TAOS, N.M. March 15, 2017 – Carpio Bernal Watercrow carries his age with dignity and a certain style. With his tied-back salt-and-pepper hair, his tanned brown skin and leathery hands, he has the stereotypical look of the wise tribal elder from a Hollywood western.
Bernal is from one of a handful of families who live in the Taos Pueblo, an ancient community of First Nations people who live just minutes outside of the sleepy New Mexico town of Taos. But he’s not what his appearance might first suggest.
Bernal is a citizen of both worlds – of Taos Pueblo, the 1,000-year-old living museum that is now home to just a half-dozen families who live here year-round; and of the modern world of pop music, cellphones and celebrity. Within minutes of meeting him, he pulls out a copy of Helen Mirren’s autobiography, signed with a personal note from the famous British actress. In the 1970s, they were close friends, he volunteers – perhaps more – and he shows photographs of him as a handsome young man in full headdress and arm-in-arm with a very youthful Mirren.
Like Bernal, Taos is a gracefully aged community that has seen some wild years. The first was a three-decade period leading up to the 1950s, when one of America’s most famous artists, Georgia O’Keeffe, travelled to the area, became enraptured with its almost surrealistic skies and dusty desert, and invited artists, dancers and writers like Martha Graham, Ansel Adams, Willa Cather and Marsden Hartley to come see. The second time was in the 1970s, when actor Dennis Hopper, of Easy Rider fame, started a hippy commune in the former home of arts patron Mabel Dodge Luhan, whose home is now restored to respectability and open to overnight guests.
It’s an area packed with surprises – from the world-famous Earthship environmental community (featuring off-the-grid eco-homes made partially from recycled tires and other cast-off materials), to the dazzling array of galleries featuring local art, to the jaw-dropping Rio Grande Gorge that lurks like a snake in the desert until you’re practically on top of the plunging 200-metre chasm.
But perhaps the biggest surprise to newcomers is the ski resort just a half-hour drive outside of town, up in the peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains (which the locals like to say is “where the Rockies begin”). Here, just a short drive from the muddy, early-spring streets of the town sits a world-class ski resort, with powdery snow that can challenge the Canadian Rockies’ best and experts-only chutes so steep that only the foolhardy rush in.
Taos Ski Valley (TSV) was virtually undiscovered until the early 1950s, when a ski enthusiast named Ernie Blake – a refugee from Nazi Germany – flew over the mountain near an abandoned mining site at the recommendation of a local. He knew almost instantly that he had found his personal paradise, and by 1956 he had established a modest ski facility catering mostly to locals.
He was never in it for the money; in fact, the family ran the resort as a not-for-profit organization until it was sold just three years ago.
Even in the 1960s, though, Blake had grand ambitions for the facility, including hotels with hundreds of rooms and a lift to the heady 3,780-metre peak at Kachina Ridge, a hard-core ski run reserved only for those young and energetic enough to boot their way up to the top. Until recently, the resort has been very local and very folksy, right down to the 20-year-old Hotel St. Bernard run by brothers Jean and Dadou Mayer, who first came to the resort in 1957 to start a ski school.
Today, the resort is looking to become a true family-friendly destination. This winter, it opened The Blake, an opulent on-mountain hotel with 80 rooms, fine dining and folksy decor inspired by the area’s history, its First Nations people and the vibrant local arts scene. The hotel is named in honour of the resort’s founder, but it was built by billionaire Louis Bacon, who purchased the ski resort from the Blake family in December 2013.
As part of a massive planned investment, one of the first things Bacon did was install a ski lift to the top of Kachina Ridge, fulfilling a 50-year-old dream of his predecessor. A trip to the top, which is marked by colourful and photo-worthy Himalayan flags, is a must for any advanced skier. The view north from the top reaches all the way to the neighbouring state of Colorado.
Dave Smith, TSV’s director of communications, says Bacon aims to make the resort year-round, with summer mountain biking and ziplining among the features. While the resort has been known locally for its steep runs, the new ownership is emphasizing the variety of runs for every ability level.
TSV’s development has the community abuzz with excitement, but some of the long-term locals have mixed feelings about the passing of the small-town feel. One of them is Carlie McGinnis, operations manager at the Kit Carson Home and Museum, situated in the home of the famous western pioneer. She moved to Taos 40 years ago from Iowa, fell in love with the area’s unique vibe and has never considered leaving.
A former amateur ski racer, she remembers the tight family atmosphere at Taos Ski Valley. Much of that feeling, she says, is now gone.
“It was quaint and small and everybody knew each other,” she says, her eyes lifting over my shoulder. “Now, all of that is gone.”
Like Carpio Bernal Watercrow, and indeed the entire area, the ski resort now finds itself with a foot in two worlds – one rooted in sepia-toned memories and one much more contemporary. While some locals may rue the changes, to an outsider discovering the area for the first time it all seems to make perfect sense. It’s a magical region with an authenticity that makes it feel worlds away from the principality of Donald Trump.
Doug Firby and Lisa Monforton are partners in Big Tree Communications. Firby is also President of Troy Media Digital Solutions and Publisher of Troy Media.