When mulling over ideas for this piece, I wasn’t sure what to say at first. After all, for the last few years, my time in Taos has been interrupted and punctuated by the season of the semester outside of New Mexico. I have left Taos for education and work, for escape, for adventure. But I always return. Anyone who loves Taos always comes back. I’m discovering in my travels that this is not the case with most places. In fact, my own parents were amongst those who fled middle America in the 1970s in search of a spiritual awakening and a life lived closer to the land. When they found it in northern New Mexico, they never left again.
People feel connected to Taos. And they love it along some continuum of identity and contradiction between insider or outsider—as yearly visitors, as those who would just settle quietly, as those who have been here for a few generations and those who’ve been here for countless generations and are letting the rest of us put down stakes for a brief while on their property. And while time changes many things, there is an essential element of the specialness of place that remains in the Taos valley. Yes, the pharmacy on the plaza is gone and there are more Anglo tourists and developers than anyone knows what to do with, but we still grow corn, beans and squash with tradition; we still gather at the invitation of Taos Pueblo every Christmas Eve to celebrate the coming of the deepest part of the winter.
Like many others before me, I have discovered that loving this place is a process that unfolds slowly over time. It is equal parts discovery and nostalgia. When a friend of mine moved to Taos six years ago, she didn’t believe me when I told her that sometimes it feels like winter lasts for seven months. But after a few seasons, she understood. From an early frost in September to a late frost at the end of May, it can often feel like the cold is always lurking behind the door. But, now, at the turn of seasons, we always discuss the coming of the cold with wonder.
And while there are the things that draw tourists in winter—three vibrant cultures, majestic mountains, eclectic art, delicious food—in truth, there’s a lot more going on. The real magic of the season is in the harkening of a flat December dawn where the light becomes thin and lonely. It is the brilliance of the last stars, or the way pueblo snowflakes fall larger and more gracefully beside the piñon and urgency of bonfires than they do any other place in the world. And yes, it is even in the late winter mud. For me, even after a lifetime, I’m still learning this season.
Winter brings with it celebration and longing, a dance of shadow and light, a practice in working against clean lines and stark horizons. We do communal things like pulling our canned or frozen green chile out for stews, or stacking wood. We listen to coyotes at dawn.
Being away on a regular basis has become more and more difficult for me as time goes by. And when I am truly lonely in my migrant existence outside the borders of the Land of Enchantment, I imagine my return. My sister will pick me up in Albuquerque; we will drive north. The morning will be bright and lazy at mid-winter. The undulating sandstone hills of Tesuque, lined in their contours with snow that has remained after the last storm, will pass me by. The peaks of the Jemez Mountains will loom dark blue, with the tower of Pedernal standing above the rest. I will remember and remark that a volcano is always a volcano, even if it’s old and flattened out like an anvil. When I get home, the trees at higher elevations will be drenched in snow. At around 5:30 the sky will turn a hue of gold, pink and hot red, transforming the snow to coral and purple.
The red willows will stand out against the base of the mountain as the small herds of cow and bison graze near streams. I will spend days skiing on my favorite peaks, the snow butterlike. I will sit for a late afternoon margarita at the Alley with my best friend and talk old adobes, about how we both belong and don’t belong here, how politics, ignorance and racial tension shape and limit what we love about this place. We will scoff good-naturedly at our transplant friends who think they can ever “own” a piece of Taos.
The next day, I will walk down icy catwalks with two friends, one carrying her baby on her back, to the hot springs. We’ll slip free of our clothes in the midday winter light and enter the warm water beside the Rio Grande. We’ll watch eagles flying over the canyon, and walk back up just as the sun has left the edge of the gorge, driving home through the mud, warm and sated. I’ll always come home to find my bliss. It’s here, in every inch of this place.
Anicca Cox is a writer and teacher of writing from Taos. She is currently a migrant academic in New England, where she is enjoying having a clean car most of the time.