¿Paradise lost?

"Taking a Break," Taos, circa 1967-1971. The hippies and their free-love and drug-heavy lifestyle was not greeted with open arms. Courtesy of Irwin B. Klein Estate

¿Paradise Lost? is an excerpt of an article that first appeared in Hakol, the news magazine of the Taos Jewish Center.

When my mother brought my two sisters and me to Taos for our vacations — this was five summers between 1948 and 1952 — life here for a boy was a sensuous and joyful paradise. So it was something of a shock when I returned in 1969 and found that paradise had become a community convulsed by the latest wave of newcomers — the dreaded hippies. It was rumored that 5,000 counterculture creatures had already settled in Northern New Mexico and 25,000 more were on their way. The majority of Taoseños wanted to rid the county of the ones already here and stop any others from coming.

A resolution by the Taos Municipal Education Association summed up the prevailing sentiment: “Because of their known excesses in drug addiction, sexual and obscene behavior, personal filth and general exhibitionism, the hippie’s presence among our people poses a real and verifiable danger to the moral health of our youth.”

The situation between locals and hippies was best described to me by a pudgy Chicano intellectual one afternoon in La Cocina, where all the prominent deadbeats hung out. After second drinks we discussed the socio-economic history of Taos. I said that Taos had always been based on farming and ranching, and despite the art colony and the ski resort and the curio shops, agriculture still defined it. “Taos is,” I announced, “conservative in the best sense of the word.”

He didn’t disagree, but said that what we newcomers didn’t understand is that Taoseños, despite their rural ways, had always consumed a lot of alcohol and marijuana, and New Mexico as a whole always ranked high in teen pregnancy, domestic violence and above all (leading the nation year after year) driving under the influence. He seemed quietly proud of these achievements. The long-hairs, he added, have just joined the back of the parade, adding some new shortcomings like nudity and LSD. “The difference,” he said, “is they do it openly. That’s their mistake.”

After a third round he concluded, “Deep down, Native Americans believe that the Hispanics will someday go back to Spain, Hispanics believe that the Anglos will go back to Chicago and Anglos believe that the hippies will get bored and drift back to the Haight. In fact, because this is Taos, no one is going anywhere.”

He was right about the hippies; they had definitely thrown a wrench into the Land of Enchantment. Not that anyone really believed the myth of tri-harmonic cultures. In reality, Native Americans, Hispanics and Anglos did business with each other, joked with each other, even played on the same softball teams together, but lived in an uneasy relationship of bedrock mistrust. The hippies added a fourth culture, one slower than the others to recognize the relationship between hard work and survival. They infested the hot springs and clogged the food stamp offices and cluttered the highways in a variety of costumes: the preacher who said there were tunnels from Arroyo Hondo to Los Alamos; the young couple with three filthy children; the old doper-poet who was drinking himself to death; the Ph.D. who had discovered Rumi; the peyote Christian; the tall girl in calico with two dogs.

It was a high time in Northern New Mexico, and my wife and I got caught up in it. Over the winter we went to wild hippie dances held in local halls, dancing crazily to a local band playing their versions of Creedence Clearwater and The Who and Janis: “Suzie Q” and “Pinball Wizard” and “Bobby McGee.” Heads spinning, we staggered out of the halls into the winter nights wiped out from dancing and dope and smoke, stumbled out at midnight into 10 degrees below, the stars on top of us, the snow crunching underfoot, dogs barking, pickups cruising by, taunts, shouts … then, back into the dance, the drugs kicking in: “Nights in White Satin,” “Bad Moon Rising,” “Honky Tonk Woman.” I was consumed with lust for the hippie girls, especially the beautiful 22-year-old twins who it was rumored slept with everyone; innocent and pure angels dispersing joy.

From my journal

Sunday afternoon in Arroyo Hondo and nothing to do. Blue sky travels overhead like news-sheet. Marcos Ortiz is fixing the hydraulic lift on his tractor. The dope dealer comes by in his VW. Mrs. Chacón opens the grocery store. Matthew is splitting cedar for his cook-stove. Cave Dave is sitting on a rock in the canyon. Two hawks float over the cottonwoods. Dennis Long’s band is starting a new piece in the shed behind his house. The peyote feast is beginning at New Buffalo. Ida Martínez has her self-help women over to sew. Three cars of Chicanos block a pickup full of hippies and beat them on the head with two-by-fours. Village boys shut off the acequia Atalaya and are snatching fish up from the mud. Ruth is kissing Fast Ed in a teepee. Father Prieto is going over parish accounts with Clodoveo Chacón. Morningstar is playing basketball against a Raza team from Arroyo Seco. Tony Garcia has eluded his wife and is headed for Celso’s bar. Three hippie kids sneak into Mrs. Chacón’s store to steal candy. Finley is beating his horse. Tahiti is blow-torching bronze discs together. The bleeding hippies are at Dan and Peggy’s getting bandaged. Albert Christianson is illegally irrigating his carrots and peas. Justin is repairing his old Mercedes. The Río Hondo is flowing toward the Río Grande. Nick’s dog Spark is sniffing Sandra’s dog Windsock. Toby is pulling tufts of hair out of his own face. The dope dealer has arrived at Reality. Nonnie, Carlos and Ramon are teasing an old cock behind the church. Jackson is laying a Mercy trap for the skunk that has been eating his chicks. Mrs. Ortiz is pulling in white sheets off the line. The winos are returning to Morningstar in triumph — they scored some bourbon!

If I were asked to summarize the hippie invasion of Taos, I would say they were far from home and ignorant as dust balls. The first wave, in the ‘60s, tended to be educated and idealistic, more into dope than alcohol. They shared their dope because paying for it was just not cool. Housewives, gurus, poets, trust-babies — they were young Americans who had torn themselves from their roots and came looking for anything authentic, as long as it didn’t resemble their upbringing.

The next wave, in the early ‘70s, was less educated and thus more apt to be mindless and negligent about cultural differences. They used as much alcohol as drugs, and it was this steady stream of drop-outs, draft-dodgers, nudists and boozers that so alarmed locals.

The final wave, which gave the coup de grâce to the movement, was mostly society’s dregs who were more or less criminal or mentally insane.

In any case, most hippies moved on because the winter nights dropped below zero and spring winds turned snow to mud, then mud to dust, followed by snow that turned the dust back to mud. The ones who stayed learned from Indians and Hispanics how to survive the winter, how to scavenge the hills for firewood, how to delay planting until the lilacs bloomed, how to avoid the census for either instinctual or good reasons, and much else.

The strange thing, which no one predicted, is that many hippies are still here. They (or is it we?) now make art, sell real estate, barter wood and wool, create websites, even run for office. People from the four cultures live in town, on the mesas, in the mountains, everyone keeping their heads down, finding ways to cooperate while still maintaining a healthy distrust. A veil is drawn over past hostilities. All is forgiven or forgotten, and each culture has moments of nostalgia that get organized into festivities to celebrate the paradise of the good old days.

Jim Levy is the author of Corazón (and Merkle) about two dogs: Cooler Than October Sunlight, poems 1959-2014; Joy To Come, literary essays; The Poems of Caius Herennius Felix, the story of a Roman-Spanish poet; The Fifth Season, a memoir of growing old; Rowdy’s Boy, a memoir of youth; Mar Egeo, a book of travel tales; and Monet’s Eyes, new and selected poems.

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