Land of enchantment 

I walked a labyrinth, soaked in rare, revitalizing waters, imbibed a drink imbued with healing stones, met fearsome heights, and ventured from bizarre desert habitats into the wilderness with a faithful pack animal and medicine man.

I was not imagining myself in a personal fantasy novel; I was in Taos, N.M. for a three-day tour. Really.

And to be transparent up-front, this tour was sponsored by the town of Taos, which comped two nights of comfort at Dreamcatcher Bed & Breakfast, covered the bill at all the eateries featured on p. 17, and ferried a handful of regional and international journalists to a variety of sights and activities. Obviously, they wanted to flaunt their best and promote their town as a worthwhile destination in hopes that media attendees would share their experiences. You get the idea: access for attention.

The last time I reported here for the Indy ("Traipsing Through Taos," May 4, 2006), I'd gone with more of the backpacker approach on my dime, sleeping hostel-style at the Laughing Horse Inn, hiking to free hot springs, roaming the plaza and pitching for one gourmet meal. This tour would show me other faces of the area, ones that we thought might be of value to our readers.

Many of us know about the town's celebrity legacy, dating back to Georgia O'Keeffe, D.H. Lawrence, Ansel Adams and other passers-through, and continuing in recent years with Hollywood players like Dennis Hopper (R.I.P., Easy Rider) and Julia Roberts. We've visited the very worthwhile Taos Pueblo (the oldest perpetually inhabited community in the nation), marveled at the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge (second in height only to our Royal Gorge Bridge), sauntered through galleries, and found it well worth the three-and-a-half-hour jaunt.

But fewer of us have ventured to the outlying mesa tops to explore the Greater World Earthship Visitor Center, or soaked an hour away at Ojo Caliente, or taken a guided tour through the adjacent Carson National Forest.

Wilde man

After 20 seasons of hearing, "Do you ride it?" Stuart Wilde is remarkably patient in explaining that no, one does not ride a llama, as the animal's pack-load tops out at around 80 pounds.

Instead, customers at Wild Earth Llama Adventures either "take a llama to lunch" — a five-mile round-trip hike with a gourmet meal over about five hours ($99 per adult, $69 per child under 12) — or commit to an overnight or three- or four-day trek with meals and gear included ($329/$499/$649 per adult, $119 per day per child), and you do your own walking.

For anyone wondering why you'd pay to simply amble alongside an animal, the answer is twofold.

Firstly, for those who don't wish to lug a daypack, let alone a 40-pound-plus frame-pack, your docile llama carries the load.

Secondly, it's kind of a Zen thing, which ties nicely into Taos' vibe.

When Wilde says, "They make our own time in the wilderness more enjoyable," he's alluding in part to how there's something experience-amplifying about hanging out with these shaggy, goofy and endearing animals. (Dog people, can I get an "Amen?")

"'Llama' in Quechua means 'silent brother,'" says Wilde, briefly explaining the unique and very dependent relationship that the Incas in the rugged Andes continue to have with the animals.

"They're the only pack animal never used for the purposes of war or aggression," he continues, pointing out that nearly everything about llamas' gentle nature is a model for "Leave No Trace" wilderness principles. Their two-toed, leather-padded feet don't tear up trails; they forage rather than graze, not decimating area flora; and their tiny droppings make minimal impact.

Socially, they're alert and curious and, as Wilde puts it on his website, his rescued and rehabilitated brothers "capture our hearts with their unique, 'llama-like' behavior and amusing personalities."

Perhaps best of all: they don't stink.

Nor do they mind when Wilde stops often to identify and discuss the practical and medicinal applications of a number of plants: aspen bark and powder as aspirin and sunscreen; ponderosa pine's fire-resistant bark; wild oregano's virus-fighting properties ...

Though I'm the type who likes to shoulder a heavy pack, especially while I'm younger and able, it's easy to see the appeal of Wilde's llama treks, and I'm glad to have experienced the llamas' affable disposition for an afternoon. If for some reason you don't think they're your speed, Wilde does offer snowshoe tours in the area during winter months.

Mother ship

Even the name is cool. "Earthship" sounds both grounded and intergalactic at once, as if a voyage to something great is inherent in its mission. Though there's nothing less mobile than thick, rammed-earth, reclaimed tire walls partially sunk into the desert floor, earthships are transportive in a way, and the mission is often total sustainability and self-reliance.

