Following the Manito Trail: Taos, Where the Mountains Meet the Gorge
Dr. Shelli Rottschafer, Ph.D.
Professor of Spanish, Aquinas College, Grand Rapids, MI
Latinx and Chicanx Literature, Film and Gender Studies
Director of the Aquinas Contemporary Writers Series
Institutional Review Board Member
Instructor in the Inquiry and Expression Program
In his text, Taos: Where Two Cultures Met Four Hundred Years Ago, Juan Estevan Arellano, a Manito nuevomexicano and cultural activist, defines a concept that was intrinsic to his upbringing. Querencia “is that which gives us a sense of place, that which anchors us to the land, that which makes us a unique people, for it implies a deeply rooted knowledge of place, and for that reason we respect it as our home. Querencia is a place where one feels safe, a place from which one’s strength of character is drawn”.
For many who call New Mexico home, whether born here or transplanted, the place truly is a “Land of Enchantment.” New Mexico holds you spellbound. One such place is Taos, an ancient intersection of Indigenous, Hispano, Crypto-Jew, Anglo-rancher, and hippy counter cultures where the Sangre de Cristo Mountains meet the Río Grande River Valley. Cutting through the high desert floor, the Río Grande Gorge plunges 650 feet to the chilling, snowmelt-fed river. Decorating the granite cliffs are petroglyphs and pictographs that mark where past peoples have crossed.
In January 2021, my husband Daniel, our twelve-year-old black Golden Retriever rescue Makeda, and I journeyed to this city where the mountains meet the gorge. We rented a condo in a multi-home section of llano in El Prado, one of the small communities north of Taos. Here we would decompress from the year’s COVID turmoil and reconnect with each other, ourselves, and nature.
Daybreak / Amanecer
Mornings in El Prado are met with steaming piñón coffee percolated from the drip-maker. Ceramic mugs at the ready, we take our fur-baby on her constitutional. Out our rented door, down the gravel drive, and onto the sage-lined grated dirt road, she leads us with a leash taut around my outstretched wrist. She smells the earth, the frost on the shrubs glistening in the early sunlight. The rays come over the mountains, snow still lingering in the shadows of their western faces. Makeda sniffs her new territory; her humans notice the unique smells here as well. Wood smoke launches from neighboring chimneys and intermixes with the crisp mountain air.
Across Highway 150, barbed wire and wooden fenceposts separate the asphalt, busy with morning traffic, from horses in their pastures. The horses twitch their ears in our direction as they note our pace through the adjacent field. I want to caress their velvety noses and offer them a handful of the knee-high grass, bent by a past snow and dried by the llano’s winter winds. I cross the road as a chocolate and white Paint leans into a post to scratch her right shoulder. She reaches her neck over the wire and nods her head; I extend my grassy offering, palm open, and her lips nibble at the strands. With my right thumb pressed to my fingers in a meditative Om, I scratch her withers.
Two geldings, their coats black and felt-like, stand at attention and whinny from a safe distance. They recognize our tethered canine leading her humans around sage and chamiso bushes on the opposite side of the road. The dog stalls and Daniel stomps his feet to ward off the cold. I get his wordless point to keep moving and return to my own family band.
Midday / Mediodía
In 2006 I left my “Land of Enchantment” to return to my own querencia in western Michigan. As for so many, however, New Mexico became a sort of “land of entrapment” for me. While it took me a long time to consider it home after moving there for graduate school, it always drew me back after I left. For the past fifteen years, I have been returning to the Southwest, whether to lead students on Chicanx literature fieldtrips, venture with girlfriends to hot spring retreats, participate in academic conferences, take vows in the brightly muraled Santa Fe County Courthouse, or set my personal barometer in one of my favorite places.
Thus now, a decade and a half later, I have returned to this creatively inspired town to play in its mountains and soak in natural springs along its burbling lifeline. Black Rock Hot Springs is accessible to those with four-wheel drive and sure footedness. It’s a single-track path that opens to the Río Grande near the John Dunn Bridge, its steaming pools of water dammed in by large black rocks. Dipping into this soothing liquid is a prize well won and embodies my mid-day bliss.
Sunset / Atardecer
The mountains in New Mexico have a special quality: they turn a rose hue as the sun sets. This has helped create many place names: for example, while exploring the region in 1598 to establish their colonizer settlement, the Spanish Oñate Expedition named the mountains along Albuquerque’s eastern flank the Sandías, after the dusky pink hue dotted by dark piñón tree shadows at sunset that reminded the Spanish of great upside-down watermelon slices. This same phenomenon occurs in Taos, but since the mountains are higher (Wheeler Peak, the highest in New Mexico, reaches 13,167 feet), their slopes are often dusted by snow, making the peaks look like whipped meringue dyed with food coloring.
The monolithic sierra stands guard over the valley below, ever watchful of the people and animals that buzz about her feet. The mountains that meet the gorge have observed the intersectionality that this city has created, creates, and will continue creating beyond me, my small band, and those to come.
As the night skies darken and the day comes to a close, we remember to cherish our sense of place, that which anchors us. This type of connection births a unique people: though we may wander, our wanderlust intuits a rooted knowledge that we respect. This idea, attached to a place such as Taos, enables us to draw upon our strength of character, which honors those before us, those after us, and ourselves.
Querer is the Root
Querer, meaning to love, want, or desire, is the Spanish verb that roots querencia. Herencia, meaning heritage or legacy, is the noun that drives those roots down into the earth and gives it a sense of place. Now that it is Autumn 2021, that love for New Mexico has not faded even though I am back in Michigan.
Los aquerenciados are people who have a love for a particular place that might not be their origin, but it is the setting of their heart. Although I may burn piñón incense from Incenso de Santa Fé, order my Hatch Green chiles each September to arrive carefully packaged in a freezer ready cooler, or clink my fresh, lime-squeezed margarita for a brindis of accomplishment, my heart remains pointed toward a southwestern horizon.
 Arellano, Juan Estevan. 2007. Taos: Where Two Cultures Met Four Hundred Years Ago. Seattle: Grantmakers in the Arts, p. 50.