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  • Writer's pictureJanette Frawley

The cowards never start and the weak die along the way.

Despite my meanderings yesterday, I did arrive in Taos early enough to have the opportunity to explore the historic downtown area. Like so many US towns and cities, the most direct route into the town is lined with discount stores and supermarkets, fast-food joints, and a variety of hotels. I'm not complaining, because a town's planning provides the essential services that locals and visitors require, yet makes an effort to preserve the historic areas.

The lead-up into downtown Taos stretches for a few kilometres, providing me with the opportunity to review my choices as I pass.

After having had a good night's sleep last night, I'm ready to hit the road before breakfast as I have two things to do before I leave Taos this morning.

I have to retrace my footsteps back to Ranchos de Taos, a Spanish Land Grant village located a few kilometres south of Taos. I have come to see the San Francisco de Asis Mission church, which was built between 1772 and 1816 by the Franciscan Fathers. Again, the fact that this church was being built whilst Captain Cook was still fluffing around in the Pacific puts the age of this church into perspective. It is older than any Colonial structure we have in Australia.

The back of the church faces the road, so I turn into a dirt road and park in the plaza. There is a hive of activity here as workmen are applying new adobe to the walls surrounding the church. It is not until I get out of the car and face the front of the church that I realise that this is probably the largest and best-preserved of all the churches I've visited over the past few days. Apparently it is also the most often photographed Spanish Colonial New Mexico mission church in North America and was designated a National Landmark in 1970. At this point, I ask myself the same baffling question; why do the Americans preserve their historical sites whilst we set about destroying ours. Is it because our written history is so short or is it because those who have the ability to preserve the sites are too drunk with their own sense of power to truly understand what is worth preserving?

I walk inside and again, marvel at how cool the interior of the church is. Same as for churches I've visited since leaving Santa Fe, no photographs can be taken inside. After lighting a couple of candles, I spend some time looking at the typical features. Like many churches built in this style, the ceiling vigas support the adobe roof. In 1967, extensive restoration work was done on the church, including the repainting of the reredos behind the altar and the replacement of the doors and ceiling vigas with reproductions. As I emerge from the cool interior, I watch the workmen apply new mud to the wall. Each year, the local community and parishioners replaster the church with mud to protect the church from water damage.

I take a few moments to check out the buildings surrounding the plaza. Unlike the church, these have fallen into disrepair and there is an air of neglect surrounding these once fine homes.

As I drive back into Taos, I decide to stop for the all-American breakfast experience; Sonic Drive-In. As an Australian, we never had hamburger joints that deliver your order (sometimes on roller-skates) to your car, hooking the tray onto your open window. Today, however, I don't want the greasy hamburger smell in the car and opt to eat on the patio. After ordering through an outdoor menu and sitting at one of the 50s-style tables, I enjoy the scenery on the horizon; semi desert with a blue tinge of mountains behind. Later I will be heading towards the mountains. As my order is delivered to the table, I pine for last week's home-cooked meals and would do almost anything for a bowl of scrambled eggs a la Renee. Okay, this breakfast will go down as a holiday experience, hopefully unlikely to be repeated. Less said about the meal the better!

Sonic Drive-In, Taos

I drive through Taos and turn right near the plaza, where I was yesterday. Not far from the corner is a group of old, squat adobe buildings, one of which is my next destination.

When I was a child,we grew up on a healthy diet of American Westerns. Without knowing it, we had been introduced to some of the most iconic characters of American Western history. Of course, I'm not saying that all we saw on TV was real or even good, but names like Billy the Kid, Daniel Boone, and Kit Carson were names that we associated with the American West. Kit Carson is perhaps one of the most well-known residents of Taos and I'm standing outside his home. The single-storey home is of the Spanish Territorial style with thick adobe walls and a low verandah on the outside. In many ways it reminds me of the style of buildings one still finds in Australian country towns, like Maldon in Victoria, except for the adobe building material, of course.

Once through the gate, I hear the deep hum of bees as they industriously move between pink and white hollyhocks and cosmos collecting sweet nectar for their queen. The hot sun beats down on the courtyard, which links the house with the outbuildings. A large kiva or oven sits in the centre of the courtyard, and I can almost imagine Carson's wife, Josefa, baking bread here.

Kit Carson's house was probably built around 1825, and was purchased by Carson as a wedding gift for this third wife, Jesepha. They lived here until 1867, when Carson was assigned as commander of Fort Garland in southern Colorado. I enter the museum through the gift shop and in an adjoining room, a documentary is playing. Since it is is almost finished, I opt to explore the three rooms of his home before returning to watch the film. This is a humble home, and I'm interested to hear an animated discussion taking place between two men regarding a photo of Josefa. The dispute was over whether the photo in question was in fact, Josefa. I guess authenticity of exhibits in a museum is important. I return to watch the documentary, which outlines the early life of Carson, up until his marriage to Josepha. Kit Carson, was larger than life, but he was also illiterate. Not being able to read or write didn't impede him as he spoke five Native American languages, and was able to change his occupation as needed, from fur trapper and mountain man to guide, to US army officer. He was famous in his own time; his exaggerated exploits made famous in cheap western novels. Luckily for me, the docent for the museum, who incidentally had been involved in the earlier discussion about the photo, arrives as the documentary finished. As I am the only person in the museum at the moment, I am treated to a history lesson, not only on Kit Carson's life, but of the area in general. I learn that North America has very few native animals, bison and pronghorn, and they had been hunted to near extinction. Sometimes being alone can provide opportunities that may otherwise not happen. I haven't a strict timetable today, so the conversation about this part of New Mexico is welcome.

I stand in the gift shop with a copy of Kit Carson's autobiography and ask the obvious, probably annoyingly repetitive question; if Kit Carson was illiterate, how did he write his autobiography? A possible answer is in the preliminary information prior to the start of his story, and it appears that he did narrate his story, and it had been written on his behalf.

As I leave the cool interior of the building and return to the heat of the middle of the day, I reflect upon this visit, this museum. I wish my late brother, Paul, had the opportunity to visit the Western states of USA. His love of the West carried him through the last months of his life as he rewatched the John Wayne videos that he loved when we were growing up. His spirit is with me today, and I do find myself wondering whether those early years growing up has influenced my own love of this part of the United States. I'll never know.

It's time to move on, because I have an appointment with 'Wildfire' in Red River, a part of the Rocky Mountains near the Colorado border. The long straight road leads straight to the mountains and I am eager to be on my way. I am surrounded by mountains as I leave Taos; black clouds are forming, as I wonder whether we will get the predicted rain and thunderstorms again tonight. As I drive toward Red River, I reflect on Carson's most famous quote, and agree that adventurers must have the courage to face the unknown. Perhaps solo travellers also fall into that category.



ACCOMMODATION: The Lodge at Red River, 400 E Main St, Red River, NM

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