A few days before Christmas in 1923, D.H. Lawrence hosted a dinner party for friends in a private room at the Café Royal in London. He dubbed it the Last Supper. The other diners – all old friends – were familiar with his mood that evening. He was excited, buoyant, persuasive. He had a new enthusiasm.
Lawrence had made a trip to New Mexico the previous year, and had been smitten. “The moment I saw the brilliant proud morning shine high up over the desert of Santa Fe”, he wrote, “something stood still in my soul.”
For some years Lawrence had been dreaming of founding a new community, a Utopian society. Over toasts in the Café Royal, he persuaded his fellow diners that New Mexico was the place – the ideal setting for his dream community.
The wine flowed, the dreams of a new world were shared enthusiastically and they all agreed to join him the following spring in building a new Utopia in that clear desert air, where the horizons went on forever. On waves of inebriated enthusiasm, the evening ended messily. Lawrence had to be poured into a cab. Among confused farewells, the poorest member of the party was left to pick up the tab for the evening.
I came to New Mexico on the old Santa Fe Trail, climbing up from the western staging post of Cimmaron. On a back road near Taos, not far from the Lawrence Ranch, where the writer’s ashes are now enshrined, I stopped the car and got out. The wind carried the scent of sage and pine. The sense of space was thrilling. Westward across the plateau, beyond the deep canyon of the Rio Grande, lay the austere, mineral-streaked faces of the San Juan Mountains. North, above sun-bleached foothills, were the forested flanks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
“There are all kinds of beauty”, Lawrence wrote. “But for greatness of beauty I have never experienced anything like New Mexico.”
Lawrence was not the first traveller to be overwhelmed by those regions of New Mexico, centred around the old Spanish colonial towns of Santa Fe and Taos. Georgia O’Keeffe, arriving in 1929, described the landscapes as “beautiful, untouched [and] lonely… a fine part of what I call the ‘Faraway'”. She spent the next 57 years painting the faraway and her museum, just off the main square in Santa Fe, underlies her importance as one of America’s greatest figurative painters. Late portraits of O’Keeffe show a face that came to resemble her beloved landscape: weathered, austere and beautiful.
Ansel Adams, the great American landscape photographer, couldn’t get enough of New Mexico’s grandeur and stark clarities. Millicent Rogers, model, socialite, and heiress to the Standard Oil fortune, wondered: “Why has no one ever told me about this place?”, when she arrived in the 1940s. She spent much of the rest of her life in Taos; her ravishing adobe home is now a museum, showcasing one of America’s most valuable collections of native American art. Dennis Hopper, one of a number of Hollywood stars who moved to Taos, made it the centre of his creative life, building a solid reputation here as a painter and photographer. He liked the fact that no one in Taos cared who he was.
These days people from all over America dream of new lives in New Mexico, among the cottonwoods and the aspens, in one of those charming adobe houses with distressed leather sofas and native Navajo rugs. Santa Fe regularly tops lists as one of the most fashionable cities in America and Taos remains a mecca for artists, writers, photographers, and musicians. The arrivals have brought new lifestyles. In Taos they say there is a massage therapist for every thirty inhabitants, and you can sign up for acupuncture, gestalt therapy or Indian drumming at the supermarket check-out. Santa Fe, with a population of only 70,000, is said to have over 200 restaurants.
But part of New Mexico’s appeal has always been its strong native American tradition. In Santa Fe, I browsed through the continent’s oldest market – the indigenous jewellers, potters, and wood carvers who have been spreading their wares in the arcades of the 17th century Palace of the Governors for several centuries. Up on windswept Museum Hill, overlooking the town and those austere mountains, the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture offers a canter through the different south-western Indian cultures – Navajo, Comanche, Apache, Pai, Ute and Pueblo – displaying works of art that belong to a stunning and ancient tradition. Just outside Taos is Taos Pueblo, a traditional indigenous adobe village that has been continuously occupied for almost 2,000 years by the Pueblo Indians; while some fifty miles to the south is the Bandelier National Monument, an ancient Indian settlement, first occupied in the 1100s. In water-scoured Frijoles Canyon, I followed trails along the riverbank, between the ancient dwellings, excavated in the cliff faces and accessed by ladders. The only sound was water and wind. It felt like an innocent Eden.
It was Mabel Dodge, heiress, cultural magpie and world traveller, who first introduced Lawrence to Taos. Arriving soon after the First World War, she was fascinated by the Pueblo Indians, still in native dress and still intimately connected to a pre-European world.
She immediately left her second husband and married Tony Luhan, one of the Pueblo Indians, whose courtship seems to have consisted of setting up a tepee in her garden and drumming every night. She eventually came to him in his tepee, though possibly only to get him to pipe down. Like many marriages with inauspicious beginnings, it worked. They were together for forty years.
When Lawrence returned to Taos a few months after the Café Royal dinner, the other diners had apparently abandoned the dream of Utopia. He was accompanied only by his wife Frieda and Lady Dorothy Brett, a Lawrence stalwart. The three acquired a ranch from Mabel, in exchange for the manuscript of Sons and Lovers. It wasn’t a great deal. The ranch was worth $1,000. Mabel would eventually sell the manuscript for $50,000 to pay her psychiatrist.
Utopia turned out to be a quiet affair. The three lived happily in a couple of log cabins. Lawrence wrote and went for long rides, drinking in the landscape. Illness would eventually force his return to return to Europe, and in 1930 he died in the south of France. But a few years later, his wife, Frieda, arranged to have his ashes brought to Taos to a small chapel on the ranch. It is where he wanted to be, under those tall New Mexican skies where “the stars snap like distant coyotes beyond the moon.”
Stanley Stewart is the author of three highly acclaimed travel books and several-hundred articles based on journeys across five continents, for which he has won numerous journalism awards. He is a contributing editor of Condé Nast Traveller and his work appears regularly in the Sunday Times. He has also contributed to the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian, the Independent and the Times. He writes for the National Geographic Traveler in the US, the Sunday Times in South Africa and the Australian.