Unfolding the Map
William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) doesn't want to stop in El Paso, but we will and take a look around. While there, we'll see some murals, eat some Tex-Mex, view some art and listen to some music. Where is El Paso on our journey? Click on the thumbnail to your right to find out.
"El Paso was a pleasant city, but I felt I'd been in Texas for weeks, so I drove on west through the natural break in the Rockies that gives the town its name - the very pass Indians, conquistadors, and the Butterfield Stage used - drove around crumbling Comanche Peak, and headed up the Rio Grande."
Blue Highways: Part 4, Chapter 9
El Paso, Texas
LHM pretty much bypasses El Paso, which is unfortunate. I know that larger cities aren't really what he's interested in, but El Paso is more interesting than you might think. At the time that I write, El Paso is one of the safest cities in the United States. This is pretty amazing, considering that just across the Rio Grande in Mexico, Ciudad Juarez had over 3000 murders in 2010. In fact, El Paso is safe enough that the former mayor of Ciudad Juarez ran the city from El Paso, where he lived. I guess being under death threats every day would make anyone want to stay away from one of the most dangerous cities in the world and be in one of the safest in the world, even if you are the former's top elected official.
But El Paso seems to me to be pretty vibrant. It is a city of murals, as I found when I visited there prior to a camping trip in the Guadalupe Mountains. Everywhere around the city, local artists paint the issues that the community deals with - illegal immigration, HIV/AIDS - as well as the hopes of the residents.
Luis Jimenez, a nationally famous sculptor from El Paso who died while working on sculptures for the Denver Airport, has a piece in El Paso celebrating a couple of its more famous past residents - a pair of alligators that lived in a small zoo there. They were an oddity in this western arid part of the country, and so the alligators were quite an attraction for the city, and now they are immortalized in fiberglass sculpture in El Paso's downtown.
El Paso also still maintains its very western feel, while at the same time being a vibrant crossroads of two cultures. Walking the streets, one looks at the buildings and can imagine what the town looked like at the turn of the century when many of the buildings were erected. Men in suits mingling with ladies in finery, but also cowboys just in from the dusty range, Indians selling their artistic creations, and Mexicans engaging in commerce and plying their trades. One can just imagine the Marty Robbins song...
Out in the West Texas town of El Paso
I fell in love with a Mexican girl.
Night-time would find me in Rosa's cantina;
Music would play and Felina would whirl.
Blacker than night were the eyes of Felina,
Wicked and evil while casting a spell.
My love was deep for this Mexican maiden;
I was in love but in vain, I could tell.
Of course, some of the best Mexican food can be found there. After living in San Antonio and enjoying our Tex-Mex, and then living in Albuquerque where the New Mexican food, smothered with red or green chile, is very different, we missed having good Tex-Mex food. We were delighted to find it again in El Paso.
El Paso was also the catalyst for one of sports most defining moments, and a milestone for racial equality in the NCAA. Legendary coach Don Haskins of Texas Western University, now the University of Texas at El Paso, fielded a basketball team of five African-American starters in the national championship game against a decidedly all-white Kentucky squad. Texas Western's win in that game and its national championship is credited with helping desegregate college basketball squads all over the South.
I live three and one half hours away from El Paso now. I would think twice about crossing the border into Ciudad Juarez, but I wouldn't hesitate visiting El Paso again.
The Marty Robbins tune is famous, but I thought I'd present you with a band that I actually saw and which you might not know about. The Gourds, out of Austin, titled one of their songs El Paso. It's got a nice beat. Enjoy!
If you want to know more about El Paso
Chamizol National Memorial
El Chuco (Street photography of El Paso)
El Paso Convention and Visitors Bureau
El Paso Daily Photo (blog)
El Paso Times (newspaper)
Hueco Tanks State Park
Road Food America: H&H Cafe & Car Wash
Road Food America: Smitty's
University of Texas at El Paso
US Border Patrol Museum
Wikipedia: El Paso
World's Largest Man-Made Illuminated Star
Next up: Deming, New Mexico