The Full Monte

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I am in my New York office, 1,730 miles from El Monte Sagrado Living Resort and Spa, reading the treatment menu, and my woo-woo meter is already in the red zone.

The first few pages are conventional enough—facials, reflexology, hot stone—but there, near the top of page four, the vibe changes. During the Life Reading Massage, my practitioner “will remain open to the possibility of receiving impressions of intuitive insight.” The description of Rapid Eye Technology implies that it will release “trapped false messages in my brain” that can diminish my capacity to act rationally. (So that’s why.) And under “Special Offerings,” I find Egyptian Anointing, which promises a “two-hour out-of-this-world experience that will move you deeply into your most inner self.”

We are not in spa Kansas anymore.

El Monte Sagrado, opened in July 2003, is an unusual hybrid: the most luxurious resort in town; an evangelical environmental project (and a showcase for the company whose technology underpins it); a grab bag of cultural allusions; a spa-in-progress; and, on Friday nights, the happening bar in town. As the very levelheaded spa director, Amy McDonald, says, “It’s an out-of-the-box property in an out-of-the-box town.” From the outside, El Monte Sagrado, just a half mile from the center of Taos, looks conventional enough. The resort buildings, all in requisite adobe brown and most in pueblo style, are arranged around the Sacred Circle, a common-cum-ceremonial lawn shaded by immense cottonwoods. There are seven casitas left from the original 1930s resort, the El Monte Motor Lodge; of the 28 other rooms, 18 are in a two-story building and 10 in detached suites, both added when the resort was redone. You’d never know you were entering a New Age Brook Farm.

The vision behind El Monte Sagrado is ecosystem-as-infrastructure, and the seer is Tom Worrell Jr., the resort owner and the CEO of Dharma Living Systems in Taos. (Hence the use of the word living as a brand: The spa, for instance, is called the Living Spa.) A subsidiary of the company designed the resort’s beating technological heart, the Living Machine, a $500,000 natural water-recycling-and-purification system. It treats 5,000 gallons of wastewater daily.

The Living Machine is housed in a glassed-in room at the back of the Biolarium (a Worrell neologism), a kind of greenhouse behind the indoor pool. The botanical note here is tropical (banana trees, lobster claws, guavas, tamarinds) to underscore that even in high, dry Taos, man and technology can pull off a Jurassic Park. I expect to see some Wizard of Oz contraption and am let down to find that the Living Machine is more metaphor than matter. There are some gently vibrating tanks and a “programmable logic controller,” the Living Machine’s brain. But that’s it, for the machine is actually a system built into the property. A second filtration system, housed in a 30-by-40-foot subterranean room filled with pumps, pipes, and man-high holding tanks, keeps the trout ponds and the stream that curves along the eastern edge of the Sacred Circle clean. The stream, like all the waterscaping, is man-made. It seems to end in a reedy patch beside a little wooden bridge, but it actually falls through a drain and runs down into the basement for another bout of detox. The foundation of this ambitious attempt at Eden is some very advanced plumbing.

The crux of the Living Machine is using nature to clean up after man. The system works by pumping wastewater through a series of waist-high, open-topped tanks that contain various types of bacteria and hundreds of species of plants and snails. The plants absorb and the snails eat nutrients, while bacteria and microbes break down pollutants. (For a full technical explanation of the system, visit Chemistry comes into play in the final step, when Curoxin, a disinfectant, is added to the water, which is then reused.

My first thought on learning all this is more linear than circular: Is my tap water up- or downstream from the neighbor’s hot tub? The answer is neither. The resort is hooked up to the municipal water system for drinking, but otherwise, at 70 percent occupancy, El Monte Sagrado is an independent hydrological duchy. The recycled water is used primarily to irrigate the grounds, which accounts for the muscular physiques of the cottonwoods on the Sacred Circle. The goal, according to John Szerdi, the vice president of business development, is to be self-sufficient in water within five years and, at some point, to be 100 percent green. The resort is now 60 percent heated by a geothermal- and solar-energy system that Worrell installed after tearing out the original electrical system. Electrical independence, Szerdi tells me, will mean finding green outside sources such as a wind farm.

Rates $395–$1,495 with discounts for stays of three to seven nights. Reservations 800-828-8267. Pets welcome (extra fee). Children 12 and under free.

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