Xavier, a tall Frenchman regarded for stilt-walking and bizarre card tricks, sneezes every time he eats chocolate that contains 50 percent or more cocoa. So he claims. But subsequent to stealing a pinch of my brownie from Ryus Avenue Bakery, my friend fails to sneeze. His girlfriend, Licia, rolls her eyes at us in a way that confirms, "Yes, I'm with Stupid ... and I secretly adore his silly quirks."
Our two-couple posse has stopped at the bakery in the diminutive mountain town of La Veta, on our way to Taos, N.M. We'll soon climb the La Veta pass, beyond the stark and commanding Spanish Peaks.
Southern Colorado begins to look like the Land of Enchantment long before the border, as dry turns to drier and enormous scrubby valleys devour the horizon.
Rather than drive the less scenic I-25 route into New Mexico, we'd opted to veer west on Highway 160 from Walsenburg, then take Highway 159 south out of Fort Garland. The 245-mile trek to Taos takes roughly four hours to complete either way.
As we pull off the highway to check into Taos' Laughing Horse Inn, a small cat, which I later discover is an indiscriminate affection-sponge named Celina, lounges in the mid-afternoon sun atop the inn's adobe roof.
The Laughing Horse best booked ahead is the American equivalent of a nice European hostel, boasting talkative patrons of all ages who mingle in cozy common areas and share magically complementary political views, eco-hobbies and travel passions.
D.H. Lawrence, Gertrude Stein and Georgia O'Keeffe all graced the Laughing Horse's kiva-style sitting room at various points in history. Shelves bloated with movies, music and magazines line the parlor, and a fragrant pion fire perpetually smolders in the fireplace. The inn, close to both the Old Town Plaza and the road that leads two miles out to the Taos Pueblo, has rested on the banks of the quaint Rio Pueblo stream since 1887.
Upon arrival, an affable young innkeeper supplies us with a photocopied, hand-drawn map to the two natural hot springs that lie on opposite banks of the Rio Grande River, only a few miles apart from one another and from town.
We head directly out to the first spring, Manby, which requires a steep half-mile descent down to the river from the windy mesa above. A dusty dirt road ambles past yuppie earthship developments near the famously high Gorge Bridge and leads to the spring's trailhead.
Manby's rocky pools literally kiss the Rio Grande's edge and offer us an irresistible chance to courageously hop into the frigid river. We return pins-and-needles-numb and near heart attacks.
The Blackrock hot spring, which we visit on the following afternoon, is situated in a similar geography, but requires only a modest stroll downhill from a more proximate trailhead.
The waters at both springs are comfortably hot and often filled with grizzled locals and other travelers. Clothing is optional and both sites are free, depending on whether you consider the arguably arduous hike to Manby a payment or a bonus.
Back in town, we poll locals on their favorite Southwestern restaurants, receiving vastly different opinions on which are authentic, which are total gut-bombs and which are overpriced. After narrowing our decision to a handful, we end up at Orlando's, mainly because it's one of the closest to us and we're suddenly ravenous.
Outside the restaurant, we join a half-hour waiting list and sit by a warm fire blazing inside a steel ring. Each time the hostess opens the door to call a table, the crisp desert air mixes with smoke and the torturous smell of Mexican food. The meal proves worth the patience, and the local hype. We share superb chile rellenos and shrimp enchiladas, and nurse frozen-mugged Tecates and Dos Equis.
We commit the following morning to the town's art galleries after a complimentary breakfast of homemade quiche and pastries at the inn, where green-eyed Celina polices the kitchen and sitting room for crumbs and handouts.
We roam Bent Street and the main hub, ducking in and out of local artisan and craft stores and pricey galleries full of the expected Native American motifs and other styles of work. By the time we reach the central plaza, we're Kokopelli'd out not willing to care about oil, ceramic or metalworks any longer.
On a whim, we saunter into The Hotel la Fonda de Taos and discover Joseph's Table, an upscale restaurant with a competent and affordable day menu. A gorgeous floral mural lines the dining area, and a trio of two-seater recessed booths, lavishly decorated like a Turkish hookah lounge, capture skylight and dazzle the room. Our waiter claims that Julia Roberts frequents the place.
A perfectly caramelized crme brule follows my buffalo burger, and my partner, Samantha, grins over her rosemary-infused lemonade.
We all consider lingering at Joseph's Table for the remainder of the day, eschewing all responsibilities back home to feast on the dinner fares; I can only assume that they've got an elegant chocolate torte on the evening dessert menu with which to test Xavier's chocolate-allergy claim. But alas ... for now, the mystery must stand.
Ryus Avenue Bakery, 129 Ryus Ave., La Veta, 719/742-3830, ryusavebakery.com
Laughing Horse Inn, 729 Paseo del Pueblo Norte, Taos, 800/776-0161, laughinghorseinn.com
Orlando's, 114 Don Juan Valdez Lane, Taos, 505/751-1450
Joseph's Table, 108A South Taos Plaza, Taos, 505/751-4512, josephstable.com
General Information and Maps: 800/732-8267, taoschamber.com
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