Heartbreak & Hostility In The High Desert
Horror stories from a writing mecca
We moved to Taos and hated it. I am still finding it hard to write this and we left six months ago, it’s startling how upsetting the experience was, even with this much passed time.
A mecca for artists, a magical place for creativity, Natalie Goldberg, Dennis Hopper, painters, the mesa, Julie Cameron, vortexes, the Pueblo, Julia Roberts, the mountain, galleries, green chili, Georgia O’Keefe, skiing, hiking, biking and Earthships (you may have to look this one up for yourself) are things associated with the high desert town in Northern New Mexico. It’s touted as a resort town/quaint destination for skiing, art galleries and elevated New Mexican cuisine.
I’ve lived in New Mexico before, so I felt that I had realistic expectations. We weren’t strangers to rural living or to tourist towns. We both loved the American Southwest, traveling and exploring new cultures. Honestly, I can’t think of two better people to enjoy Taos. For whatever reasons, the place draws a lot of middle-aged white women, I jokingly refer to it as the place where aging lesbians go to die, which is insensitive, isn’t nice, but is accurate. And to be fair, I was thirty-five when we moved and my partner was forty-seven, so we fell into the aforementioned demographic. And being a writer, I was living that cliche life.
My partner is a physician assistant (P.A.) and had taken a primary care position at a government funded local clinic that provided care for the under-served community.
We had both been living in Denver prior for nearly a decade and were ready to move on. I had been a hairdresser and was ready to leave my clientele and start fresh, dig back into my writing life and Jessie was looking forward to snowboarding, hiking and mountain biking. It seemed like a bright opportunity for us both. We packed up our apartment, our two dogs and made the three and half hour move south.
Housing was the first major snag we had and it continued to hinder us the entire time we were in Taos, which was nineteen months, but felt like forty. We lived in six places, five of which were over-priced vacation rentals. (Many things were extremely run down, but marketed as “Taos Charm").
We arrived without a place to live (we had been looking from Denver, but hadn’t had luck online or with any property managers we called and emailed), but found an Air Bnb that gave us a lightly discounted rate for the two-week stay. We hoped that would be enough time to find something, surely once we were there we would be able to dig something up since we both had excellent references, a reasonably high rental budget and were told May was a good time to find housing there.
The second vacation rental we stayed in was in Dixon, a tiny town twenty winding miles south of Taos. Dixon was where the “real” artists lived now because they couldn’t afford Taos. The rental was a beautiful old adobe on a red dirt road and the backyard backed up to a creek. We learned that the one-legged man two houses down was the town “drug dealer” and to leave him alone. Shortly after we moved in a fourteen-year-old boy shot himself in the head with his parents’ gun in a different nearby Dixon home. Overdoses were also rampant; tragedy was everywhere.
We finally found a “permanent” place to live in Taos via word of mouth, but it wasn’t finished yet. Our new landlord had told us we could probably move into it in a couple of weeks, which turned out to be five, meaning we had to find a third short-term rental. We found a studio back in Taos where we could live for a couple of weeks with the dogs.
It had been a rough start but we were determined to love our new town. Jessie’s job was also off to a rough start when she was faced with the opioid crisis. There was a lot of over-prescribing being done in the community and she was stuck dealing with it. We hadn’t been received warmly, by anyone, including her patients. People told us that Taos locals “won’t even give you the time of day until you’ve lived here for a couple of years.”
There was also the lore of The Mountain, which is said to be a living entity that will test you with flat tires, mean landlords, lost jobs and decimated relationships. After a few months I realized this was possibly just something locals said to explain away their hostile attitudes toward newcomers. Why was everyone so mad?
We were perplexed. The housing “crisis” was confusing because the town (and it’s surrounding areas) was littered with empty homes. We learned they were people’s second and third homes, many of which were on the market and had been for more than three years. We were told the town had been slow to recover from the recession (seven years slow?) and that Air Bnb was the cause for lack of rental properties. I do know of many people living in resort towns across the states who have been effected by this, but honestly looking around Taos, it felt more like greed.
