The last time I stopped in Taos, I needed permission to go to the bathroom. No, my parents were not instilling social training. I was a college student being hazed by hippies.
The hippies lived in a commune in the hills. It was a dusty place painted in psychedelic colors. I was told to walk into the main room and ask Poseidon, the group's leader, if I could use their bathroom. I remember walking into a blue-green room where a man with flowing white hair held a trident. From a raised throne came a deep voice that granted my request.
Is it any wonder I decided to return home to New York City the next day?
It was years before I returned to New Mexico, but many of the hippies remained, their hair grayed and their faces lined. They rediscovered the family unit and left the communes for rickety mountain towns. There, they worked at arts and crafts, becoming proficient, even making money -- the once-demonized desire -- as jewelers, painters, sculptors and furniture makers.
They exhibited in the larger cities, peddled at fairs and opened studios for art-seeking tourists. Their impact was significant on the small, rural, poverty-pocked towns where they settled down.
Take Dixon, for example. A one-boulevard burg off the road to Taos, Dixon covers a winding stretch up a mountain. There are more artists' studios here than churches, gas stations, restaurants, video stores, schools, supermarkets, synagogues, pharmacies and liquor marts combined.
There is even La Chiripada, a winery and pottery started by a former monk -- "He wanted to make use of his winemaking when he left the monastery," says the young woman minding the store. She then invites us to taste the wines, whose musky blends are unlike anything we have ever tried. When we finish, we ask where we can eat, and she directs us to Lovato Burger -- the only fast-food home cooking in town. Initially intrigued by this oxymoron, we take a pass when we see the restaurant is in a mobile home.
We keep driving around the mountain -- fir slopes aglow with thatches of orange aspen -- passing rundown shacks, solitary farmhouses and homely video stores until we arrive at the Picuris pueblo.
Pueblos are the mud-baked villages where Indians live. A tight encampment of pink-brown adobes, pueblos fade into the
mountain scrub around them. They seem to be sad places of shrunken dreams, but maybe it's different for the people who live there. Many of the pueblos are celebrated for their pottery, traditional designs that are passed down through families and fetch high prices in Santa Fe galleries, but the pueblo we come to is not known for its pottery.
We drive up a dirt road -- many pueblos are built on buttes -- park in front of a visitors' center and walk into a large room that looks like a high school cafeteria. Off to one corner is a museum, in front of us is a restaurant, to the rear are glass cases for gift displays and beyond the main room is a general store.
We walk through the museum, a small collection of artifacts from the pueblo's centuries-old history and photographs celebrating the opening of the visitors' center. Then we look for a table. It is the middle of the afternoon and all the tables are dirty. We choose one that has less mess than the others and wait for someone to ask us what we want. The view from the window, an entire wall of the room, is a green mountain vista -- but we don't think anything else about the place seems promising.
Service is slow and the menus are stained. Still, the dishes sound more authentic than what passes for Southwestern cuisine in Taos and Santa Fe. We order salsa and chips -- which, like bread in other restaurants, provides a quick gauge of freshness and quality -- as well as two native dishes: chicos, a dried sweet corn cooked with pork roast and seasonings, and posole, dried sweet corn soaked in lime.
The chips, which are made from blue corn, have more texture, crunch and corn taste than any we have had. The salsa is piquant and the hominy dishes are interesting -- subtle, chewy and satisfying in the same way as standard American comfort food. We think the tortillas, soft and warm, are also the best we have tried.
When we finally push away from the table, we linger in the general store -- wondering whether to buy posole or blue corn meal to try making the food ourselves.
Of course, we don't.
If you come to New Mexico you can spend time in Taos or Santa Fe -- trendy New Age towns with dramatic mountain backdrops, gift shops and galleries. There are beautiful people, tie-dyed and suede-fringed descendants of the hippies, who eat buffalo steaks and venison chops and can handily choose among five types of Margaritas.
Or you can just drive around.
Maybe I'm just a soft touch -- aren't all New Yorkers? -- but the beautiful desolation speaks to me. I hear the whisper of the ragged sagebrush telling me to risk it, to follow my heart. I see the message in the wind-carved mountains -- you're never too big to change, life is change.
The hippies who moved here heard it, too.
They said they were rejecting the glib and banal success that diminished their parents' souls. They said they were fleeing lust in favor of true love, real life and ultimate meaning.
Sometimes they found what they wanted: creative lives pursued in sleepy, one-street towns with integrated schools, good environmental policies, solid relationships.
Other times the search went awry. People ate too much brown rice and gave their children funny names. Long-haired guys told you when to use the toilet.
I remember walking through the kitchen to get to the bathroom at Poseidon's commune. It was a small bathroom and not very clean. I remember thinking nothing was worth the humiliation exacted by Poseidon, and I wondered why anyone would live in such a cheerless place.
Now, I wonder what could have been if I hadn't needed a bathroom.
Diane Winston is a reporter on The Sun's metropolitan staff.