The Rio Grande flows through the Taos gorge ― best viewed from the suspension bridge 650 feet above.
ACROSS THE 500-FOOT BRIDGE
Typical of Taos's often contrarian ways, the Rio Grande Gorge, the area's most famous natural landmark, is virtually invisible. Until you reach its edge. Walk across the bridge and you gaze into an abyss framed by dark walls of volcanic rock ― all the way to the muddy band of the Rio Grande 650 feet below.
As we hike the gorge's west rim, it's not this great rip in the earth that commands our attention but the sky. Billowing clouds, like a cinematographer's dream, cast shadows across sagebrush plains. To the east, the Sangre de Cristos, marbled yellow and orange by aspens, rise more than 13,000 feet, dwarfing Taos.
The town looks as inconsequential as an Everest base camp against the Himalayas, a reminder that for all its culture, Taos, with its roughly 6,000 residents, remains an outpost, poised at a rugged frontier. It's just 15 minutes back to Historic Taos Plaza, where, beneath the cottonwood canopy, locals watch as a champagne-colored Lincoln lowrider slowly circles. An older man, back for a visit, poses for pictures. He stops us and proudly declares, "When I was a boy, this was my shoeshine spot."
We're bound for the Hotel La Fonda de Taos to check out the menu at Joseph's Table, one of Taos's best restaurants, but get diverted after spotting a lobby sign announcing an art trove sequestered in the hotel: the forbidden paintings of British novelist D.H. Lawrence.
Lawrence was among the artists drawn to Taos in the 1920s by socialite turned salon hostess Mabel Dodge Luhan. A La Fonda owner acquired the paintings years after 13,000 people flocked to be shocked at a 1929 London showing before officials banned the paintings. We learn this from Paxton Noble, a hotel employee, before he opens a curtain, and whoosh, there they are: nine paintings by one of the 20th century's greatest writers, not in a museum but unveiled for a private viewing in a conference room off a hotel lobby.
The paintings' emotional rawness is more stunning than their eroticism. That said, it's still easier to converse once Paxton closes the curtains. As it turns out, his father is Tom Noble, an artist and Taos native, whose luminous quill-pen-and-watercolor landscapes had caught our attention as we gallery hopped earlier in the day.
Paxton recommends that we check out Ledoux Street, and so, before dinner, we walk over to this increasingly vibrant Taos arts district. Seeming to beckon us inside to an exhibit opening, a magpie calls and flashes its black-and-white wings from a viga at the 203 Fine Art gallery.
Art openings are a big deal in Taos, a kind of episodic party that reconvenes as a new show debuts. This one is for Alvaro Cardona-Hine, a native Costa Rican and, as a writer, painter, and composer, a most versatile Taos creative hyphenate. The party swirls about him as the gallery, located in a renovated 150-year-old adobe, fills with locals and fellow artists.
Among them is Tom Noble, whose ties to Taos date to 1898, when, as he puts it, "supposedly my granddaddy rode out, found a couple of good saloons, and decided to stay."
Noble's paintings capture the essence of Taos: whimsical views of sheep grazing on hills, the evanescent skies, and the old adobes that seem to resist the very concept of right angles. "I just drive around and pick up mental photographs. Just 30 seconds of looking at something is enough," he says. "This whole place is just in me."
Next: Ancient to New Age