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Painting the desert red in the Wild West

Where else but in charmingly offbeat New Mexico can you find people living in "earthship" homes or a Wild West town where outlaws—and ghosts—are said to have roamed?
Visitors center for the Earthship World Headquarters.
Visitors center for the Earthship World Headquarters.

Where else but in charmingly offbeat New Mexico can you find people living in "earthship" homes or a Wild West town where outlaws—and ghosts—are said to have roamed?

Day 1
"Red or green?" the girl at the counter asks me. I've been anticipating the question for weeks, determined not to look like a tourist. No New Mexican worth her salt would hesitate to answer. Still, having pored over many Web sites comparing chili sauces in recent weeks, I can't decide if my huevos rancheros crave the red variety or the green. Luckily, this is not a weekend, when the line snakes out the door at Albuquerque's Frontier Restaurant, so I've got time to think. I compromise by ordering both—"Christmas" style. As for my fiancé, Dustin, he's so pleased to be eating spicy, sauce-doused food first thing in the morning that he could care less what color it happens to be.

Under a perfectly blue sky, we drive north after breakfast toward the Jemez Mountains, passing red mesas dotted with bristly piñon trees and porous rocks that remind me of drip- sand castles. By midday, we reach the dusty town of Jemez Springs, home to a smattering of art galleries, sun-beaten cafés, and a bathhouse supposedly once frequented by Al Capone—according to local legend, he had a hideout in the mountains here. With the temperature in the 80s, Dustin looks at me like I'm crazy when I suggest we soak in one of the private tubs, which are fed by springs as hot as 190 degrees. Instead, we drive out of town and dip our feet in the cool pools at Soda Dam, where the water has created bulbous formations in the rock. Soaking up the sun, Dustin lets out a totally relaxed sigh.

Taking a circuitous route through the mountains, we arrive in Santa Fe just before nightfall and check in at The Madeleine, a gorgeous 1886 Queen Anne Victorian bed-and-breakfast. Then we head straight across the street to the hotel's sister property, Hacienda Nicholas, to partake of the free spread of wine and cheese before eating dinner at a place with a mildly unappetizing name: The Shed. The food proves to be amazing, though. I have the enchiladas with red chili sauce (no problem deciding here—it's the house specialty), and Dustin gets the pollo adobo, blue tortillas served with red-adobo-marinated roasted chicken. We finish off the night with Horny Toad margaritas at Cowgirl BBQ, where I fantasize about becoming one of the sassy servers in cowboy boots and miniskirts. I could probably match their snappy repartee, but I think I'd have to lengthen my skirt a bit if I really wanted to make the career change.


The Madeleine
106 Faithway St., Santa Fe, 888/877-7622, , from $120

Hacienda Nicholas
320 E. Marcy St., Santa Fe, 888/284-3170, , from $120


Frontier Restaurant
2400 Central Ave. SE, Albuquerque, 505/266-0550, , huevos rancheros $6

The Shed
133½ E. Palace Ave., Santa Fe, 505/982-9030, , pollo adobo $13.50

Cowgirl BBQ
319 S. Guadalupe St., Santa Fe, 505/982-2565, , margarita $7.50


Soda Dam
Hwy. 4, two miles north of Jemez Springs, Santa Fe National Forest, 575/829-3535,

Day 2
Just as we're starting to forget our lives back in New York, we meet Jeffrey, an artist who says he spent part of the 1980s in Manhattan "running around in costumes." He later moved to Santa Fe and became the manager and chef at Hacienda Nicholas. "At my age," he says as we sample his basil, tomato, and artichoke quiche at breakfast, "Santa Fe is a much better place for the soul."

Dustin and I set out to see for ourselves. We stroll down to the main square, which is lively even in the morning, with tattooed hippies hanging out on park benches and Native American jewelry vendors selling their wares on blankets. I'm mortified when I mangle the word for the Navajo people, the Diné (dih-neh), but the men find it hilarious. After I buy some roasted corn to munch on, we cross the plaza to the Santa Fe Boot Co., where Dustin strokes a pair of soft alligator-skin cowboy boots. "These are unbelievable," he says. I look at the price and can't believe my eyes: They cost $2,800! I nudge him toward the door before he starts having his own cowboy-boot-wearing fantasies.

We're having so much fun and the people are so friendly that I hate to leave, but we've got a two-hour drive ahead of us. The High Road to Taos, which passes through the 14,000-foot Sangre de Cristo Mountains, is lined with art galleries, Native American and Hispanic crafts shops, and centuries-old Spanish-style villages. In Truchas, which has become an artists' enclave in recent years, we meet Alvaro Cardona-Hine and his wife, Barbara McCauley, owners of the Cardona-Hine Gallery. They show us their work and tell us about their lives (he's from Costa Rica, and she's from Connecticut; they met at a poetry workshop in Los Angeles). After poking around the gallery for an hour, we notice dark storm clouds forming on the horizon and bid our newly made friends a quick farewell. I grab a gallery catalog on the way out, as Dustin really likes Alvaro's colorful, nature-inspired paintings. A first-anniversary gift, perhaps?

When we get to Taos, we wander around admiring the coffeehouses, jewelry shops, and bungalows with signs offering Reiki and massage. I'm already smitten with the quirky little ski town, and then I see the Adobe & Pines Inn, which pushes me over the edge: The 1830s former hacienda is truly gorgeous, with cayenne-red walls, carved wooden doors, wood-beamed ceilings, and rawhide chairs in the rooms. The three-acre property also has a stream and a lawn filled with wildflowers; Dustin promptly jumps in a hammock for a nap under a towering pine tree.