Places were listed at obscenely high prices for the median income and it turned out that most locals couldn’t afford to live in Taos. One half of our family was in the medical profession and we could barely pull it off! I was also a little surprised that no one seemed remotely grateful to have a talented medical provider move to their community to help care for people. Where-in may be the answer to everything, did they just want to be left alone? We were being treated with contempt pretty much everywhere we went, including the local grocery stores.
I typically shopped at the more affordable chain store I could walk to from our place, but there was a local “natural” store where all the rich people shopped. Don’t try smiling at anyone there or get between a bearded man and his kombucha, it will not end well for you. There was a family-owned New Mexican restaurant called Orlando’s that we frequented and loved where the staff was always kind and the food was good. It was nice to have a comfortable place to go.
We tried all of the high-end places in town and were disappointed. We went in with open minds and had moved from Denver, not Los Angeles, so again I think we had pretty reasonable expectations. Everything was over-priced and underwhelming and frankly pretty odd. Creme fraiche dominated one farm-to-table menu, while another place touted their wood-oven sourdough which was ten dollars for half a loaf and could be used to halt an intruder if thrown correctly.
There was a local brewery where all the cool kids hung out, The Mothership, which was out on the mesa. Adjacent was a large gravel parking lot filled with cute travel trailers available for nightly rentals. We were told it was “just like Marfa.” It wasn’t. The local radio station was also out there in an airstream. It was community run and always looking for volunteer DJs. What luck! Jessie had, had a radio show when she lived in Salida (Colorado) years earlier and I shared her love for music, so we signed up.
We had a biweekly show Wednesday nights from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. and enjoyed it, until one night I accidentally let an f-bomb slide on-air at 9:52 (mere minutes before it became acceptable) and was tattled-on to the manager by an unnamed DJ who was listening. The manager made an example of us to the rest of the volunteer DJ community on social media, after which we decided to give up our post. It was a real bummer. We had enjoyed it and had even gotten positive feedback from a few community members. It may sound dramatic to have quit, but at this point we just felt really rejected.
Neither of us had made any friends. I looked into workshops and classes, but they were all out of my currently unemployed price range, so I ended up taking online workshops instead. I reconnected with a childhood friend who had relocated to Taos from San Francisco a few months before we did. She’s an artist and nice and said she’d introduce us to some of her other “lesbian friends,” but that never panned out. I understood her quiet artist lifestyle as I was similar, so we met for coffee once a month and that was the extent of our friendship. Had we not had so many kind, genuine friends and family visit from out of town, I’m not sure we would have made it through this experience (truly).
Jessie had a couple of work friends, but they were busy with families. She tried to go mountain biking, but after a few strange experiences she felt unsafe on the trails alone. Road cycling was dangerous because of no bike paths or shoulders and aggressive drivers who honked and sometimes swerved TOWARD cyclists. The two of us did enjoy hiking in the area, Ghost Ranch was one of our favorite places (a couple hour drive west of Taos where Georgia O’Keefe resided for a time).
At this point we had endured one of the driest winters they’d seen in years. I hadn’t used my ski pass once, Jessie went twice because she had friends in town who came specifically to ski. Season passes were $700 a piece and the resort offered no locals discounts. Also having never opened the ski mountain up to its entirety, never apologized to pass holders or offered any incentives for purchasing passes for the following season.
What I am getting at here, is there was a perplexing lack of compassion shown toward the community by the community. I couldn’t figure it out. I’ve lived all over including Manhattan and have never seen such a lack of pride or friendliness for one’s neighbor anywhere. Why?
In the temperate late-springtime we did enjoy some beautiful weekends camping and even learned to fly fish when my dad and his wife were in town visiting. Some happy memories were made by Jessie and I, we both enjoyed our visits to the Pueblo where we hung out with friendly Native American people who generously shared their heritage, culture and art with visitors. We successfully completed the Taos Half Marathon together. I enjoyed time at the local library. Also the New Mexico skies and desert will forever be indescribably special for me, so many expansive sunsets and starry nights.
