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Taos, NM
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Elisabeth Brownell

Looking twenty years younger than her actual age, the woman who some call the queen of Taos Mountain, Elisabeth Brownell, makes her home at number 1 Thunderbird Road in Taos Ski Valley. “This is where I live,” she says. “We’ll start at the ‘Bird’s Nest,’” up the narrow spiral staircase that seems to go on forever.

Inside the Brownell Chalet

On the top floor of the queen of Taos Mountain’s home, a door opens on a charming, wood-lined, light-filled space not unlike a Narnia-esque wardrobe, a fairytale world in the Alps, a time outside of time.

Books (some rare first editions) fill the shelves of this cozy suite with its balcony overlooking Al’s Run, the rooms spotless and comfortably appointed with touches reminiscent of the old world. Charmed by this European hospitality, guests return year after year to stay here at the Brownell Chalet.

The rooms of the Chalet where Elisabeth herself has resided since 1971 are similarly light, art filled, and book lined: a retreat from, and a window onto, the world outside her door. Snug and comfortable, it’s very European, very cosmopolitan without being pretentious. This is the home of someone who has lived life well. It’s the home of a well-traveled woman who continues to live her life as if it’s an adventure. (This may, in fact, be the secret to her youthful energy. Still an avid skier, her other passion is the Tango, which she indulges in frequently.)

The home is filled with bibelots, treasures brought home from her travels to Asia, Africa, and all points in between; a carved wooden chandelier from Bali looks right at home hanging above the fireplace mantle. But for the past fifty years, the queen of Taos Mountain has returned here, to her kitchen with its collection of copper pots gleaming in the wintry light and a collection of photographs from decades gone by.

The Queen’s Journey to Taos Mountain

Elisabeth Brownell first arrived in Taos in 1962, shortly after meeting Taos Ski Valley founder Ernie Blake at a Chicago ski convention, which she attended in an attempt to find a winter job at a western ski resort.  She’d come through Chicago once before, in 1960, a young German woman with “wunderlust,” after which she’d found a job with the Girl Scouts in Wisconsin. But winter was on the way, and this Bavarian native longed to ski in the American Rockies.

She heard about the ski convention, met Ernie Blake, and the rest, as they say, is history.

“He told me he’d give me a job as his secretary and as a ski instructor,” she remembers. “But he also said there was very little money to pay me, but he’d give me room and board. . . .‘We have great food [at the St. Bernard], a great mountain, lots of sunshine and great skiing,’ he said, and that was that, I came to Taos for the winter.”

“After that first winter,” she recalls, “Fred Fair [a long time Taos resident] invited me to go with him to Mexico for the summer. He had a plane and I was a bit nervous so I asked a few people whether I should go. . . .I was told by everyone that although he was a terrible driver, he was a fine pilot, so I went! . . .We even landed on a beach once,” she reminisces. “It was a great adventure.”

She returned to Taos for one more winter season and met her future husband, Tom Brownell. But it wasn’t until after she’d returned to Germany, and after a long-distance courtship, that they were married in Munich in 1966. They moved to Chicago and, in 1968, bought the Thunderbird Lodge in Taos Ski Valley. Their son, Christof, was born that same year, and that year too, they built the Brownell Chalet.

The Glory Days of the Thunderbird Lodge

In 1970, they came to Taos to manage the Thunderbird Lodge after their manager had left. Their second child, Marcus, was born, and they moved into their newly built home with their two children. 

Over the years, the Brownells hosted a number of prominent guests. “This is of Jimmy Carter and his family,” she says, placing a framed picture of the former president on the table. “He is a lovely man.” The Carter family stayed at the Thunderbird Lodge one winter along with four Secret Service officers. Elisabeth recalls, “I remember . . .they’d check out the room, then sit off to the side unobtrusively. . . .When I met him, I asked him how I should address him. He replied, ‘Oh please call me Jimmy’. . . .He was such a humble man.”

Another famous guest who stands out in her mind was the son of a president; the late John F. Kennedy, Jr. stayed at the Thunderbird with a couple of friends right before passing his bar exams.

“He was totally real and unpretentious,” she says. “One night they sat down at a communal table, and I asked if they’d prefer a private one, but he declined and stayed right where he was.”

“Neither Tom nor I had any experience running a ski lodge,” Elisabeth admits, “and we learned by trial and error, but hard work and cooperation with other lodgings in the Ski Valley helped create a spirit of community that carried over to our guests and employees. We did it for 35 years and I think our warm hospitality, great food and entertainment kept people coming back year after year.” In fact, it’s said that Chef Chuck Lamendola’s food at the Thunderbird was so fabulous that people would make the trip from town to eat there, even in a swirling snowstorm. 

The couple also started a jazz festival, bringing world-class jazz legends to Taos Ski Valley for many years until Tom’s health began to fail, and they decided to sell the Thunderbird. “It took ten years,” Elisabeth says.

The Brownell Chalet Today

Elisabeth’s memories of the early years at Taos Ski Valley are precious reminders of how fast time speeds by, of the changes we are seeing up on the mountain daily since the resort has been sold, remodeled, and reinvented. (The late Taos writer Bill Whaley’s book Gringo Lessons is a must read for anyone wanting to know more about the history of the resort.) 

These days, the queen of Taos Mountain, with the help of her son Christof, hosts at the Brownell Chalet many of the same guests that used to stay at the Thunderbird. “They have become like family,” she says. “But I also very much enjoy the younger guests who have started to come.”

And they, in turn, are delighted to find themselves in the company of this truly extraordinary woman, this one of a kind, totally divine, undisputed queen of Taos Mountain.