Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Tao of Taos, New Mexico

We’ve been trying to get to Taos since we arrived in New Mexico. But the 2.75-hour drive makes it tad bit longer than a day trip.

Then, as luck would have it, a friend in LA connected us with an old friend of hers who lives in Taos, and we were extended an invitation to come up for a weekend. This is one of many examples of the immediacy of New Mexico. You meet people, they’re incredibly friendly, you become friends with them, you go stay with them.

These new friends, as it turns out, could not have been better guides to Taos. She grew up in the area and works at a prestigious museum. He’s an artist and furniture maker. And together, they know just about everyone in Taos. No wonder we got to attend two parties and a wedding reception in one weekend with them.

Of course, it’s not that hard to get to know people here. In fact, we ran into two people we’d met at our first party while grabbing coffee at World Cup near the plaza. This was clearly a common occurrence that surprised no one. And to top it off, we learned we’d see them both again later in the day for another party.

While exploring the small downtown (including the John Dunn Shops, housed in the infamous gambler and stagecoach driver’s former home), we also checked out the Harwood Museum of Art’s new photo exhibit of the Taos Pueblo from the beginning of photography to present. This iconic UNESCO World Heritage adobe structure has been continuously inhabited for over 1,000 years (chew on that for a minute), and the exhibit features shots from the last 140.

In part, it was this close proximity to a vibrant Native American community that drew so many artists to Taos in the early days to paint the pueblo and its inhabitants. The Taos Society of Artists was founded in 1915 by prominent transplants from New York, Paris and other major cities, and this worldly artistic sensibility continues. (Everyone we met had lived in New York or LA previously, it seemed.)

Of course, they were also drawn to the beauty of the area, with its ancient cottonwood trees, snow-fed streams and grassy valleys. But what really sets Taos apart is the perfect ring of mountains (including Mount Wheeler, the highest in the state) that encircles it, making for breathtaking views in all directions as well as world class skiing, which attracts an entirely different set of affluent visitors.

Maybe that’s why Taos just doesn’t seem like a town of 6,000 people. With its natural pulchritude, famous residents (including Julia Roberts) and international tourists, it feels more sophisticated than a small town…and yet decidedly rural and rustic. I’m still trying to put my finger on it, but the vibe is very distinct, very free, very appealing. Even more than Santa Fe, whose name alone inspires certain lifestyle aspirations, Taos is just cool.

Since I found myself rather drawn to it (okay, full-on crushing on it, let’s be honest), I guess it’s a good thing it’s so far from a major airport. Otherwise, I might have had some second thoughts about whether we should have looked into buying there instead. But given how much my partner’s profession involves travel, it just wouldn’t work logistically. And I guess that’s what keeps Taos the way it is.

Life’s not about logistics if you live there. It’s about…life. In fact, it seems like the kind of place where you have to have your own income or your own thing going on already, be it art or otherwise. Which reminds me - Dennis Hopper, another famous part-time Taos resident (he fell for it after shooting Easy Rider there and was a renowned artist in his own right), loved getting away to Taos so much that he wished it to be his final resting place. Below is the San Francisco de Asis Church in Rancho de Taos, where his funeral was held.

So while I can’t have Taos as my mate, it’s definitely got all the makings of an in-state weekend cheat. I’m dying to get back and see the Taos Pueblo in person, for one. Perhaps I’ll attend one of the religious ceremonies they invite the public to attend throughout the year. I’ve been told that the Procession of the Virgin on Christmas Eve is something special – with bonfires lit everywhere and a blend of Catholic and native traditions.

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Last Garment Maker in Denver’s LODO District

“The West is not a place. The West is a state of mind.

– “Papa” Jack A. Weil, 1901-2008

A year before we moved to New Mexico, my partner Kevin visited Denver and brought me back a t-shirt from Rockmount Ranch Wear. It featured a bucking bronco and read “Styled in the West by Westerners.” You could say it stood out from the other t-shirts in my urbanite’s closet. He got himself a vintage Western shirt with saddle stitching, sawtooth pockets and white pearly snaps, which reminded me of something an Austin hipster might wear. Very retro. Very now.

