its perimeter, to continue our journey north.

The Enchanted Circle lived up to its name, offering up lots of reasons to stop and enjoy our surroundings. There were many roadside historic markers, including one pointing the way to Kiowa Ranch, a gift to D.H. Lawrence from Mabel Dodge Luhan (they must have had a very special relationship). There were cows grazing in a peaceful green alpine valley, with piney mountains as their backdrop and roadside wildflowers in the foreground. The road climbed up into the rocks and pines of Carson National Forest,
and we stopped for a picnic lunch at a table next to a cold stream rushing so loudly over the rocks that we couldn't hear the passing traffic.

A denuded mountainside heralded our arrival at a Chevron Molybdenum mine. We didn't know what was being mined at first, but Dick drove up to the security gate and chatted up the guard to learn that they still employ 200 people here, even though the mine is not nearly as active as it used to be. Molybdenum is used in steel production.

We climbed past the booming little resort town of Red River and went through Bobcat Pass, which at 9,820 feet is one of the highest passes in North America. The temperature up there was a refreshing 58 degrees. We saw snow-capped peaks across the pass, and spotted elk grazing at the edge of an alpine meadow as we descended on the other side of the mountains. We left the loop at the little town of Eagle Nest, where I added a bird to my life list—a Yellow-headed Blackbird.


This Mexican style cemetery lies on the south side of Taos.
It is similar to many we have seen in our travels through Texas and New Mexico. I include it here, because I am fascinated by the festive appearance of the Tex-Mex cemeteries, with their colorful silk flowers, photos, religious icons and mementos that give clues to the stories of the people who lie there and to those who love them.

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