Jun 11, 2006

WHERE WILLA AND WESTERN HISTORY WENT WRONG
TAOS, New Mexico –  Don't mention Willa Cather in Taos. Really. Just don't. The question "do you have a copy of Death Comes to the Archbishop" is nearly explosive as Germans asking a British tabloid: "where does this hatred come from?"

Ole Willa, apparently, didn't do her homework. The classic 1927 novel – based on just a few weeks' journey – fingered the wrong bad guy, according to locals.

Gordon Johnston sets me straight over a plate of homemade brownies. He's an amateur historian and proprietor of the Little Tree Inn, along with his wife Maggie. Their bed-and-breakfast – rumored to be the only 100% adobe one in the States – is the best I've experienced. Ever. Anywhere. The landscape, decor, cuisine, camaraderie and charismatic animals somehow blur into the sublime, all appropriately chiaroscuro from the legendary light of Taos, New Mexico.

"What stories haven't been told?" I ask Gordon. Because I want to return and linger here, plundering his research library ... maybe while nibbling some of that mango-chutney-drenched Brie they leave under cheesecloth for peckish guests ...

He tells of battles, their fields long lost in the scrublands. Whiskey smugglers and gun runners elevated to territorial government posts. Railway barons and dodgy land grants. Humble farmers rising against corrupt officials. The true tale of Billy the Kid.

"He didn't drink, he went to Sunday School," Gordon protests. "OK, he was a bit of a juvenile delinquent: he stole laundry when he was 14. But he never robbed a bank or a stagecoach.

"Billy decides he's an outlaw, but the outlaws kick him out. He goes from family to family, begging to be taken in. Finally he was hired to be a cowboy and got caught in some ugly events.

"He wasn't a bad kid. And he certainly wasn't a gunslinger."

Enough, enough. I'm sold. I'll return. I may never leave.

Actually, I was sold when I discovered the excuse never to read Willa Cather again...

But don't tell the Johnstons or they may cut off the encouraging supply of white-chocolate scones.

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