The Tao of Taos

Richly colored desert mountains

So many stories surround Taos, New Mexico, I felt a bit trembly when Highway 518 emerged from the evergreen Carson National forest and looped down into the remote New Mexico valley. According to legend, people who enter Taos are destined to remain there forever… or else become so restless that they can’t be content anywhere else.

But as the wide Paseo del Pueblo Sur carried me into the village, I could shrug off my jitters. The bustling plaza was a sea of tie-dye T-shirts. Outside the adobe McDonald’s, an art festival was in full swing. I stopped to buy earrings shaped like UFOs. I could leave any time I wanted.

I simply didn’t want to yet…

“Mystery Mountain” Lures Artists to New Mexico


Highway in New Mexico
“When the mountain wants you…”

“When the mountain wants you, you will stay,” warned a woman with silvery hair. She was from Texas, but the mountain had wanted her, and suddenly here she was at the festival where her husband – whom the mountain also wanted – had won a prize for his birch panel designs. When good fortunes such as this happen, “you know.” She tapped her heart. “You know in here.”

Only 4,700 people live in Taos, but some 1,336 of them are artists. Everywhere I went, there they were: Painting murals on garbage dumpsters, teaching creativity workshops at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House, pouring cranberry punch at gallery openings, holding up the checkout lines at Wal-Mart as they chatted about the quality of the light.

There’s a strange intensity to the light in the mountains surrounding Taos. It radiates an eerie psychic energy, illuminating alien rock formations and vast red landscapes. And then there’s that legendary, mysterious hum, said to come from a hidden government laboratory. Anyone who hears it is never quite the same. Cardiologists enroll in past life therapy. Stockbrokers discover a talent for macramé. High school business teachers post desperate messages on the bulletin board at the Super Save: “Wanted – Studio apartment for quiet sculptor.”

Potter Susan Ammann in Taos, New Mexico
Potter Susan Ammann in Taos, New Mexico

Many of the people who live in Taos never actually planned to. They were just passing through, visiting a friend, heading for some other destination, when the mountain reached out and grabbed them. Gathering at Sheva Cafe, they shake their heads in wonderment. How did it happen?

“It hit me like a brick wall,” says Bill Davis, a photographer who arrived in 1969.

“I was captured.” “Taos chose me,” says Susan Ammann, who left Wall Street to make pots in an adobe studio.

“I came to buy an RV park,” says Rhode Island native Phoebe M. Sullins. Surprisingly, mysteriously, she stayed to become a painter.

Kyle Morgan, also a painter, grew up in Taos, but left. “I had to come back,” she explains. “I kept having dreams about the mountain, the Pueblo.”

Again and again artists speak of this magic, telling stories so polished and practiced they take on the luster of a fairy tale. Sometimes voices are quiet, reverential, and sometimes a bit too earnest, as though the tellers are trying to convince themselves that the tales are true.

By my third day in Taos, I was lingering in real estate offices. I had my eye on a cozy pueblo with a bright blue door. Then, half-way seduced, I began to hear rumblings.

New Mexico Wild Flowers
Wildflowers color the New Mexico landscape

“The idea of Taos as a paradise is a myth,” says Anita Rodriguez, painter and activist in the Hispanic community. According to Rodriguez, the utopian promise comes true only for a select – mostly Anglo – minority. “The culture that first drew artists to Taos were the Indian and Hispanic cultures,” says Rodriguez. “Yet, until five years ago, it was nearly impossible for a Hispanic artist to be represented by a Taos gallery.”

Native Americans have voiced similar complaints. “My grandfather gave his pieces away not knowing how much they are worth,” says Carlos Barela, a woodcarver. “That’s not going to happen again. I’m not going to sell my work cheap.”

Of course, the predominately Anglo galleries have recognized some Hispanic and Native American artists. John Suazo, who grew up in Taos Pueblo, is renown for his simple, evocative sculptures inspired by pre-Columbian culture. However, art forms most often practiced by native groups – pottery, jewelry, textiles, and religious works – are frequently overlooked. Moreover, many Native American and Hispanic artists do not have the business training necessary to attract galleries or to aggressively market their work.

The result? Isolated groups of creative people who produce quantities of beautiful and meaningful work, yet know little about each other. “This community,” says Anita Rodriguez, “is ghettoized.”

Sculpture in Taos, New Mexico
Taos, New Mexico is all about art

Meanwhile, the longing for paradise continues to lure artists and free spirits from California, New York, and other far-flung places. Rents have skyrocketed, and bulletin boards at book stores and coffee houses are papered with desperate messages: “Wanted – Studio apartment or room for quiet painter” (or “sculptor,” or “composer,” or “poet”). At the adobe McDonald’s, locals grumble that Taos is getting too big, that tourists have taken over the Plaza. And, amidst howls of protest, Eya Fechin, daughter of the famed painter Nicolai Fechin, has constructed an 85-room inn behind her father’s secluded Taos home.

