Trail Of The Unexpected: How one man brought skiing to New Mexico

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The Independent Travel

The United States is a big country: the amount of ground between New York and Los Angeles is such that entire states can be off the beaten track. Take New Mexico: clearly, a beaten track runs through it, since Gallup, New Mexico features in "Route 66"; but what goes on beyond its verges is a bit of a mystery.

According to the state licence plate, it is a "Land of Enchantment". If you take "enchanted" to mean "possessed by witches or spirits", one of the definitions in The Chambers Dictionary, that makes a sort of sense: in Roswell, New Mexico has what is apparently the premier US destination for visiting extra-terrestrials. But in my experience, "Expect the Unexpected" would be a more appropriate slogan for New Mexicans' cars.

Skiing was the purpose of my visit; and to arrive with ski boots at Albuquerque airport was to feel like one of those travellers confused by airport codes or place names who end up thousands of miles from their intended destination.

Even on the approach to Taos Ski Valley, across a high plateau north of Santa Fe, there appeared little prospect of any skiing nearby. However a man named Ernie Blake, flew across the snow-covered, 12,481ft Kachina Peak; and he resolved to create a ski area there, despite the fact that, as he said, "everybody knew New Mexico was a desert state full of snakes but with no snow". Taos Ski Valley opened in 1955, and Blake ran it until his death 33 years later.

Taos itself, the small town that lies 20 miles down the hill, was established somewhat earlier, in 1615 – and its history as a native American settlement goes back a further 600 years. There is still a pueblo nearby, with a very big pick-up truck at its entrance to remind inquisitive motorists of the meaning of "reservation".

The town is more welcoming. Many of its residents are late-60s people, in ideology and sometimes in age. An artists' colony early in the 20th century (DH Lawrence and Georgia O'Keeffe worked there), it subsequently became known as a hippie commune, particularly when the actor Dennis Hopper moved in soon after starring in Easy Rider.

Blake never believed in making skiers too comfortable. Taos Ski Valley got its first chairlift in 1962, somewhat against his wishes; he liked the old drag-lift because "it was much more difficult. It kept poor skiers off the mountain". And the track up through the forest from Taos became a road only in 1972.

While not aspiring to luxury, the place has become more customer-friendly in recent decades; but it retains a stubborn, gnarly character. In its positive sense, this means that the skiing is pleasantly old-fashioned. Grooming is limited, pistes are narrow, and the most characteristic terrain is in bowls, dotted with trees and other hazards.

The negative aspect lies in the self-regarding nature of the skiers. Visitors have to harden themselves to sitting on chairlifts with locals who proclaim Taos Ski Valley to be the world's finest winter-sports area, and who respond to "Where else have you skied?" as if it were a stupid question: "Why would I ski anywhere else when I have this place on my doorstep?"

Presumably it was one of these backwoodsmen who paraded an image of Ernie Blake weeping tears of blood around the lift-base in mid-March. Taos Ski Valley had abandoned its "no snowboarders" rule, in preparation for a whole season of cohabitation in 2008/9. It led the state police to mobilise half a dozen units, and four Forest Service Rangers to patrol the slopes, both exceptional occurrences in a ski area. In the event, no trouble occurred.

By all accounts, the snowboarders were happy with the slopes, even if the reputation of Taos Ski Valley as a tough place to ski or board is somewhat exaggerated – as anyone who has also skied the upper slopes of Crested Butte, less than 200 miles away in Colorado, will know. Down at the lift base there is a sign which reads: "Don't panic. We have many easy runs too!" The sign does stand alongside the bottom of a steep, bumpy pitch below the lift. But lift-line skiing is commonly difficult; and just behind some trees is a very gentle route to the base. Few of the prepared pistes – even those rated black – are alarming.

The challenging stuff is off-piste in the bowls, where you would expect it. Intermediates should not venture into the highest areas; but the lower bowls would cause panic only among the inexperienced. As in most ski areas, you can choose whether to make it tough or take it easy, a choice widened for this season, with a new, 400ft slope for beginners (described as "the flattest terrain ever offered") and an expert-only run giving access to a new pitch of steep tree-skiing.

There will be other changes this season. For example, you might hear on a chairlift that Taos Ski Valley is the world's finest winter-sports area – from a boarder (who, unless he or she is a complete beginner, will at least have been to one other area). But much will stay the same: this is not a flighty place. The Blake family still owns it, and personnel turnover is low: one ski-school instructor retired last season after 37 years' service, and a veggieburger I ordered a few seasons ago was flipped not by a ski bum but by hotelier Jean Mayer, hired as a ski instructor in 1957. For repeat visitors, the unexpected can become happily familiar.

Taos Ski Valley (001 866 968 7386; skitaos.org) is expected to open on 27 November. Single-day lift-passes start from $40/£27 (child, 7-12) to $66/£44 (adult). The only major tour operator offering packages from the UK to Taos is Ski Dream (0845 277 3333; skidream.com). There are another half a dozen ski areas in New Mexico: see skinewmexico.com for details

STATE LINES: New Mexico

Population: 1.8 million
Area: 1.6 times the size of Wales
Capital: Santa Fe
Date in Union: 6 January 1912
Flower: Yucca
Motto: "It grows as it goes"
Nickname: Land of Enchantment

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