Where are the most chilled, liberal human beings on the planet? In a remote corner of Latin America that nestles inside the US border. Jeremy Atiyah boards their earthship

I'm in Taos, New Mexico, chilling, and dropping out. I'm also sniffing the high, desert air for insights into the meaning of life. All these hippies, artists and sundry bohemians: what has drawn them to Taos? Ancient secrets maybe, from the local Indians? That's my assumption. The natives have never been mere nomads, after all. They built proper pueblos (villages) containing adobe houses and adobe temples. And the Taos Pueblo was here before Christopher Columbus born.

I'm in Taos, New Mexico, chilling, and dropping out. I'm also sniffing the high, desert air for insights into the meaning of life. All these hippies, artists and sundry bohemians: what has drawn them to Taos? Ancient secrets maybe, from the local Indians? That's my assumption. The natives have never been mere nomads, after all. They built proper pueblos (villages) containing adobe houses and adobe temples. And the Taos Pueblo was here before Christopher Columbus born.

If that isn't enough to provide an urban dropout like me with some cultural backbone, I don't know what is. But even without the pueblo, there would always be the Hispanics to fall back on. They have lived here in their ranches with their dusty furniture and bleeding Christs, on more or less equal terms with the Indians, for about two centuries longer than the US has existed. Think of the Taos area, in fact, as Latin America's most northerly outpost. From here, in the good old days, it was a 40-day trek along the Camino Real (Royal Way) to Chihuahua, and 70 days to Mexico City.

Which sounds marvellously promising for anyone planning to chill out here. All this talk of antiquity and continuity: it is such an improvement on large cars and automatic icemakers. For people who want orgiastic nights of drumming and dancing around fires and sleeping under stars in a tepee, what could be better? Even the tourists here – I've met tax experts from Nashville and lawyers from Seattle – seem to be poets or painters in their spare time.

As for the people who have dropped out permanently to Taos, these may be among the most liberal, chilled human beings on the planet. They've all been through life's recycling bin a dozen times. First there's Maria and her husband from New York who are building a house in the sage-brush and living in it as they go along ("coyotes sometimes bothered us before we put the walls up"). Then there's Karen who has got into breeding alpacas for fur. Donna who lives in a trailer. Harry the ex-mountaineer. Like me, they all seem to be skint, but unlike me they all know the difference between straw bale houses, passive solar houses, houses built of pallets and houses built of a pumice-cement mix squeezed out of a tube.

"My floor-recipe contains mud, straw, wood ash and a little ox blood."

(That's the kind of thing Karen will say.)

"I live in a half-built house," says Maria.

"She's reading a book which tells you how to build a house," adds Harry.

"The house is turning out like a ship."

"I did all the adobe on my inside walls myself, that's seven tons of brick."

"She peeled the vigas with a potato knife."

"It's great living in a house which changes every day."

This is what people talk about round here. One day Karen and Maria take me to a place called the Greater World Earthship Community on the edge of Taos. "It's a very Taos thing," they explain gently; that is to say, a bunch of houses built of old car tyres and tin cans rammed with earth, where the pot plants are fed by water from the lavatory. "Holy moly, no utility bills," somebody shouts. This is not architecture, but biotechture; these are not houses, but earthships.

Streets on the Greater World Earthship Community have names like Happy Trail and Star Lane. When you ask the inhabitants what they do for a living, they might tell you they make incense-candles, or that they are "in storytelling." Fortunately an earthship costs next to nothing if you have time to build it yourself. What sacrifices do people make to live here, I ask? "Telephone," says someone. "Swimming pool," sighs another.

Such bourgeois weaknesses. By the way, I myself am staying in a b&b that must rank as one of the most olde worlde in the United States. This is the Mabel Dodge Luhan House, no less, in the middle of Taos. The fact that it currently happens to be owned by my wealthy American relatives also fits in with another fine Taos tradition – the high esteem (and patronage) paid by the wealthy to dropouts.

Which brings me on to the subject of Mabel Dodge Luhan herself, who built up this house in the first place. We Brits have hardly heard of her, but all good American Bohemians know her as the wealthy heiress who famously dropped out to Taos in 1918. The most shocking and best part of the story was her marriage to a local pueblo Indian, one Tony Luhan, her fourth and favourite husband.

Although it hasn't yet occurred to me to look for an indigenous wife, I like the sound of this couple. Mabel sometimes ordered Tony to sleep in a tepee in the courtyard downstairs, so that she could creep down for an encounter with a savage at midnight. And in the end Tony and Mabel almost took over Taos. This quiet, conservative community was flooded out with Mabel's designers, cooks, servants, friends and funky acolytes. Tony would drive her to the grocery store and honk the horn for food. And they remained king and queen of northern New Mexico right through to the 1960s.

Their old house? At first glance you see giant cottonwood trees, flat roofs, exposed beams, rounded corners and walls smeared smooth with chocolate-brown plaster. Then you see the courtyards, cloisters, solariums, ceramic cockerels and petroglyph stones. I call it a pueblo in itself; an adobe empire on the hill.

And when you step inside, the US might as well not have happened. It's cool and rustic, with crooked doorways and cavernous fireplaces and creaking floorboards and twirling columns and rickety staircases. People sit drinking afternoon tea. No wonder an American equivalent to the Bloomsbury Group once chose to coalesce here. Back in the 1920s, on Mabel's invitation, urban sophisticates were rolling up in their motor cars to chill out with Indians and sit on bear skins and paint and write and marvel at the biblical simplicity and savage light and arid landscapes. Among many others, D H Lawrence, Georgia O'Keefe and Ansel Adams were soon on their way. A movement had been born.