Rebelling against these forces, a group of mostly-young artists have formed a collaborative in Arroyo Seco, a tiny, mountainside village five miles uphill from Taos. The artists display avant garde works, perform improvisational theater, and stage 60’s style “happenings” in a two-room house called the Art Lab. Just up the road, Barbara Waters, widow of Taos writer Frank Waters, is resisting pressure to sell their acreage to real estate developers. Instead, the land will be used as a haven for writers and artists.

So, it seems, paradise isn’t found, it’s created: It’s made by going out into the wilderness, turning away from all that is trendy and sure, listening for whatever messages might blow in from the hills, joining forces with fellow seekers, and sinking down roots in uncharted territories. Ironically, the most earnest efforts to create paradise often destroy it. But true believers persist, weaving wishes like a Navajo blanket, forming colorful and comforting myths of magic and healing.

Learning this made it possible for me to leave Taos. As my rental car climbed Route 68 toward Pilar, I felt a tug, as though I was pushing through the membrane of a dream. Then, my spirit soared and I drove – a bit too fast – past red cliffs and frosted mountains. If they called out to me, I did not listen. The spell was broken.

Or so I thought…

Colorful desert rock formations
New Mexico Desert. Image cc 2.0 a4gpa via Flickr

Upon my return home, I did something unexpected. I packed my belongings and moved out of my apartment. I didn’t go far – I simply moved to an upper floor in the same building. But, like Taos, the elevation is high and the light is brilliant. I’m hanging prints by Taos artists Carlos Hall, Tom Noble, and – yes – R.C. Gorman. I’m doing guided meditations. I’m pretending that I never left.

~Jackie Craven


Have you visited New Mexico? Please tell your story in the comments section below.

Adapted from The Tao of Taos by Jackie Craven, previously published in the Providence Sunday Journal and other newspapers.  To order reprint rights, contact Distant Dwellings.  Image at top of page:Organ Mountains Desert Peaks, New Mexico. Photo by Lisa Phillips, Bureau of Land Management, Las Cruces District Rangeland Management via Wikimedia

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Trying to See Japan

The torii of Itsukushima Shrine

One summer, before the earthquake-tsunami-nuclear crisis, I think I saw Japan. I traveled the country on a motorcoach with 30 other Americans, mostly art students and their spouses and children. We were an odd mix…

Whirlwind Tourists Do Japan

Agnes, a retired teacher, lugged brightly colored geometric forms so she could photograph the Nihonji Daibutsu inside an immense red circle.

Cindi, a  sophomore, played Taiko drums on her iPod as she cruised through the Kiyomizu Temple.

Melvin, a long-legged, sour-faced man, shuffled through the Todai-ji Temple at the heels of his patient, adoring wife.

Because he was an Agatha Christie addict, Melvin often stayed behind to finish a particularly suspenseful chapter rather than look at one more wooden god.

“What are you reading?” I asked as we rode Japan’s famous bullet train to Osaka.

Scowling over the rim of his book, he growled, “Murder on the Orient Express.”

He meant well. We all did. Armed with cameras, guide books, and preconceptions, we made a determined effort to visit every one of Japan’s top-rated attractions. Yet what’s remarkable isn’t what we saw so much as what we failed to see.

Flirting in Kyoto

Jane was a commercial artist who had read extensively about Japan before embarking on this trip. One July night, we wore sundresses to an elegant roof-top restaurant. While we ate pork Teriyaki, the night fell around our shoulders like a shawl. A week later our tour guide informed us, “In Japan, the bare shoulder is considered very… how do you say? Provocative.”

But we didn’t know that yet. Oblivious to the stares our shoulders drew, we leaned back in our patio chairs and lapsed into metaphysical ruminations.

How remarkable, we said, that after only one week, the sounds of the Japanese language had formed patterns in our minds. Why, we could almost understand the words. And the shape of the writing seemed so familiar, we felt we could almost read it, and we would have, if we only had a little more time. And what was time, we asked, but an artificial dimension, like the distance people think they see in mirrors.

These heavy thoughts sank like drops of oil in our minds. We slipped into silence and watched the lights of Kyoto flicker on. Japan was fully comprehensible to us; we had a penetrating, instinctive affinity for water colors, cherry blossoms, and bamboo flutes.

From the next table, a slender Japanese businessman eyed us shyly. His companion, a round and beaming man with bright gold teeth, ordered us beer. Jane gestured for both men to join us. She got the quiet and dignified one; I got the gold teeth.

“Kyoto beautiful, you live here?” he asked.

I fumbled through my English-Japanese dictionary, but before I could find a suitable response, he said, “Car downstairs, you go for ride?”

I shook my head, but the gold-toothed man repeated, “Car downstairs, we show you Kyoto, yes?”

“Yes, Kyoto is very beautiful,” Jane was saying dreamily. “Very…”

“Car downstairs, you go for ride?”

As his hand brushed my thigh, I fumbled through my dictionary for “No thank you,” but all I could find was Iie kekko desu, which means something like “No, I’ve had plenty.”

