This lovely adobe town may be the dropout capital of upper-middle-class America civilization, the venue of last resort for lives that weren't working in more conventional climes.

Since the 1960s, Santa Fe and Taos just to the north have filled up with people fleeing New York, Los Angeles and even Athens, Tex., who find some solace in this gaping desert landscape. These are not the acid-popping freaks who made this area a hippie mecca, but conventionally upward-mobile Americans who just decided to drop out.

These people are now a prominent part of the local population. A lot of them have ended up here in new upward-mobile careers. A lot have contracted melancholia, which becomes evident when they start talking about old lives v. new ones. But it is a complex melancholia, tinged with civil boosterism. A visitor hears a lot of boasting, a lot of local pride about what a great place Santa Fe is to drop out into. After listening to the bragging, one wouldn't be surprised to see Santa Fe adopt a new town motto:

John Ehrilcihamn Dropped Out Here.

So did Peter Gould, a man like Ehrilichman in one important respect: The energies loosed in America by "The Sixties" (in other words, by the Vietnam war) transformed both of their lives.

Those energies weren't new. The idea of dropping out of competitive daily life for some simpler pattern of existence is as old as America. But the '60s concentrated that enegy, and Vietnam pushed people into radical choices that they might not have made otherwise. The pressures inside the Nixon White House and inside Peter Gould of Athens, Tex., were remarkably alike.

Gould is now 43. As a young man just getting out of college, he found himself selling life insurance long before he knew what he wanted to do with his life. He sold a lot of insurance, and it is easy to see why. He is handsome, pleasant, reassuring, with a gentle East Texas drawl and southern manners. Soon he was making a lot of money and becoming "a real Texas wheeler-dealer." He owned property, became president of the Athens Rotary Club, began to raise money to buy a bank.

Gould was swept up in the causes of the '60s. He was active in politics as a liberal Democrat; he protested against the war, gave money to black groups, contributed to the Civil Liberties Union to help Athens high school students mount a court challenge to school rules requiring them to shave off their beards.

By 1970, he says, he was worn out: "I was an alcoholic, bored and boring."

But it took his then-wife to propose a dramtic change. She suggested that he had made enough money, wheeled and dealed enough too, and could try something else. They'd been to Santa Fe on a vacation trip and liked it. Why not move out there?

Did you read 'Passages'?" Gould asked during a recent conversation, referring to Gail Sheehy's book. "A lot of what I was feeling was in that book" -- an early-30s midlife crisis. He liked the idea of Santa Fe, though his marriage collapsed just five months after they first arrived here in 1970.

Gould became a carpenter and a chimney maker, working for $2 an hour. He experimented -- "you know, all that urban renewal stuff, spiritualism and gestalt theory. . . I did all that, because I just had to see if there was something I didn't know about it." So he tried acid, and astrology, and a lot more.

After more than five years, Gould's life began to settle down again. He became proficeint as a carpenter and woodworker, and began to make furniture. He married a well-known local potter, a Santa Fe native whose mother runs the town's best and most expensive restaurant.

Together they bought an old Spanish ranch in a little village 20 miles from Santa Fe. "We named it Quarter Mill Farm," Gould said -- "that's what we owe on it." The place included a big house for them and seven other old buildings that Gould has been remodeling for rental. His wife hopes to turn the place into an artists' colony.

What about Gould's place in the great American parade -- had he been part of some enduring change in the country? "I like to think I was involved in something that really moved humanity along," he replied. "Maybe I was."

Eric Sloane, 76, the popular Connecticut landscape artist whose mural of space decorates Washington's Air and Space Museum, has just built a fabulous new house on a hilltop outside Santa Fe. He has been coming to New Mexico since the 1920s: "Out here you become aware of the sky," Sloane said. "You become aware of your wife."

But he really prefers Connecticut, where he does most of his painting. He thinks there is too much social life and too much gossip in Santa Fe now. "Here I feel like Thoreau in Palm Beach," Sloane said with a grin.

At a Santa Fe dinner party attended only by people who have come here from somewhere else, a visitor from the East provoked a conversation about the allure of the place, and about how the guests felt about their decisions to move here. There were three writers present, two lawyers, a painter, an art gallery owner and a divorced mother.

It was a sprited conversation that revealed quite a few differences of opinion. For example, Douglas Kent Hall, a successful writer and photographer from New York, waxed on at length about the spiritual qualities of northern New Mexico, the special appeal of the mountins and desert here. He sounded something like a tourist brochure for what New Mexico's license plates proclaim: "The Land of Enchantment." f

But Bill Benton, former dean of the Portland School of Art, now owner of a Santa Fe gallery and a poet, said it ought to be renamed: He preferred "Land of Entrapment." "I feel stuck here," Benton said. "I'm happy, but I'm not fond of it."

"I keep saying circumstances keep me here," agreed Anna Walton, whose marriage -- like many others -- broke up soon after she moved to Santa Fe. "But they've kept me here for an awful long time."

Bob Mayer wrote a column about New York City for the Long Island paper Newsday before he moved here to write novels. Traditionally, people like him went to New York and found a garret in Greenwich Village, Mayor observed. "Now your garret in Greenwich Village costs you $1,200 a month" -- Santa Fe is cheaper. "A lot of people who were in the '60s were exhausted and frustrated by 1970," Mayer said. "A lot of them decied to go to Santa Fe."

Mayer's wife is Carol Mothner, a painter. "I'm out here because I can make a living here," she said. (The town is famous for a huge number of art galleries that support painters like Mothner). "You know," she said a moment later, "you can't get Chinese food in Santa Fe."

