I love Taos. I’ve attended writing workshops there, and my husband and I go up for weekends now and then. For years I accepted the idea that Taos is a miniature version of Santa Fe, just sleepier and with more hippies. The more time I’ve spent there, however, the more I’ve come to realize that other than having a similar spiraling pattern to the downtown streets, the two locales are very different. There’s a quiet peace in Taos, even on its plaza, that doesn’t exist here. Shopkeepers in the tourist areas are direct and friendly, without seeming to gauge your potential to spend money. Teenagers on the street make eye contact and say hello. Taos is a little lusher than Santa Fe, and gluten-free bread more readily available — and of course, there’s its reputation for attracting independent women. When I got the opportunity to write about the second annual Music on the Mesa festival, held from June 3-5 at Taos Mesa Brewing, I jumped at the chance to see the Old 97s live while visiting Taos as a reporter.
The “Taos woman” is an absolutely real phenomenon, still going strong, that struck me with urgent force this time around, perhaps because I recently wrote about the famed Taos arts patron Mabel Dodge Luhan and her cohorts. Though certainly the sensibility runs deeper than fashion, there is an effortlessness to the average Taos woman’s street style that makes Santa Fe look like a place where people dress up for dinner. I interpret it as part cowgirl, part Georgia O’Keeffe, and part punk. There is little, if any, makeup. Hair is unfussy — longish or undercut. There is a surprising lack of yoga pants. At Music on the Mesa, those not wearing jeans and T-shirts wore short dresses made of light fabric, along with boots and bare legs, topped off with straw hats to protect their faces from the sun. They danced with abandon to alt-country and Americana in front of a small, earthship-style amphitheater. They didn’t have to care if the wind blew their skirts up because, as if by prior agreement, they all wore spandex shorts under-neath — a simple solution to an age-old problem. Tattooed, bearded men flipped their daughters over their heads, and little boys spun their mothers. Everyone boogied with surprising skill as the sun sank low in the sky. It took a long time to get dark out there on the mesa, just off the road to the Río Grande Gorge Bridge west of town.
Earlier that day, my husband and I strolled around the shops on Bent Street. We stopped in Op.Cit Books (124-A Bent St.), a branch of the Santa Fe store that took over the Moby Dickens space in the John Dunne House Shops in 2015. Op.Cit hasn’t lost the feeling of the iconic Moby Dickens, and remains a great place for air-conditioned browsing. Outside, I met Valerie Neilsen, selling her brand of all-natural skincare products, called Nurturessence, from a small cart. Neilsen is originally from New Zealand and has lived in Taos for 18 years. She was an artist and painter, working coffeeshop jobs until three years ago, when she started her business. I bought deodorant from her that she swore was field-tested by waitresses. I can attest that this is a fantastic and effective product, with no resemblance to do-nothing health-food-store brands. (Neilsen also makes lotions, room sprays, and more, available at www.nurturessence.com.)
At Seconds Eco Store (120 Bent St.), which sells a hodgepodge of kitschy but upscale recycled handbags, clocks, picture frames, and jewelry, I immediately found three perfect holiday gifts for family members, even though I hadn’t been looking. I asked the owner, Sarah Basehart, if she likes living in Taos and how she makes it work financially. She proceeded to tell me about her life, eagerly and openly.
In 1991, on a road trip after a failed relationship, Basehart’s car broke down in Taos. “I had no choice but to stay. And then I fell in love here,” she said. A few years later, the couple built one of the first homes in the Greater World Community, a 634-acre earthship subdivision that functions off the energy grid and is located a few miles northwest of the gorge bridge. Her husband is a contractor, and she runs her store; they also rent out earthships through Airbnb, which gives them a tidy sum each month to sock away in their children’s college savings accounts. “It’s not an easy living,” she said, “but Taos is the greatest place on earth. I wake up grateful to be in this community every day, even after 25 years.”
After explaining that the Taos Pueblo created the town and has the ultimate say about what goes on, Basehart described the people who live in and move to Taos as willing to take risks. She acknowledged that some Taoseños think mesa residents “walk around with a beer in one hand and a snake in the other, and that’s not necessarily far off. A lot of people really do come here to lose their old lives. In a lot of ways, it’s still wild here, and the future isn’t clear-cut. You have to figure out your own way.”
The venue at Taos Mesa Brewing (20 ABC Mesa Road, El Prado) was dusty and rugged, the outdoor performance area wide open to the sun and rain. Inside, there was plenty of beer, along with a few musical acts; burgers, bratwurst, and tacos were also for sale. A selection of vendors offered items ranging from wine to vintage clothes to glass pipes. The lineup of bands for the three-day festival included some big names. On Saturday we saw Wayne “The Train” Hancock, Band of Heathens, Howlin’ Brothers, and the Old 97s, who happen to be one of my favorite bands. (Another favorite of mine, Shawn Colvin, played with Steve Earle on Sunday night. Do yourself a favor and get their new Buddy Miller-produced album, Colvin & Earle.) My main interest was the Old 97s, who came on at 9:30 p.m., but the people-watching and music were worth sitting on a blanket on the ground for six hours, getting dirt kicked on me by the dancing crowd.
During the Old 97s sound check, a half-dozen little boys near the stage started throwing LED-lit objects high into the night sky and watching them fall. It was beautiful but sort of dangerous. A festival official eventually called the “LED boys” (as he’d dubbed them) around and calmly told them they had to stop because their toys were starting to land on random adults, and “no one enjoys getting angry at other people’s children.” The kids nodded solemnly. It was all very respectful. The divisions between generations seem unusually permeable in Taos.
The Old 97s put on a good show, made even better by the intimate venue and fresh air, as well as the lighting on stage, which approximated the colors and saturation of a mesa sunset. Brilliant flashes of lightning illuminated the sky to the east. I danced and sang along and then we left, exhausted, before the final band, Last to Know, played. It seemed like the drive back to our rental house across from Kit Carson Memorial Park should have taken longer. But as far from civilization as it felt, Music on the Mesa was just 10 minutes from the center of town.
The next morning, we went to Taos Diner (908 Paseo del Pueblo Norte) for breakfast before coming home to Santa Fe. The service was friendly, the portions generous, and the coffee memorably good. But the green chile wasn’t as spicy or flavorful as the green chile in Santa Fe — something I’ve noticed before at other Taos restaurants. And so, although I will be back often, I can’t move there unless they get that straightened out. ◀