People of the Red Willow

12 July 2008

People of the Red Willow

To everyone's surprise, Taos has become one of our favourite places on our journey so far. Given the time to plan this trip again we would have allowed more days to explore everything that the Taos area has to offer.

We headed away from the campground and drove the short distance up to an RV parking spot just off Kit Carson Road. Carson was a famous trapper and Indian fighter whose adventures became legends during his lifetime. They were depicted in movies, TV shows, comics and novels including (among many others) Kit Carson, Prince of the Gold Hunters from 1849.

With so little time to explore Taos and its surrounding area, we chose to forego the most photographed church in the United States, the San Francisco de Asis and with regret the Taos Pueblo where people have lived for over a thousand years. The Pueblo was holding a pow-wow which we would have loved to stay to see, but we were mindful of the three hour drive to Raton that lay ahead of us so instead we spent time browsing the galleries, relaxing in Taos’s historic plaza and drinking the most refreshing Taos Splash, a mixture of fresh watermelon juice and lemonade.

Starting out, I was a little apprehensive about our next drive, further north towards the border between New Mexico and Colorado. I need not have worried too much. Although the roads were twisty and sometimes steep, my new found RV driving prowess took them in its stride. I took the route pretty slowly though and pulled over wherever it was safe to let my tail of accumulated traffic push past us.

We had heard that the Sangre de Cristo Mountains were great for skiing in the winter time, but we were really surprised to find that there was still snow up on their highest peaks to our left. We were also very surprised at the flat plateau and lake at Eagle Nest. Eagle Nest is also known as home to New Mexico’s largest elk herd, but so far the only elk that we have encountered have been on road-signs warning us about where these mythical creatures cross.

Our next stop was historic Cimarron, a tiny settlement dating back to 1842 and famous in part for our next stop, the St. James Hotel. Although the exterior of the hotel is unremarkable, it has played host to some pretty famous names from the Old West including Wyatt Earp, Jesse James, Buffalo Bill Cody and Annie Oakley. We drank Pepsi in the bar where outlaw and gunfighter Clay Allison is said to have danced naked and we looked up at the twenty bullet holes still in the dining room’s ornate tin ceiling.

The hotel walls are lined with stuffed animal trophies including a mountain lion in one corridor, deer heads, an elk head and the most imposing bison head. I knew that bison were big creatures, but this thing was huge. I couldn’t resist stroking its cold, dead nose and thankfully it seems not to be one of the many ghosts that are said to haunt the hotel, so it didn’t put up any resistance. It’s probably the closest that a bison will ever let me get.

Twenty-six men died at the St. James Hotel and although the upstairs rooms are off-limits to non-residents, it is still easy to imagine how the hotel must have felt during its heyday from only a tour around the downstairs, public rooms. We peeked through the (roped off) doorway to a downstairs bedroom where a note outside mentioned that two men had died.

The rooms are certainly full of character and on another occasion I’m sure that I will make a trip back to Cimarron to sleep in one. I was a tiny bit disappointed by the digital clock blinking 4:19 on the bedside table, but as the hotel forbids mobile phones to help save its historic atmosphere, I’ll forgive it a few red LEDs.

By Andy Clarke

Your messages

I’m really enjoying reading about your trip. Some of your photos are quite lovely. It reminds me of the trip my partner and I took cross country quite a few years ago. We always said we would do it again, but twenty years later, we haven’t driven farther west than Missouri.

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