Day Fifteen: The Tao of Taos: New Mexico (Taos)

Had perhaps the best sleep of the trip so far on the sweet little bed tucked away at the end of the boxcar. Could totally have been a hobo. Totally. Feasted on homemade granola and enjoyed a leisurely soak in the slipper tub. Debated saying “screw Taos” and spending the day nestled in cozy comfort. BUT-that is not what your intrepid explorer has set out to do, so explore intrepidly we MUST!

First up on the docket was a visit to Taos Pueblo-one of the oldest continually inhabited places in the US and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Pueblo sits on a reservation of roughly 95,000 acres encompassing some rolling foothills along with the sacred Taos Mountain. Only about 100-150 Native Americans still live there, but their homes are devoid of electricity and running water and they still adhere to many of the ancient traditions and customs.

I got there just in time for one of the free guided tours, led by friendly college student Jerome. Jerome started us off at the church of St. Jerome (no relation) which was built in the late 1800s. The walls are made of a three foot thick layer of adobe (basically mud, straw, and water) and the church still celebrates a Catholic Mass every Sunday. No photos are allowed inside, but the wall behind the altar is covered in brightly colored saints and images of the Virgin Mary (who they worship for her close resemblance to Mother Earth).

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Next we visited the ruins of the original church from the 1600s. It was destroyed once when the Pueblo natives revolted against the colonizing Europeans, and again by the US Cavalry. The cemetery was still in use until a few years ago. A closer look shows a pile of wooden crosses stacked near the old bell tower. These crosses, which have fallen from older graves, are neither replaced nor destroyed, simply kept in the cemetery out of respect.

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This next building is the pride of the community: North House. The dwelling has been continually occupied for over 1,000 years, and holds historical significance as one of the few remaining multi-story adobe homes. It’s basically like an apartment house, and each door leads to a separate dwelling. Originally, the only access would have been through ladders leading to ceiling entrances. So if you lived on the third floor you had to climb up three ladders and then one down into the house. That’ll get your cardio up!

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Many of the homes have been partially converted into storefronts where artisans sell their wares. There are also loose dogs roaming everywhere, but as the Pueblo people do not regard dogs as pets, I left Annie at home to avoid traumatizing her with the sight! I “may” have purchased a cool silver bracelet stamped with symbols of varying meanings and some traditional fry bread cooked in an adobe oven.

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On my way out of the Pueblo, I crossed over a river which the people still depend upon as their primary source of water. The trees surrounding it have given them the name “People of the Red Willows.”

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All this learnin’ had worked me up a powerful appetite, so I headed to the central Taos Plaza for lunch at The Gorge, of which I was told two things: 1.) the site of the restaurant was originally the site of the “hanging tree” where revolting Pueblo people were murdered, and 2.) it would be a great spot for people-watching due to all the activity in the plaza. (please note all the bustling Plaza activity)

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After days when my typical mid-day meal consisted of a handful of granola and a cheddar cheese chunk, a proper lunch with black bean soup and chicken tacos left me feeling like this…

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I sluggishly drug my bloated belly along the Plaza which was comprised of: one half tacky souvenirshops (AGAIN with the ELVIS?)…

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. . . and one half cool galleries featuring the paintings, pottery, and jewelry of local artists. As the plaza was all but deserted, and I HATE being the only customer in a shop, as you then become the laser focus of all attention (seriously, getting up from your chair in the back and coming all the way to the front to literally hover over me does NOT make me want to relax and peruse your goods for sale), I only peeked my snout into most of them.

Even when not shopping, it’s neat to see how different a retail zone looks when most of the buildings are adobe, even the McDonalds…

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After a quick jaunt back to the boxcar for Annie’s afternoon constituitional (she was having a snoozy day), I set off for a place I had heard much about and was eager to visit: Ojo Caliente Hot Springs. Basically a really cool spa with hot springs (duh) in cliffside pools and a mud bath area and loads of intriguing offerings. Hey-it can’t be roughing it all the time! So, under the guidance of my new sherpa, Google Maps, I set off down the typical twisty, windy, dusty, bumpy roads that seem to comprise all of Taos’ infrastructure (sorry-my mind is struggling to think right now as a STOOPID FLICKER WOODPECKER IS INCESSANTLY DRUMMING ON THE SIDE OF THE BOXCAR!) and then suddenly, I was on a different type of road altogether. This one was dirt and gravel and potholes and bumps and maaaybe a lane and a half, and going straight up into the sky, and did I mention OHMYGOD THERE IS AN ENORMOUS GORGE ON THE SIDE AND NO GUARDRAIL, WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!!!