At the time, I had never heard of Rockmount, nor did I know how many celebrities wear it. But when we drove up to Denver earlier this summer, I got a chance to find out what all the fuss is about. Turns out Rockmount is something of a legend – as was its recently deceased Founder and CEO, Jack A. Weil, who ran the company until his death in 2008 at age 107. His book, Ask Papa Jack: Wisdom of the World’s Oldest CEO, dispenses his famously opinionated lessons.

I knew I liked the guy when I flipped through his book at the Rockmount headquarters in Denver’s historic LODO (lower downtown) district – where gold was first discovered, industrial warehouses later sprung up, and more recently, trendy stores, clubs and restaurants have proliferated – and landed on a page where he was bashing Sam Walton, Wal-Mart's founder. “Sam Walton was nothing but a hillbilly."

Weil’s disdain may in part be personal – they were acquainted – but also professional. Rockmount refuses to sell to chains or discounters like Wal-Mart, and in fact, Weil felt those very outlets were responsible for ending clothing manufacturing in America. He may be right given that Rockmount’s historic five-story building (built 1908) in LODO is the only clothing manufacturer remaining in the area.

Rockmount’s finely tailored shirts, skirts, ties, scarves and more are still made mostly in the US. Accordingly, they’re not cheap – around $70-$90 a shirt. But as Kevin says, they’ll last forever. You can find more modern “relaxed wear” Western styles, and you can also find vintage fitted designs from the 40s, 50s and other eras, including "high wattage" shirts with hand chenille embroidery, fringes and rhinestones. The original bling. Recognize these two?

A trailblazer as well as a holdout, Rockmount introduced the sawtooth pocket and was the first to add snaps to Western shirts, now a common practice and part of the rockabilly aesthetic. The reasons were quite simple. Buttons come off, cowboys don’t like to sew, and it’s easier to wiggle out of a shirt with snaps if you get caught or snagged out on the range.

And that’s the Western state of mind, folks.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Why I Didn't Order The Vitamin Soup - And Stuck with Copywriting

I’m a freelance writer, and I telecommute from wherever I am at the time of the assignment. That’s what's allowed me to travel for longer periods of time, and consequently, that’s what enables me to write this little blog about the places I fall for.

When I say I’m a freelancer writer, most people ask, “What publications do you write for?” Then I have to explain that I’m not a freelance journalist, but a freelance copywriter. That I write websites, newsletters, emails, ads, brochures and “marketing stuff.”

At this point, their expression usually turns to one of disorientation or disappointment. But it's okay - I don’t take it personally. I understand that journalism has more romance than copywriting. It’s just that I like being paid on an hourly basis rather than per word.

Five years into my freelance adventure, I’m still okay with why I took the direction I did. I’m still self-employed, after all. I’m still getting to travel. And I even managed to buy a house…with another freelancer. (Different industry, same glorious uncertainty/flexibility.)

And if you’d like to know even more about why I didn’t pursue travel journalism after flirting with it, I’ll directly you to this painfully amusing excerpt from a former freelance journalist (now a staff newspaper writer). Sure kills the romance, doesn’t it?

Excerpt from “Seven Years As A Freelance Writer, Or How to Make Vitamin Soup" by Richard Morgan:

Freelancing is pitching two ideas to a new editor at the Times, after having written for the publication for five years, and being told (quoting exactly here): “I think you’d have better luck pitching your stories elsewhere.”

Freelancing means walking from the West Village to the Upper East Side and back because you don’t have enough money for the subway. Freelancing means being so poor and so hungry for so long that you “eat” a bowl of soup that’s just hot water, crushed-up multivitamins and half your spice rack (mostly garlic salt).

Freelancing is being woken up on a Monday at 8 a.m. by an editor who gives you the following assignment: “Put together everything interesting about all the city’s airports by Friday,” doing it, and then not getting credit when it runs… as an infographic.

