It's been almost nine months since a "real" traffic light supplanted the blinking light north of town. But Taosenos still tell visitors, "go to the blinking light" when giving directions.

That says a lot about the people here. Their mindset isn't readily adaptive to change. However, they're getting into the spirit of things by planning a contest to name the new light."Maybe it should be named `the light formerly known as the blinking light,' " cracks Patty Taylor, marketing director for the Taos County Chamber of Commerce. "Or, `The upstart.' It came in and replaced a perfectly good light."

Unpretentious Taos, which sits in a spectacularly scenic valley in the shadow of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains 70 miles north of Santa Fe, often is compared to the Santa Fe of 50 years ago. Both have "the Plaza," but the one in Taos, founded in 1790 and ringed mostly by curio and T-shirt shops, isn't as integral a part of the town as that in Santa Fe.

Both have hotels named La Fonda, which translates to "the inn" in Spanish. While the one in Santa Fe is where all the locals (and tourists) hang out, the Taos La Fonda has seen better days and is in transition until new owners complete renovation. Instead, the Historic Taos Inn is the living room of Taos, and its Adobe Bar is the locals' gathering place.

Taos will never be Santa Fe, nor does it want to be.

"We're two different communities," Taylor says. "We're just a little sister - a beloved little sister, I hope. We're so much smaller (6,200 population). Santa Fe (60,000 population) will always be the capital of New Mexico."

Just how big Taos should become is always at issue. But then, everything's controversial here.

"That's our pastime," Taylor says.

Although the town's historic district, about six square blocks, has strict zoning rules, there's never been any countywide zoning for the wide open spaces. The philosophy has been, "It's the Old West here. It's my land and I'll do anything I want with it." As a result, parts of town look like a hodgepodge. It wasn't until two years ago that 23 neighborhood associations were formed to attempt to come up with master plans.

Traffic often is congested coming into the center of town, but locals consider that a way of life.

"We're always going to have traffic," Taylor says. "There is some talk about a bypass - make that `alternative route' - but we don't mind slowing down in the traffic for 10 minutes. That's just enough time to give yourself a good grounding meditation."

It's also an opportunity for locals to roll down the windows of their pickup trucks and vans and say "hi" to their friends.

While some visitors think of Taos mostly as a day trip from Santa Fe, there is enough to do and see that Taos easily is a destination unto its own. But more so, Taos is a state of mind. If nothing else, laid-back Taos - a hippie haven in the late 1960s and early 1970s with more than two dozen communes - is great for soaking up its self-proclaimed "soul of the Southwest."

No one here was surprised when the Taos News last spring heralded the fact that Marshall Applewhite, leader of the Heaven's Gate suicide cult, had lived in Taos in the 1970s, working at the bar at Hotel La Fonda and managing the Sunshine Eating Establishment. But, wrote Rick Romancito, "someone was overheard saying that all the attention focused on our community by the press only helps to reinforce an outsider's view that we're `nothing but a bunch of wackos and fruitcakes.' "

Taos has always attracted artists, intellectuals and individuals.

The art movement began serendipitously in 1898. Two young American artists, Ernest Blumenschein and Bert Phillips, were on a sketching trip from Denver to northern Mexico when the wheel of their surrey broke on the mountainous road just north of Taos. They were captivated by the light, landscape and cultures of Taos.

Phillips remained and Blumenschein returned almost every summer until 1919, when he settled permanently. They founded the Taos Society of Artists, a movement to promote more widely the splendor of Taos and the art of the American West.

There's a saying in Taos that "we put more oil on the canvas than we do on our salads."

Taos calculates it has 88 galleries and 1,056 artists, including Navajo painter R.C. Gorman, dubbed "the Picasso of American Indian artists." Locals say he loves to eat out and can be spotted at a corner table at any of the good restaurants in town, especially at lunch time. His Navajo Gallery is in the downtown area at 210 Ledoux St., a few doors from Blumenschein's home, which is a museum maintained much as it was when he and his family were alive.

Mabel Dodge Luhan also left a big mark on Taos, which she considered her newfound Eden. An East Coast socialite, she moved to Taos in 1916 and married her fourth husband, Tony Luhan, a Tewa Indian from the nearby Taos Pueblo. She collected intellectuals and literary types, including D.H. Lawrence - he's buried outside Taos on a ranch where he lived and finished "Lady Chatterly's Lover" - Willa Cather, Georgia O'Keeffe, Ansel Adams, Leopold Stokowski, Martha Graham, Carl Jung and Thomas Wolfe, all of whom spent time at her house.

A blend of Spanish and Pueblo architecture, the rambling house with views of Taos Mountain is a national historic site. It's used as a conference site, bed and breakfast and for workshops and weddings.

One conversation piece is a bathroom window painted by Lawrence, who was worried that window-peepers could see Mabel in her bathtub.

Lawrence did other paintings, signed "Lorenzo," that were banned in London for being erotic and obscene. They now hang in Taos' Hotel La Fonda, which charges $2 to see them. The late hotel owner, Sari Karavas, bought them from the husband of Lawrence's widow and displayed them with framed correspondence he had with a British Labor Party leader.

Karavas, of Greek descent, tried to make a deal to return the paintings to England if England would restore the Elgin Marbles to Greece. The ancient Greek sculptures, most of which were part of the Parthenon at the Acropolis in Athens, were purchased by the British government in 1816 and are exhibited at the British Museum in London. A reply from London informed Karavas that the Elgin Marbles weren't appropriate for quid pro quo bargains, so here hang 10 Lawrence paintings as curiosities.