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I wish these photos conveyed how truly terrifying it was. If my eyes weren’t squinting you could read the sheer panic in them. AND there was no cell service to call for assistance once I plummeted to my demise. Halfway up my nerve failed me. I decided this wasn’t the hill I wanted to die on, and made my way back down. I couldn’t believe ANYONE would endure this for a spa treatment. Surely the return trip AT DUSK would undo any destressing that had been accomplished. Once I could reattach myself to the internet, a perusal of the spa’s website revealed this to be an ALTERNATE route. For those who enjoy “spectacular scenery.” Thanks Google Maps.

Sufficiently shaken, I repaired to my boxcar and faithful hound for a lite dinner, some good cuddles, and a soak in the hot tub.

Day Fourteen: The Time Has Come, the Walrus said, To Talk of Many Things: Pistachios and Lava Flows and Boxcars Fit for Kings: New Mexico (Alamogordo, Taos)

Annie and I slept like logs at the KOA, so much so that we were both a little slow to get started the next morning. I appeared to have sunburned my self (typical) at the sand dunes, and she appeared to have OD’d on the ginormous corndog from the drive-thru burger joint. We decided to pass on the church service being held in the KOA annex, and got Marigold rolling along again, although in somewhat muted spirits. But that all changed a hop, skip, and a jump outside of town when we happened to stumble upon a delightful bit of insanity that my friend Kate had previously brought to my attention…


NO! YOUR EYES ARE NOT DECEIVING YOU! THAT IS, INDEED, THE WORLD’S LARGEST PISTACHIO! (Annie is cross because I explained to her it wasn’t the World’s Largest EDIBLE Pistachio.) It stands a robust 30 feet tall outside of The Pistachio Tree Ranch and Winery (a natural combination). The proprietors sell every flavor of pistachio you could want, and many you don’t! (Ranch was my fave.)

Spirits lifted, and back behind the wheel, it strikes me that New Mexico is flatter overall than Texas, with large mountains rising up in the distance, some of them cool and wavy. The grass is a very pale yellow punctuated by stubby blobby tree bushes and the occasional cow seemingly unattached to any form of habitation. A sign informs me that we are entering “Billy the Kid Country,” and not long after we’re stopped at a railroad crossing as an impossibly long train stretches across the emptiness. I can almost see Billy TK riding up, if Billy were interested in boxcars full of low quality Chinese made goods, which is what the labeling seems to indicate is onboard here.

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It’s becoming more and more common to go long stretches of time with no cell service. It’s startling how much emptiness there still is in America.

And soon I see a site that lifts my spirits even more! You will recall that yesterday we had been shutout of our first choice in camping locales. This was an intriguing sounding National Recreation Area I had also hoped to take Annie hiking in. I had assumed it would no longer lie on our rerouted path, but low and behold, it rose up before us like the answer to our prayers, just when we needed a break . . .


(Remember that S, it will be important later on in the trip.)

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The absolute bestest thing about the Valley of FireS is that it’s almost entirely composed of LAVA FIELDS!! LAVA! FIELDS! That you can actually walk on (a bit). The lava flow occurred about 5,000 years ago when “Little Black Peak” erupted, leaving a trail about five miles wide running through the desert. The lava has all kinds of plants growing in and around it, and critters residing there, and gaps and bubbles and tubes, and is genuinely quite awesome. It just doesn’t photograph well…

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I’m pretty sure this is Little Black Peak. The name doesn’t lie.

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And yes, the eagle-eyed will spot that I am growing increasingly more sunburned. Recall my previously referenced inability to translate past consequences into future actions.

Annie and I enjoyed about an hour exploring on and off the nature trail, and were still making good time for the afternoon. Now, originally the plan had been to spend a day and night in Santa Fe after Valley of Fires, but, if you recollect, we lost a day due to the infamous Gruene Hall detour. Taos was next on the agenda, and I had made Air B&B reservations there well in advance, so we’ll have to backtrack a bit and catch Santa Fe AFTER Taos, which isn’t ideal, but such are the dues we pay for spontaneity. And the place I’d arranged for us in Taos is MEGA UBER FANTASTICO SUPREME! Are you ready for this jelly? I’m not sure you can handle this jelly… IT’S AN ACTUAL, OFFICIAL, ORIGINAL 1898 CHILE LINE BOXCAR THAT HAS BEEN REPURPOSED INTO A MINIATURE HOUSE! But wait, there’s more! It has been gorgeously decorated with stained glass panels and a CLAW! FOOT! BATH! TUB! But that’s not all! Outside there are sweeping views of hundreds of acres of pasture land AND ACCESS TO AN OUTDOOR HOT TUB!!

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