Seldom do you see such Utopian ideals at work in such a creative, beautiful manner as at the Greater World Earthship Community (earthship.com), launched in 1994 and located seven miles north of Taos, past the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge on U.S. Highway 64.

The 635-acre mesa community is tied into Michael Reynolds' company, Earthship Biotecture, whose Facebook page actually details a lengthy mission list, including "to evolve the way humans live on this planet" and "to make small, believable steps toward slowing down and ultimately reversing the negative impact of human development as it relates to the Earth's ability to continue to support life."

Earthships, capable of being built in weeks in any climate, are an artistic, architectural expression of cohabitating harmoniously with the earth. All GWEC homes are off-grid and most use solar and wind energy, with propane backups.

You can get acquainted with the style by dropping into a visitor center just off the highway ($5 per adult, kids under 12 free; daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.), where a variety of DIY earthship books and DVDs are for sale, along with other resources. Informational videos run on a loop, and other displays feature info on everything from building bottle walls (of recycled glass bottles and concrete) and thermal and solar heating and cooling to growing food with greywater reclaimed from bathing and dishwashing.

The community also offers rentals for those wanting an interesting night's sleep, and internships, construction seminars and a biotecture academy for those wanting to learn the craft more hands-on. And, of course, there are buy-ins for those wanting to become a community member.

Our special media tour included a visit inside Sally Margolin's home, a nearly 1,000-square-foot earthship that she and a partner took 13 years of spare time to build for around $80,000. (It recently appraised at $205,000, she says.)

The floors are naturally stained concrete throughout, and the ceiling is a blend of wood and surprisingly attractive cardboard boxes cut and lightly painted to emulate recessed panels that are sort of blind-like. An entryway leads past an indoor garden with a hearty fig tree growing up the south-facing, inward-leaning window wall, depositing you into a living room with a long, curved adobe plaster north wall.

As with some city lofts, no interior walls separate any of the rooms, including the bathroom, so the living room spills directly into a small kitchen with a super-energy-efficient, thick-sided direct-current (DC) fridge. (See our blog for a photo tour.)

Walking through, the space feels highly personalized, open with all the light, and a little Middle Earth-like with the round lines and scarcity of corners. Unless you build your own — and personally, I aspire to someday — this is probably as close as you'll get to living out your Hobbit fantasies.

Super soaker

Forty miles to the southwest, Ojo Caliente on the surface is just another hot springs destination for pre- or post-skiing in the Taos Ski Valley.

But having been to dozens of hot springs internationally, I can say with confidence that the gorgeously manicured, 143-year-old Ojo is certainly one of the nicest I've seen, benefitting greatly from an infusion of millions of dollars since new owners took over in 2002.

One of the best aspects is that even though the sustainably designed, lavish cottages, suites and homes on the property command upward of $200 to $470 a night, RV park and tent camping rates are still available in the $20 range. (All prices available at ojocalientesprings.com; summer specials through Aug. 31.) And everyone just in for the day pays the same $18 (Mondays through Thursdays) and $28 (Fridays through Sundays and holidays), or sunset rate (6 to 10 p.m.) of $14 and $24.

That's still relatively steep, especially if you aren't planning to make a whole day out of it. But you might as well, with hiking and mountain bike trails leading up to remains of ancient pueblos and terraced gardens overlooking the springs, plus yoga classes and spa offerings for those not concerned about the up-charge. And as I detail to the right, eating on-site is a treat.

The central claim to fame of Ojo's waters, once the focal point of an on-site sanitarium around the turn of the 20th century, is the one-of-a-kind combination of four mineral waters: iron, soda, lithium and arsenic. Between them, they're said to aid digestion, depression, arthritis and skin conditions, and benefit the immune system.

After a mud bath (oink-oink, baby) and couple hours' soak between different temperature pools, as well as some drinks of Ojo's water from a fountain, I achieved a great relaxation and mild euphoria. Again I'd been humbled by the area's natural elements and left a bit transported.

Of course it's fantasy to believe that you could hold onto this feeling for too long, once the real world's demands come rushing back. But you can revisit it when time allows, just as you can revisit Taos and discover something new each time — guides and llamas optional.



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