I spoke to an artist from Sedona who was in town for a craft fair. She told me one of her friends, a musician, had moved to Taos a year earlier to write. The woman shook her head, looked up at me and said, “You know, she hasn’t written a single song since she moved here, this place just dried her up.”
I was curious about this and asked her why she thought that was. She told me something cryptic about there being a vortex within a vortex, that the energy maybe wasn’t going in the right direction. I must have looked confused because she said, “All I know is, when I’m here in Taos I don’t feel creative at all, I can’t make any art and then as soon as I’m back in Sedona, everything just flows out of me, like I can’t even hold my creativity in anymore.”
Evidently we should have moved to Sedona.
I was intrigued. Was it possible that the vortex had switched directions and the magical energies that were bestowed on generations past had shifted and were now sucking things out of the creative people? I sure felt depleted and the few artists I did know seemed pretty broke and unenthused. There didn’t seem to be any funding for local artists, no foundations in place to encourage the next generation. It was like the beatniks had all grown up and were sitting on their piles of money elsewhere, the past forgotten. It made me sad.
I hope that I’m wrong about all of this and maybe there’s a burgeoning community of artists flourishing in Taos, but if there is, it’s deep underground and I didn’t know the secret code word.
Our landlord continued to become increasingly abusive. We hadn’t had sustained hot water since we’d moved in. It was now the middle of winter and we were tired of tepid water. She never reimbursed us or discounted rent. She gave strange men keys to our apartment who were there to fix a furnace (which we didn’t even have in our unit). I was home alone when a man let himself in our front door. He left after I told him repeatedly, “no, we don’t have a furnace, I’m positive,” for which the landlord apologized, but gave no explanation. She also had to fire her plumber who followed my girlfriend to work and then tried to enter our apartment. Terrifying.
The first three months that we lived there numerous handymen traipsed in and out, finishing things that had been promised to be done prior to move-in. After seven months of water heater issues and feeling unsafe in our “home” we began looking into state regulatory agencies for help. We got nowhere. We looked for legal representation and no one would take us on because they either said it was “hopeless” or had ties to our landlord and her husband (a local architect who is renowned for building large square buildings).
Fast forward to July, fifteen months into our time in Taos. By now my beloved dog had died (no shit, true story) and our hot water wasn’t working for the fiftieth time (literally) so we alerted our landlord, again. At this point we were on a month-to-month lease as we hadn’t wanted to commit to another year, but were also unable to find a better option (seriously). We told her the water situation was unacceptable, it had been over a year. She gave us notice to move out, said we had thirty days to vacate, end of story. This forced us back into the world of short-term rentals.
A couple of different women Jessie knew through work offered to let us pay to stay in their guest houses for the last two(ish) months if we couldn’t find anything else. By now she was looking for other jobs, but we had both decided we wanted to leave at any cost as soon as she could leave her current position, which required a NINETY day notice. She told her employers that we had nowhere to live, but they were unwilling to make any changes to the terms of her contract, so we were forced to move three more times in addition to leasing a storage unit for our belongings.
I would like to say we never have to return, but sadly we do. We left stuff in storage in Taos since we didn’t have a home and were unable to coordinate a moving company to haul our stuff down to Albuquerque where there is an airport (keep in mind this is still three hours from Taos). If it didn’t include a loved collection of vinyl and family photo albums I think we’d be comfortable sacrificing our belongings to the mountain.
I remember one day, it was dusk and I was jogging, I had turned around and was heading back toward home running toward the looming mountain. Tears were running down my face, we were so beaten down by the callousness of this place, and I said, “Please mountain, I get it, you don’t want me here,” I said, “If you send me an option I will go.” The next day Jessie received the offer from her current job (present day) out of the blue. I am grateful to be gone and I’m sure the mountain is enjoying my absence as well.
I know that there are many reasons for a community to be unhappy, it just didn’t seem necessary since the people being mean were mostly transplants themselves and we’d come to contribute good things to their home. I think they do want to be left alone there, maybe this article will help in their efforts and save other potential residents some heartache.