Out of America: Money destroys mystery of Lawrence's Shangri-La

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The Independent Online
TAOS - Who is to quarrel with D H Lawrence? The 22 months he spent here were, he wrote: 'The greatest experience from the outside world I ever had, Taos changed me for ever.' Less creative souls have been charmed by this strange corner of civilisation, set in the shadow of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, on a luminous plateau, 7,000 feet up in northern New Mexico. The air is champagne, and vistas from heaven reappear with each 'magnificent fierce morning' that Lawrence so loved.

The Indians came first, then the conquistadores, finally the 'Anglos', among them painters and writers who made the place famous. But the late 20th century has a way of destroying paradises.

The Taos that changed Lawrence for ever has been transformed. For Lawrence devotees, it is a treasure trove. At the La Fonda hotel on the old plaza, you pay dollars 3 ( pounds 2) to view nine of his paintings, banned as obscene when exhibited in Britain in 1929. These days, depictions of heaving buttocks and breasts raise few eyebrows.

Twenty miles north, at San Cristobal, is the ranch where he lived intermittently in the 1920s, maintained as a museum by the University of New Mexico. On the mountain slope above stands a tiny sanctuary to where Lawrence's ashes were brought in 1935. From its steps, a narrow pathway through the pines affords a glistening, 40- mile view across the plateau.

But a trip to Taos these days is a disconcerting experience. Not long ago Hispanics controlled local politics, Indians owned the land and Anglos supplied the money. No longer. Money is winning out. Technically, the Tiwa Indians own most of the area - the word Taos is Tiwa for 'the place'. But mudbrick Pueblo, where 150 live, said to be the oldest continuously inhabited site in the United States, is a dusty place of dismal souvenirs and surly vendors - a tacky portrait of America's homegrown Third World. Hispanics still hold most elected offices. But their political control is dissolving before the new wealth pouring into Taos.

The entire American West is in the throes of a boom unmatched since the gold rush. Taos is especially vulnerable. The population is only 11,000. But every day, one local architect told me, four people move to the area - 1,500 a year. Every natural or man-made disaster in California triggers a wave of potential settlers. Taos is said to boast 300 estate agents and property prices have doubled in five years. The roads are packed with Volvos, Saabs and designer Jeeps. Elegant houses dot the landscape.

To the south, the highway that once cut through sagebrush towards Santa Fe is now lined for miles with motels, garages and shopping malls, scarcely different from those in New Jersey.

But this could be just the beginning. Hitherto Taos has been protected by remoteness. Since the mid-1980s, residents have fought a scheme to expand Taos's airstrip into a proper airport, that would leave Los Angeles just 90 minutes away by commuter jet. If the federal government raises no objection, construction may start next year. There are plans for a dollars 100 million resort development, with a golf course, an arts centre and a 180-room hotel.

Such is progress. Taos does not suffer the water shortages that plague the American West, but unemployment in Taos county is among the highest in New Mexico. Tourism has saved other places. Why not here? Because it effaces the mystique of Taos as the Shangri-La of the south-west. That is what entranced Lawrence.

Take Marilyn and Bert, a professional couple who arrived seven years ago. Now they are ready to leave. 'Everything is changing, this isn't the Taos we wanted to live in,' they said. They hope to move to Alaska. Until the developers get there, too.