Travel blog: A trip to El Paso
El Paso, Texas, is where the desert meets the mountains and both meet the border. It’s an interesting place.
A place where they carved a campus of a major university, and a football stadium, into the Franklin Mountains, which are part of the Rockies.
A place where the cemeteries often sport a surface of gravely sand.
A place that’s big. Some 800,000 metro population, which makes it almost as big as Tulsa.
I’ve now been to El Paso twice in the last 32 months, for the 2009 Sun Bowl and the OU-UTEP game Saturday night. It’s a Western city. I like Western cities. Oklahoma City. Fort Worth. Denver. Dallas. Phoenix. Albuquerque. San Antonio.
But El Paso is different, because of the border. It’s strange to drive down Interstate 10 and look off to the south and see Juarez, Mexico, and realize you’re only a few hundred yards from a place where the U.S. constitution loses its punch.
El Paso bills itself as one of the safest cities in America, and I don’t doubt it. I’ve always felt safe in El Paso. But it gives me the willies to look over onto a nearby hill, knowing there’s a city of 1.6 million that once attracted tourists but now is known as the murder capital of the world, and Americans are urged to not cross the border.
As we drove near the border on Friday, we pointed out Juarez, and our new OU writer, Stephanie Kuzydym (I call her Nancy Sue), asked, “Is that the slums?” No, we told her, that’s just Juarez.
When I was 14, we took a short trip over to Juarez. Shopped, rode a taxi, ate lunch. Memorable experience. But it wouldn’t happen today.
Mexican food hotbed?
OK, I gave El Paso the benefit of the doubt. After the Sun Bowl of 2009, when El Paso billed itself as a Mexican food Mecca but vastly disappointed us, I gave it another chance.
We went to two highly-recommended places over the weekend.
Carlos & Mickey’s on Friday night was jam-packed. Long wait. Full parking lot. Joe Castiglione and the OU contingent were in the place. We even had a local, John Erfort, former sports editor of the El Paso Times, joined us for dinner. We have a mutual friend, Jeremy Cowen, who drove down for the game. So a group of 11 of us went for dinner.
Carlos & Mickey’s chips and salsa were unique for this reason: the chips were huge, tortilla-sized. You break them up yourself.
I ordered a combination plate that included an enchilada, a tamale, a taco and a chile relleno, which is my favorite. They even offered a shrimp relleno, so I jumped at it.
And I would rate the place as OK. Nothing special. Massively disappointing.
On Saturday afternoon, waiting for the game, we went to Leo’s, which an OU fan had recommended. It was more gritty, not as trendy or as nice. But the food was better. I had an enchilada plate that was good, and the sopapillas were fantastic. The best sopapilla I’ve ever had, and I go back to Casa Bonita’s sopapillas of the late 1960s.
Still, Leo’s wasn’t any better than a dozen places back home and not nearly as good as some. Like Tarahumara in Norman.
Just like during the Sun Bowl, major disappointment in the Mexican food. During the Sun Bowl, we ate at a joint called KiKi’s, which was really good but with awful service. And someone else from Oklahoma ate there and said the same thing, so I don’t think it was coincidence.
And it made me think. What if we have high standards? What if our Mexican food actually is the best? What if Mexican food in OKC or Dallas or San Antonio is the world’s best?
We had a treat at Will Rogers Airport, waiting for our plane Friday to Dallas. The Rev. Bill Greason was on our flight, making his way home to Birmingham.
The Reverend is the man who in 1952 broke the Oklahoma City baseball color barrier. Jenni Carlson and I both have written about him in recent days.
A delightful man who turned 88 Monday but seems 20 years younger. His mind is sharp, his smile sharper.
We chatted at the airport and I got to see several people approach him and talk about his trip to OKC. Made me feel good about what we do.
Land of Enchantment
Driving back to El Paso from New Mexico – more on that later – you cross the state line, and soon thereafter on Interstate 10 is a mileage sign: Beaumont 852.
I’ve never seen a mileage sign with that big a number. But that tells you how far it is across Texas. It’s 878 miles from the New Mexico line to the Louisiana line, across I-10 in Texas. The old story that when driving from Houston to San Diego, you’re more than halfway there when you reach El Paso? It’s true.
We were in New Mexico because Nancy Sue had never been in New Mexico and wanted to go. I’m not one to knock such flighty adventures. I want to get to all 50 states myself; so far I’ve missed only Hawaii, Alaska, Montana, the Dakotas, West Virginia, Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire. And I’m West Virginia-bound in November.
So on Friday, after a video shoot at Sun Bowl Stadium, we drove on over to New Mexico, which is only 17 miles from the UTEP campus.
New Mexico is rather barren down south; I’ll bet it’s a fascinating drive on over to Arizona – it’s only 160 miles or so from El Paso – but I’ve never made it. Maybe some day.
I was in New Mexico just the other day, but up north, Raton and Clayton. Basketball country, Landry Jones told me. Down south is football country in New Mexico.
In New Mexico, we stopped at the visitor’s center so Nancy Sue could pose for a photo by the “Welcome” sign. And I read one of those historical markers, about the U.S. mail stagecoach route that once went from St. Louis to San Francisco, via El Paso and this stretch of New Mexico. It said the route took 21 or 22 days. I would have guessed a lot more than that. Think about it. It would take three good days to drive from St. Louis to San Francisco, via El Paso. But on stagecoach?
I’ve always wanted to ride on a stagecoach, but I’ll bet it’s the most uncomfortable mode of transportation ever. I once rode from Moore to Norman in an ambulance, courtesy of a broken leg, and it was the bumpiest 10 miles of my life.
Anyway, the Butterfield Overland Mail Trail was a stagecoach route that operated from 1857 to 1861, which started at St. Louis, went through Missouri, Indian Territory, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. It passed through only two towns: Franklin, Texas, which became El Paso, and Tucson, Ariz. (where I’m headed next weekend).
I didn’t pack an extra sportcoat on the trip. I wore one onto the plane Friday and figured I’d wear it to the game Saturday night.
Then somewhere between Dallas and El Paso, a Southwest Airlines flight attendant lost control of her drink tray, and a cup of beer toppled over. Right onto the shoulder and sleeve of my sportcoat.
It got me to thinking. Why do they serve beer and alcohol in flights? Is it financial – do they make a lot of money selling to passengers? Or is it a narcotic? Do some passengers need a little help relaxing during flights?
Oh well, the flight attendant was mortified. She apologized profusely – is the word “profusely” ever used for anything except bleeding and apologizing? – and grabbed some towels to help clean me up, but I told her to quit worrying about. What are you supposed to do? Getting mad never helped anything.
I smelled for awhile, and I thought I might have to find a dry cleaner that could get me hooked up on a Saturday morning, but I just let the thing air out. My crew gave it the smell test Friday night and said they could detect no odor, so I just kept wearing it. It was due a dry cleaning anyway.
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