Freelancing is having your mother send you a book called $ix-Figure Freelancing which lists as helpful resources, on page 198, the dictionary, thesaurus, and sree.net.

Freelancing means your editor will reject your pitch and then, seven month later, run the story you pitched—with the same language as your pitch—and then have it submitted for a National Magazine Award.

Freelancing is having an editor tell you that he really loves the story you’ve filed and wouldn’t change anything, and in fact suggests you expand upon the characters a bit—and also cut the story in half. Because, in an editor’s world, it’s possible to expand upon characters and not change the structure while you also cut the story in half.

Freelancing means having to chase down checks every time, even when that means waiting two years for $1000. It means having stories killed and being told that the editor-in-chief gave no reason, but that the same editor would love to work with you some more.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Following the Old Santa Fe Trail to Colorado

From Santa Fe, it’s an easy six-hour drive to Denver on I-25N. Back in the 1800s, however, this route – which parallels the historic Santa Fe Trail most of the way – was pretty grueling, thanks in part to the treacherous mountain crossing at the Colorado border. Today the most dangerous aspects may be avoiding hitting an elk or veering into another lane while admiring in the vast scenery.

Following this storied trail – which turned Santa Fe from an isolated outpost into a commercial center – gives you a lot of time to contemplate, given the countless acres of wide open grazing land you’ll pass, as well as several glimpses into history. A stop in Las Vegas (yes, that would be Las Vegas, New Mexico….not Las Vegas, Nevada), an hour north of Santa Fe, is one of the largest eyefuls. With its leafy colonial plaza and creaky storefronts, the entire downtown is like a living Western movie set. (Over 900 structures are on the National Register of Historic Places.) No wonder numerous films, including No Country for Old Men, have been shot here.

Founded in 1835 with a land grant from the Spanish government, Las Vegas was the last Spanish settlement established in the US – and soon became the prosperous epicenter of the Southwest, thanks to its location along the Santa Fe Trail, and later, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway. It had four opera houses and electric railcars. But it also had an infamous underbelly. Doc Holliday practiced dentistry and owned a saloon here – until he had to leave town after shooting a local. Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid, Jesse James and every other outlaw passed through too, giving Las Vegas a reputation of harboring murderers, con men and bandits.

Storefronts like Tome on the Range and “OK Café” on Old Town's Bridge Street remind you of this colorful history. And of course, there’s the Plaza Hotel (built 1882), which is the epitome of the grand frontier hotels and the place where Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders held their first reunion in 1899. Still operating today, it is home to the Landmark Grill as well as Byron T’s Saloon. Many of the nearby buildings still need restoration, though, and hopefully someday someone will pump a few million into bringing them back to life.

Two hours north, Trinidad, Colorado, offers another turn-of-the-century flashback. Now known as the sex-change capital of the US (the phrase “taking a trip to Trinidad” has become code for such a procedure), this mining town was the place that weary wagon-bound travelers would pull into for supplies after making it through the Raton Pass at the Colorado border. It’s another Santa Fe Trail boomtown gone bust – and yet with hints of a comeback.

A prime example is Danielson Dry Goods, a sophisticated café-meets-gift store housed in the restored Five ‘N Dime store on Main Street. The owners wanted to help transform the depressed downtown area – and clearly, they’re leading the way. On the left side of the building, you can order the signature Corazon Chicken Salad and a sparkling soda and sit in a booth lit by a chandelier. On the right side, you can browse picture frames and greeting cards decorated with quotes (manufactured by the owners’ design company, now the largest employer in southern Colorado) as well as soaps, perfumes and more.

After stopping for breakfast or lunch here, you too may get inspired by seeing how the past can be preserved for the future. These two Old Santa Fe Trail towns are not yet widely recognized tourist destinations, but they have all the history required – and just need a little more revitalization. I know it’s possible after seeing my own hometown’s shuttered downtown turned around in two decades.