"This is some sort of a holy grail out here," said John Bigelow, a California lawyer who fled a big San Francisco firm to come out here four years ago, initially without a job. Bigelow has dropped back in now -- a common phenomenon among Santa Fe's dropouts -- and is the director of the State of New Mexico's Public Defender program. He talks about maybe moving on in a year or two -- perhaps to the East.

Bigelow has started to think about the practical aspects of life in Santa Fe, perhaps because he is a homeowner. The party was held in his small adobe bungalow, which is now worth perhaps $150,000 in a hyper-inflated real estate market. "The real estate economy is completely out of line with the base economy," Bigelow said. Doug Hall agreed: "An ordinary person cannot come here and buy a house."

The visitor from the East asked if the '60s generation that came to live in Santa Fe had changed anything in the community, created any new kind of politics or cooperative activity. The answer was no. Bob Engel, a lawyer from New York, said, "This is a very selfish place." Some of the others disputed him, but all agreed that the '60s hadn't rubbed off much on the public life of Santa Fe. You've been a woman You may have been a wife. You may have been a mother. But have you been a butterfly? -- Sign behind the Guadalup Cafe's bar

John Nichols graduated from Hamilton College in 1961 as a golden boy -- star hockey player, graceful and admired, gifted writer. Soon after graduation he published two novels; one, "The Sterile Cuckoo," was made into a big, successful movie. It was all going splendidly for John Nichols until the war in Vietnam destroyed his underpinnings.

Nichols was born to old Republican stock. He grew up thinking that everything was fine, just as his elders said. The tumult of the '60s took him completely by surprise. Like so many others, he was abruptly radicalized. Unlike so many others, the radicalization stuck.

By 1969 Nichols, unable to write and by his own account on the verge of a nervous breakdown, fled to Taos, just north of here. He has lived there ever since, devoting much of his time to radical politics, but also able again to write.

Nichols is angry about all the newcomers to this part of New Mexico, the "freaks" and "kids on trust funds" and other Anglos who come to live here because of the natural beauty, but never learn anything about the desperately poor Hispanics and Indians all around them. Nichols has collaborated with a like-minded dropout to Taos, photographer William Davis, on a bitter, beautiful new book of text and photos called "If Mountains Die." It is a book about the possibility that this part of New Mexico will be effectively destroyed by thoughtless development.

The Taos Valley, Nichols writes, "is being changed from a stable, agrarian, Spanish-speaking area of strong individual communities held together by cultural ties, into a retirement-recreation, middle-class suburban, ghettoized urban mess, and the change is occuring with stunning rapidity."

"Taos is real heavy, real tense," Nichols said over supper in his favorite Mexican restaurnt in town. He can be as angry in person as in his book. Bitter, too. "Basically," he said, "only in-migrating outsiders can buy land now in Taos County."

Santa Fe is a town of 47,000 -- "compared to 50,000 who work in the World Trade Center in New York," as Barbara Gluck put it. Gluck, 42, is a native New Yorker and a photographer. She took the pictures that accompany this article. She is a Santa Fe patriot.

Barbara Gluck fled a marriage and her native New York in 1976. She was not a '60s dropout at all; on the contrary, she spent much of the Vietnam war in Vietnam, photographing it for American papers and magazines. She was just a frustrated person seeking a new way to live. She found it almost by chance in Santa Fe, and just a few years later she says this is "the first place I've ever lived that I can honestly say feels like home."

Gluck is doing well here. She has moved from journalistic to artistic photography, and is organizing an interntional photographic symposium here. She has made dozens of new friends and enjoys "a life chosen by me." Many people here talk about leaving someday, and everybody can tell stories about earlier waves of dropouts or dropins who came to Santa Fe or Taos, stayed a while and moved on. But Gluck talks only about staying.

"Taking the responsibility for living your own life exactly as you want to live it is something most people can't do," Gluck says proudly. She says Santa Fe made that possible for her.

Rena Rosequist has been living in Taos for most of 20 years. She was part of the bohemian literary world of New York of the 1950s, and was married to a hippie pioneer in the early 1960s, and now lives quietly with a husband who runs an art gallery in Taos. She was recommended as a person with a long view of recent times.

Over lunch she was asked if there was any permanent residue from the '60s in this part of northern New Mexico. Oh, yes, she replied: "Let me tell you a story."

It was a long and funny story about John Morris, a promoter of the famous Woodstock rock concert of 1969, an event that came to symbolize perhaps the nicest side of the '60s. Morris is out here now, Rosequist said, and he has plans to stage another mammoth rock concert and be-in here in northern New Mexico, in Mora County next door to Taos.

A few weeks ago Morris and a couple of associates appeared before a meeting of the Mora County Commissioners to offer the county $1 million for permission to stage the concert, which they hoped would attract hundreds of thousands of spectators. Mora County, an impoverished jurisdiction, could have lived on $1 million until sometime in the 21st century, Rosequist said.

But there were other considerations, Mainly, there was the matter of the loathing felt by Mora County's local population for anything hinting of hippies, like a mammoth rock conert. The state senator for Mora County, a powerful figure in the state named C.B. Trujillo, came to the county commissioners' meeting, as did a lot of local Spanish-Americans. Sen. Trujillo egged on the crowd, and the meeting ended in a bottle-throwing melee. State police had to escort Morris out of own.

This, said Rena Rosequist, was the residue of the '60s one could find in northern New Mexico.