And that's the movement I am still trying to drop out to, right now. But what wisdom can I acquire from these artistic connections? Possibly (I am advised) I should try visiting an upstairs bathroom known as the "D H Lawrence bathroom."

This enigma concerns a bathroom designed with big windows and no curtains because Mabel (up here) and the local Indians (down there) wanted a good view of one another while she bathed. But Lawrence, when he arrived, was too uptight for such gratuitous exhibitionism. So he insisted on painting the bathroom windows over with ducks and chickens and stars and suns before taking his clothes off. These windows, I notice, are maintained to this day with as much devotion as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

But I'm not sure that Lawrence provides a benchmark to which I should be aspiring. Yes, he was a kind of dropout. But he also spent his time in Taos writing intense essays on the subject of Indian rituals and Indian religion. He definitely did not chill. The few who still can, recall him as a nasty, self-important little theorist. And to this day, I find people round here gossiping maliciously about what really happened to his ashes: Lawrence's wife Frieda, and Mabel, together, are rumoured to have eaten them for breakfast, mixed into a dish of scrambled eggs. Maybe that's the fate of people who bring their introspective preoccupations to Taos.

With this warning in mind, I decide to explore the town, in search of different inspirations. Is Taos beautiful? Yes. Huge spaces open to distant mountains. "But the rich are building on the hills!" locals keep telling me. "And the poor are building on the mesa!" They can hardly bear thinking about issues like this, until pressed, when they'll admit it: that 25 years ago more than 90 per cent of the population of Taos was Hispanic or Indian. That figure is now falling like a stone dropped from the Rio Grande Bridge.

And my main impression of the town centre today is of a dusty, traffic-jammed highway lined by fast food outlets and parking lots.

Nor is there anything very alternative about the latest immigrants to Taos. These days it's mainly Americans looking for holiday homes. People like Donald Rumsfeld and Julia Roberts for instance. It's getting almost as commercial as the state capital, Santa Fe. "Art" is no longer the refuge of bohemians, but big business, with every second store functioning as a gallery to display local styles. And the main square, which in the old days enclosed saloon bars, mule wagons and men in villainous hats, now comprises boutiques selling curios and gifts.

In some ways, the meaning of life is as elusive in Taos as in any other town in America. How did this happen? How did we get from Mabel Dodge Luhan to Julia Roberts? What, I ask myself, came in between?

I haven't gone into the 1960s yet. But that confused decade soon saw hippies cruising along Route 66 into New Mexico, singing Dylan and shouting "Far Out!" as they came. Perhaps word had escaped that the Indians had a religious tradition of getting high on peyote. Anyway, New Age extended families and naked roving kids were soon crowding in. Communes opened. And finally the dreaded film-maker and actor Dennis Hopper moved into the Mabel Dodge Luhan House.

Let's not be too hard on Hopper. The trouble was that by the 1970s, you had to be so much nastier to maintain anti-establishment credentials than you did in the 1920s. So when Hopper reached Taos, he sold all the original furniture, tried to cut Mabel's bed in half with a chainsaw, dropped lots of acid, waved guns around and beat up innumerable women. Before long, by some accounts, Taos was a hotbed of riff-raff involved in dodgy communal living, public nudity and drug-taking. The Hispanics were outraged and the Indian culture was giving up the ghost; the old men in traditional blanket wraps were just about all gone by the time Hopper cleared out.

Since which time (it now occurs to me), Taos has gone in a reactionary direction. The hippie instincts are not gone but my chilled friends building homes with their bare hands have their backs to the wall. When I visit Cid's Organic Food Store, I find grass juice for sale, whole-wheat couscous, raw organic Brazil nuts and brown rice crisps. But everything is expensive. "When you know who you are," states a message posted on the wall, "you enter rapid learning and peak efficiency..."

Is this supposed to be an ancient secret? Or have I been looking in the wrong places? One day I drive off down a dusty track to the impoverished Pueblo, where a young Indian is explaining what "his people" have been through at the hands of colonialists. We're standing in a clean and tidy village square, scattered with stones and sleeping dogs. Brown adobe dwellings are heaped up around me; a sign outside one house announces "Real Indian stuff for sale". I follow a pair of tourists wandering through back alleys, peering through people's doors. "We just want to see what Indians eat," I hear them murmur, in front of a house. A girl's voice calls out: "I like peas but my mum hates 'em."

Over there, meanwhile, in an area forbidden to tourists, are the mysterious kivas, temple-pits in the ground, accessed by long ladders. It has been whispered darkly that the kiva ceremonies are no longer serious; that particpants get drunk and forget their duties. But right now I am intrigued by those pairs of poles, the extended tops of ladders, projecting from the ground like insect antennae.

Any sign of the meaning of life? A faint mist is certainly lifting off the mountains. And there's that smell of wild sage in the air again. No, I haven't found the elusive ancient wisdom yet, but Taos – to its credit – is still trying to give me a clue.

The facts

Getting There

Jeremy Atiyah flew to New Mexico as a guest of American Airlines (0845-778 9789; www.americanairlines.co.uk). Fares from London Gatwick to Albequerque, New Mexico, via Dallas/Fort Worth, start at £381 return.

Being There

At the Mabel Dodge Luhan House (001-505 751 9686; www.mabeldodgeluhan.com), 240 Morada Lane, Taos, New Mexico, double rooms start from $110 (£73) to $160 (£106) per night in the main house, $85 (£56) per night in the more modern guest house on the grounds, or $200 (£133) per night for the Gate Lodge, which has two bedrooms.

Further information

New Mexico tourist information, 01329-665 777; www.newmexico.org.

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