Wooden gods guard Todai-ji Temple in Nara, Japan
~ Wooden gods guard Todai-ji Temple in Nara, Japan ~

Noodling Around Tokyo

Martha lived in a small town, but she had been to most every country that was a country and knew how to recognize deception. Ambling through the Ginza section of Tokyo one evening, we perused the lighted windows of “noodle shops” that held plastic replicas of the food sold inside.

An American need only step in, point, and say, “Kore o kudasai” and he or she would receive his or her desire. Martha, however, gave her order in English. “They can speak English as good as you and me,” she said. “They just don’t want to.”

The waiter brought us soup thick with noodles, chunks of mean, and hard boiled pigeon eggs.  We slurped and splashed and paddled with our chopsticks until he bowed and offered us a “forku.”

Oui!” Martha cried with relief. “Si!”

Arigato,” I supplied.

The night was so clear and balmy that we decided to walk to our hotel, and we promptly got lost in a maze of neon alleyways.

Shiba Park Hotel wa dochira desu ka?” I asked two young men.

The Japanese class I had taken taught me how to ask all kinds of questions. Unfortunately, it didn’t teach me how to understand the answers. I shook my head helplessly as the young men rattled off directions. They walked us to the corner and pointed.

“Did you hear what they said?” Martha demanded as we made our way to our hotel. “They said, Disgusting, heh?”

“They didn’t.”

“They did.”

“No, they said desuka. That’s Japanese for what or which.”

But Martha had made up her mind. “Everyone says the Japanese are so gracious, but I think it’s just a put on.”

“You don’t think the Japanese are gracious?”

“I think they’re laughing at us. Behind all the bowing and kowtowing, they’re laughing.”

Bar-Hopping in Roppongi

Another member of our group, Ali, came from California. Raised on sunshine and sushi, she called Japan her destiny.

Ali was a film major who preferred chopsticks to forks and raw fish to cooked. With definite ideas on what and how to eat, she led me to the Roppongi district of Tokyo, where young people mob narrow streets, music blasts from basement rooms, and sushi is served California style. We ate tekimaki (paper-thin seaweed wrapped around rolls of rice and raw tuna) with hot saki while pouring through our pocket travel books.

Our waitress brought second servings of saki in two blue porcelain bottles and pointed to the elderly gentlemen at the next table. I hesitated. What might these proper-looking men be expecting in return for their generosity?

But I didn’t want to seem rude. We nodded and said, “Arigato gozamasu.

Before the men could make further advances, Ali waved her Fodor’s under my nose. “Look at all these discos! We could walk to most of them!”

Winding through crowded, neon-lit streets, we found ourselves in a basement night spot. Recorded music blasted from speakers on the wall and a film of topless Caucasian women played on a gigantic screen. Young Japanese couples watched sedately as they sipped from tumblers of what looked more like a dessert than a drink. The screen flickered; the picture changed.

“Wow!” Ali exclaimed. “Boy George!” Ali loved Boy George. Ali loved everything about Tokyo.

Hiding Behind Cameras

Japanese Kindergarten
Kindergarten classes are held on the grounds of temples and shrines. Photo © Jackie Craven

Now as I watch nightmare scenes on CNN, with tsunami waves washing over villages and survivors limping over heaps of crumpled houses and thousands fleeing radiation danger zones near the nuclear plants, I wish I could remember more about Japan. I must have been there–the photos prove it–but how much did I see?

I think we were all blind, the way tourists can be, peering through cameras and loitering in souvenir shops and then dashing to catch up with an impatient guide. But, here’s the strange thing.  No one in our group was as blind as 14-year-old Laura, yet no one saw more.

Lolling her head side to side like a newborn, Laura listened to the double toots of the traffic whistles, the trill of bicycle bells, the musical chimes that preceded announcements in subways and department stores, and the lilting notes of the Japanese language.

“Come on, Laura,” her pursed-lipped mother called.

“What’s that smell?”

“Laura, the bus is waiting–”

“It smells good.”

Her white cane tapping the pavement, Laura reluctantly passed a street vendor roasting squid on wooden skewers.


Have you visited Japan? Please tell your story in the comments section below.

This post is adapted from Whirlwind tourists find they’re not in Kansas anymore by Jackie Craven, previously published in the Providence Sunday Journal and other newspapers. Several names and identifying features have been changed. To order reprint rights, contact Distant Dwellings.

Photo at top of page: The torii of Itsukushima Shrine seems to float in the water. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Fleeting Greatness in London

Serpentine Gallery Pavilion

The best modern architecture in London is temporary. Every summer since 2000, Serpentine Gallery has commissioned world-famous architects to design pavilions on the grounds near the Gallery building. At the end of the season, patrons can  purchase the structures for their own use.

You can explore these temporary structures every summer at Serpentine Gallery—for free.

Join us for a year-by-year photo tour of all the Serpentine Gallery pavilions >>

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