Last July, while my plane descended near the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, northeast of Taos, New Mexico, a towering plume of smoke rose from a 5,400-acre wildfire. Five-story flames shot up from piñon pines. The scent of scorched sagebrush filled the air like some colossal, age-old cleansing ritual. Watching the Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) foothills burning in the background, it seemed an eerie, biblical welcome for my visit to El Monte Sagrado, which means "the sacred mountain" in Spanish.
With its peeled beams, sunset-orange casitas, and junior suites facing a central courtyard, the new 36-room resort and spa on the outskirts of Taos looks typically Southwestern at first glance. Ancient cottonwoods rustle in the breeze. Artisan-forged ironwork sconces and railings are modeled after delicate lilies and branches. Taking its cue from traditional Pueblo kivas, or underground ceremonial chambers, the circular lobby has stacked sandstone walls, a wood-burning fireplace, and a high-domed ceiling with pinprick lighting that resembles a constellation.
A closer look reveals a four-acre laboratory for sustainable living, where guests can escape the energy-guzzling mainstream and experience America's newest environmentally conscious hotel. At El Monte, every day is like Earth Day. "In five years, we plan to be one hundred percent off the grid, using only clean wind-and-solar power," Thomas E. Worrell Jr., the mastermind of this "green" hotel, told me when I visited in July. "I want El Monte to be a zero net user." Considering last August's cascading blackout, which knocked out electrical transmission from Ohio to Ontario, Worrell's alternative-power message was prophetic. Sadly, it takes an interruption of this magnitude to jolt us from a complacent "always on" attitude toward energy, not to mention other precious resources. Unlike unplugged parts of the globe—Costa Rica, Tanzania, Fiji—where eco-sensitive devices such as solar-heated showers and composting toilets are essential for operation, American hotels and resorts have only recently embraced the practices of recycling and reusing towels.
With his shaggy mane and turquoise necklace, Worrell looks like a hippie; but in 1978, at the age of 32, he acquired his family's publishing empire, Worrell Newspapers, in a leveraged buyout. Shifting his focus to cultures, environmentalism and historic-preservation issues, he established subsidiary companies to promote "green building" and showcased techniques such as chlorine-free pools and chemical-free wastewater recycling at Sundy House Resort, in Delray Beach, Florida. The four-year-old inn was the precursor of his grander visionary eco-resort in Taos, where Worrell has created what he calls "a signpost for escaping the vicious circle of polluting and making war on the earth." If nothing else, it's certainly a signpost for the eco-hotel trend—paying lip service to environmental concerns simply for their feel-good value is no longer sufficient. And as it turns out, a heightened conscience doesn't necessarily conflict with 24-hour room service.
Historically, Taos has been a magnet for iconoclasts, a last stagecoach stop for frontiersmen like Kit Carson and refugees from Haight-Ashbury. In this corner of the country, Pueblo ceremonial drums are sold alongside chakra crystals, and a recent voter referendum overruled the building of a Wal-Mart supercenter. When Worrell first came in 1997, he spruced up several ramshackle adobes in the historic district, established a nonprofit sanctuary for indigenous spirituality, and funded a new school. Despite initial suspicions about outsider largesse, Taoseños eventually accepted him as one of their own.
Most of the innovative energy and design solutions at El Monte are cleverly disguised. The trout ponds and waterfalls that wrap around the casitas are part of a natural wastewater treatment system that starts in a "biolarium," where tropical plants, snails, and friendly microorganisms filter the resort's effluent through hydroponic reactors. Think giant plastic garbage cans. Worrell originally wanted to put this "living machine" in the lobby but was convinced by his architects that such an arrangement might be too aggressive. (Few eco-hotels dare to be so public about their drainage.) Discreetly housed in a tented structure, the biolarium looks remarkably like an inoffensive greenhouse filled with dainty orchids, irises, and cinnamon trees. And it smells just as nice.
A welded-steel tree sculpture in a corner of the courtyard holds a collection of 10-watt photovoltaic panels. Given that it's always sunny in the Rio Grande Valley, additional trees and the larger solar arrays installed atop shaded walkways will eventually free the resort from dependency on external electrical resources. Seven casitas are traditional adobe; the rest were built with compressed-earth blocks and fire-resistant Gunnash, a proprietary mix of sand, cement, and ash waste from coal power plants. (I defy you to spot any difference.) Reducing reliance on fossil fuels and chemical coolants, an aquifer geo-exchange system regulates the temperature of guest rooms: cool water is drawn up from wells and circulated over metal grilles to effectively dispel hot air. Borrowing a trick that's been used in high desert regions for centuries, a roof catchment system directs storm-water runoff to underground cisterns.
Of course, El Monte's save-the-planet mantra may be too preachy for those who simply want to savor margaritas and sleep on Turkish cotton sheets. A full-page drainage lecture in the guest handbook seems excessive. (Who's going to dump salt down the casita sink?) The hotel fleet includes a hybrid car that charges in the parking lot, right next to two big Suburbans with the company logo on the door panels. (Busted!) And the spiritual message gets a little muddled: Tibetan prayer flags, Native American dreamcatchers, Day of the Dead icons. Maybe El Monte just welcomes whatever blessings pass down the metaphysical pike. Then again, I was thrilled by the chlorine-free pool—a chemical alternative keeps your skin from itching or smelling like a science experiment. Ditto the hot-tub sanitation: El Monte drains, cleans, and refills the tub with clean water for every new guest. And if you're really fascinated with the resort's bio-system, a guide will walk you through the site.