This small town in the high desert country of southwestern New Mexico is one place Americans can go to breathe clean air.

Inhaling is an experience. The air is cool and crisp, tinged with sweetness. It leaves an afterthought: So this is what clean air smells like.This is the kind of air that helped to change the demographics of the United States in decades past, as millions of Americans trekked west to places such as Phoenix and Tucson in search of a clean environment and a comfortable lifestyle.

That was 20 or 30 years ago. Today, the air in Phoenix and Tucson is so polluted that some residents feel betrayed.

"This is an unhealthy place to live," said Elizabeth Blaul, who moved to Phoenix 20 years ago from Fort Dodge, Iowa. "I have pains in my lungs, and I'm not a smoker."

Blaul, a retired physiotherapist, thinks people are silly to retire in Phoenix, especially if they have health problems. She is selling two homes there and moving 90 miles away into the mountains "so I can breathe clean air."

It is a goal that many health-conscious Americans still believe important. But where can one find clean air in a country blighted by pollution?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says it only keeps lists of dirty-air towns. But Ron White, air conservation manager for the American Lung Association in New York, says there are plenty of unpolluted areas left in the United States, but one has to hunt for them. Usually they are in rural communities.

"First of all, you want to stay away from large metropolitan areas," he said, where the air often is filled with pollution.

"Second, you should stay away from large sources of air pollution like power utilities, smelters and steel mills," he said. These sometimes are found in rural areas, he added, so "it involves a little bit of research to find in advance what kind of air quality problems exist in an area."

State environmental protection agencies can be helpful.

Deming, about 60 miles from Las Cruces and near the Mexican border, fits the profile of a clean-air locale. Founded in 1881 as a key railroad town, it now has a cotton gin and two chili-packaging plants. The population is 12,500, and half the inhabitants are retirees.

At the Deming-Luna County Chamber of Commerce, Sharon Henderson says people come to Deming for clean air, the climate and the delicious-tasting water. The town's sanitarian, Mary Alice Black, moved to Deming from West Chicago, Ill., in 1971 because her husband suffered from emphysema.

"It did work," she said.

Bill Klinefelter of the National Wildlife Federation, which reports environment trends, insists "much of the West is still very much like" Deming. He listed cities in Montana, Idaho, North Dakota, South Dakota and parts of Utah and Nevada that fit the bill.

But according to Dr. David Cugell, professor of lung diseases at Northwestern University, lung patients often cannot tolerate cold temperatures found in portions of the West. As a result, the elderly or infirm often seek gentler climes.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Cugell said, doctors sometimes urged their patients to go west to avoid infectious diseases, such as streptococcus infections, which may lead to rheumatic fever and permanent heart damage, that are commonly found in heavily polluted cities.

While the advent of antibiotics after World War II largely ended that threat, Cugell said moving west "is still applicable for people with asthma, not because the air is cleaner but because of the lack of humidity."

"It is the kind of air, not the purity," he said.

Growing concerns over air quality have prompted David Savageau to consider including it as a factor in his guide to the best places to live.

Savageau, who runs a relocation consulting firm in Gloucester, Mass., co-authored a book that compares the quality of life in 329 metropolitan areas where 75 percent of Americans live. He is planning to include air quality data in the next edition.

This is not to say, however, that clean air ranks as a top concern of families planning to move.

"I have clients that are being transferred by their employers," he said. "They are most concerned about cost of living, school quality and the outlook for employment or education for the spouse. Issues such as crime, the juicy matters of life and death, they don't come up."

Possibly it is because the families are young, and Savageau does not see the growing number of people who are retiring early and seeking a better place to live.

A final word of warning comes from White of the American Lung Association.

"People with allergies ought to think about the kind of vegetation they will find in other parts of the country," he said. "I've heard of cases where people moved to the Southwest 10 or 25 years ago and now are developing problems because the plants they were running away from were planted by their neighbors for ornamental uses."