New Mexican food is heavenly, but also heavy, so I welcome the lighter options at Apple Tree. [At press time, the restaurant was up for sale and had a limited menu and hours.] We could spend all night in the candle­lit courtyard, but the clouds we spotted earlier are starting to rumble. The drive back to the inn is hair-raising, with rain pelting the car and lightning bolts flashing across the sky. The power is out at the hotel, so we use the light from my cell phone to find our room. Huddled under the covers, we fall asleep to the crackling of our fireplace.


Adobe & Pines Inn
4107 Rd. 68, Taos, 800/723-8267, , from $98 per night (two-night minimum stay)


Apple Tree
123 Bent St., Taos, 575/758-1900,


Native American jewelry vendors
Santa Fe Plaza, in front of Palace of the Governors, Santa Fe

Santa Fe Boot Co.
60 E. San Francisco St., Santa Fe, 505/989-1168,

Cardona-Hine Gallery
82 Rte. 75, Truchas, 866/692-5070,

Day 3
I've already snacked on several chocolate and raspberry croissants before breakfast, so I'm glad Tina, the innkeeper's terrier, is there to help when my omelet and sausages arrive. The dog has a huge stomach—apparently owing to her deep love of sausages—and she stands on her hind legs until I feed her.

After Tina finishes off my breakfast, we're off to see Taos Pueblo, one of the longest-continuously-inhabited communities in the U.S. The most prominent structures in the adobe village, believed to have been built sometime between 1000 and 1450, are two giant mud-brick complexes that look like toy blocks stacked on top of one another. Only about 50 Pueblo Indians still live in the ancient apartment buildings and the single-story homes around them—the rest of the tribe live in modern homes in an adjacent community. During our tour of the village, the guide explains how the buildings are maintained: They're layered year after year with straw and mud, and some of the walls are now up to two feet thick. To retain the authenticity of the village, the tribe doesn't permit running water or electricity in the homes.

The Earthship World Headquarters, a 10-mile drive away, couldn't be more starkly different. The space-age community, which looks like something straight out of Star Wars, has dozens of curvaceous "earthship" houses made of stacked tires, glass bottles, and packed dirt. While the homes aren't open to the public, visitors can stay the night in an earthship inn or tour a museum that tells the story of how Mike Reynolds, a local architect devoted to sustainable building techniques, formed the community. My guidebook paints a slightly different picture of Reynolds, calling him a cult leader. I show the book to Hannah, the dreadlocked intern in the visitors center, and she exclaims, "Am I in a cult? Maybe I'm being brainwashed!" If she is, she doesn't seem to mind.

Back in the car, Dustin and I drive into the pine-covered mountains once more, heading south through the Carson National Forest and across a vast expanse of plains toward Las Vegas—the New Mexico city, not the one in Nevada. We're starving by the time we get to the Plaza Hotel, a red-brick 19th-century inn with two grand staircases in the lobby, so we drop off our stuff and head straight to the hotel's Landmark Grill for steaks. A few Jamesons later, we're ready to brave the third floor of the hotel, where the ghost of Byron T. Mills, one of the past owners of the property, is said to roam. We creep down the hallway as quietly as we can, but the apparition must be shy because he doesn't make an appearance. When we return to our room, Dustin tries to scare me by jumping out of the dark bathroom as I walk by. I scream, then start to giggle. "Very mature," I tell him.


Plaza Hotel
230 Plaza, Las Vegas, 800/328-1882, , from $69


Landmark Grill
230 Plaza, Las Vegas, 800/328-1882, , steak $18


Taos Pueblo
Veterans Hwy., 2.5 miles north of Taos, 575/758-1028, , $10

Earthship World Headquarters
Hwy. 64 W., eight miles west of Rte. 68, 800/841-9249, , entrance $5, rooms from $100

Day 4
Las Vegas has a wild history: Founded in 1835, it became one of the most prosperous towns in the Southwest with the arrival of the railroad in 1879. Outlaws like Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp, and Doc Holliday hung out here, as did Teddy Roosevelt, who came to recruit men for his Rough Riders. Much of the architecture from that era remains—a fascinating mix of Victorian, Italianate, and neoclassical mansions and adobe homes. Las Vegas's rowdier days, however, are long gone. In fact, the place is so quiet, it reminds us of a sleepy Midwest town. Then we meet an actual Midwesterner: Char, who runs the Beans & Sweets bakery with her sister. Char looks similar to Dustin's late grandmother (who was also named Char), and she's from Ohio, where Dustin was born. Her eyes light up when Dustin asks if she sells a well-known Ohio treat called buckeyes, peanut butter balls dipped in chocolate. She says she only has them in the winter. "It's too hot now," she laments. "The chocolate just doesn't stick."

If we're going to eat anywhere in town on a Sunday, the locals tell us we should go to the popular Charlie's Bakery & Café. We have been feasting on New Mexican cuisine for days, but I have yet to try a special kind of taco with a shell made of baked cheese or a sopaipilla deep-fried pocket of dough served with honey. This time, when the waitress asks me, "Red or green?" I don't miss a beat. "Christmas!" I say with glee. For a split second, I almost feel like I'm a born-and-bred New Mexican.


Beans & Sweets
1209 National Ave., Las Vegas, 505/425-6699

Charlie's Bakery & Café
715 Douglas Ave., Las Vegas, 505/426-1921, sopaipillas $8

Finding the way
If you stick only to the state's major highways, you'll miss northern New Mexico's quirky small towns, roadside food stalls, and evergreen forests. Instead, plan your drive on scenic byways such as the High Road from Santa Fe to Taos. You can look up route descriptions, maps, and trip highlights at . Stretches of these roads are in rural areas, so make sure to fill up the tank before leaving.