Santa Fe to Taos

Santa Fe. Downtown at 7 a.m., well before the tourist town stirs, I'm scarfing a breakfast of red-hot blue corn enchiladas at Tia Sophia's. A twine of Spanish and English conversation fills the air; the city's civil servants flock here for breakfast. A warning on the menu ― not responsible for too hot chile ― is only for the occasional errant tourist.

Tia Sophia's is where I first heard a local use the term "Fanta Se," an ironic dig at a city that has become too expensive for its own working residents. Two Santa Fes exist, parallel universes that split into divergent evolutionary paths eons past.

There's the Santa Fe that has ordained itself "The City Different," the fantasy city of about 250 art galleries, 15 museums, and one of the edgiest culinary scenes of any city in the country: the city of well-heeled exiles from elsewhere. You can spend a fortune here ― or not. I treat Canyon Road as a mile-long art museum and pass a day hopping galleries without dropping a dime.

Pieces of the other Santa Fe, the real city where people have worked and prayed and sewn soul-deep connections to the New Mexico landscape, are everywhere, if glimpsed only in fragments. A homemade shrine to St. Francis nestled in a patio. The surprisingly picturesque acequia madre, the "mother ditch," which residents still clean and weed annually as they have for more than 380 years. A slightly uneven adobe wall turning a ruddy gold in late-afternoon light as the sun probes the flecks of straw in it. An elderly woman, her face browned and arroyoed by decades in the New Mexico sun, selling apples and chile powder ― and explaining how her father, who'd had all of three months of school, put her through college by selling his produce just like this.

Off-season, the High Road from Santa Fe to Taos ― State 76 and 518 ― which weaves through the villages of Chimayo, Truchas, and Las Trampas, seems as drowsy and lonely as the New Mexico of a century past. And refreshingly informal. A sign in Pierre Delattre's gallery in Truchas says, "Studio open ― after you see the front gallery, come visit." I do.

"I moved here from Minnesota because I was inspired by the light, and I wanted my own gallery so I could meet the people who bought my paintings," Delattre says. "I love the bohemian life here. It's almost as if your life becomes art."

Thirty miles on, I find Taos squirming out of its bohemian past. There's a buzz of recent Julia Roberts sightings. There's a startling resort where rooms start at $345 a night and a waterfall trills on the patio. Lovely, but hardly the Taos that lured photographer Ansel Adams for its light, novelist D.H. Lawrence for the "unbreakable spirit" of the place, and writer John Nichols for the absurdity that became The Milagro Beanfield War. But that Taos still exists; you only have to ask.

Taos Pueblo, if you ignore the inevitable casino, is unchanged ― and, on a cold November morning, so nearly deserted that it feels like a discovery. The crisp morning light falls like a shower of silver needles, and a handmade ladder propped over an adobe parapet dissolves into sapphire sky as if it were a prayer.