Looking at the map, I was puzzled.
“Where in the heck do I stop for the night?”
There is very little, save for El Paso, between San Antonio, Texas and my intended destination, Tucson, Arizona. After arriving in El Paso, Texas, a little over eight hours away from San Antonio, I would still have to drive five more hours to get to Tucson. And there is nothingness between Tucson and El Paso.
I made the decision to cut my driving time short and stop at El Paso, which turned out to be a great decision in hindsight.
I’ll note here that most people heading south decide to cross into Mexico at the border in Brownsville, Texas. I decided against this because I wanted to drive through Mexico via the Pacific coast, a much more scenic road.
Living on the East Coast practically my entire life, the vastness of Texas amazed me. The eastern part of the US is densely populated, all the way from snowy Boston to the sandy shores of Miami Beach. There are some stretches along the coast that are not as packed with people, but one is never more than 2 hours away from a major population center. At least, that is, if you’re near the I-95 corridor, the highway that stretches from the southern tip of Florida and up to the Canadian border next to Maine. It would take me two full days to drive across Texas, crossing large swaths of uninhabited landscape along the way.
After loading up on granola bars and coffee at McDonald’s, I marched into the Texas desert.
When you drive huge chunks of distance in a short period of time, the diversity of the landscape is easy to spot. After being flanked by trees on either side of the road for most of the way out of Florida and into Louisiana, the scenery started to change the deeper I got into Texas territory. Gone were the densely packed trees and flat landscape, which gave way to rolling hills.
After leaving San Antonio, the terrain became a whole lot rockier and trees were replaced by greenish-brown brush. Apart from signs for strangely named towns (see below), the landscape really offered nothing but hills, rocks and brush.
I’d seen old Western movies before, but seeing the landscape for the first time was a lot more thrilling than it should’ve been. This, I imagined, was the land of cowboys.
I was glad when the speed limit went up from 70 miles-per-hour to 80.
The World’s Largest Roadrunner
After driving for close to five hours, it was time to stop for lunch. Nothing round for miles except for a McDonald’s at a gas station.
Some curious signs on the road got my attention.
“See the world’s LARGEST road runner!”, one of the signs said.
Well, couldn’t let that opportunity pass me by, now could I? I doubted very much I’d ever drive through here again in my life, so it was now or never. What would I tell my grandchildren when they asked why I had refused to visit Paisano Pete (the record-breaking roadrunner’s name)?
So I made the turnoff into Fort Stockton, a historic town that served as an outpost and rest stop for travelers on the San Antonio to El Paso road. The “Buffalo Soldiers” of Bob Marley’s fame were stationed at Fort Stockton. These “Buffalo Soldiers” were a segregated African-American US Army regiment that served with distinction during the Indian and Spanish American wars.
For a town out in the middle of nowhere, Fort Stockton is very clean and well-kept.
After driving up and down Main Street, I still couldn’t find Paisano Pete. Honestly, I had no idea what a life-sized roadrunner was supposed to look like, much less a world-record breaking one. I had Roadrunner and Wil E. Coyote cartoons to guide me. I finally decided to stop by the Chamber of Commerce and inquire about the roadrunner’s whereabouts.
“Oh, Pete? He’s right across the street! How did you miss him?”, the nice lady at the office answered. I mumbled thanks and went outside to look for Pete.
At this point I wasn’t sure what I was looking for. Was Pete hanging out across the street drinking coffee? Directing traffic? How big was Pete that she was surprised I missed him?
Turns out Paisano Pete is pretty dang humongous. She was right. How did I miss him? I guess Pete’s natural camouflage helps him blend into the surroundings.
Curiosity satisfied, it was time to head West. On the way, I saw a train rolling across the desert. The time of day was right and the pictures don’t do it justice, but the train looked splendid against the deserted landscape and the light of the setting sun.
Oh, the sunset. It was absolutely breathtaking out here in the desert. Like nothing I’d ever seen before. The mountains take on a purple-hue that is spectacular, which look beautiful against the golden clouds.
After over eight hours of driving, most of it without cellphone reception and barely ANY radio station signal present, I finally made it to El Paso.
With my cellphone’s data connection back on, I quickly looked for attractions and places to eat in El Paso. Since I wasn’t hungry yet, I decided to head towards El Paso’s #3 attraction according to TripAdvisor.com: The Wyler Aerial Tramway. The reviews promised stunning views…
… and the tramway delivered.
I’m glad I arrived at dusk. The tramway takes you high up the Franklin Mountains. There’s a small gift shop too, but the views are what it’s all about. From up there, you can clearly see the USA-Mexico border. Fences and high-powered lights flank each side of the Rio Grande River. Across the river you can see Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
I chatted up the staff member at the gift shop, who filled me in on the situation across the border. At the time I traveled, Ciudad Juarez was literally under siege by the violent war between drug traffickers. According to the man, whose name I unfortunately forgot, Juarez was, once upon a time, a beautiful place to visit with wide, tree-lined streets filled with lively music and great restaurants. As he described it, Juarez and El Paso were once seen as a single city, only that now people of El Paso had lost their much beloved half.
We also got to talking about places to eat around El Paso. Since I only had one day to spend there, he highly recommended L & J Cafe, a landmark restaurant in El Paso.
L & J Cafe, nicknamed “the old place by the graveyard” due to its proximity to Concordia Cemetery, has been open in El Paso since the 1920’s and served as the place to get a fill of alcohol during the Prohibition Era. It’s a more respectable establishment these days.
The place was easy enough to find, though I had to wait to be seated. Apparently, it’s packed every night. And with good reason.
The cuisine, which L & J classifies as “regional Mexican border food” was outstanding. The red sauce they serve for the tostadas was eye-watering spicy, although you couldn’t tell by how happily everyone around me was chugging it down. Taco Bell hottest sauce is baby formula compared to it.
Mouth on fire, I licked the plate clean and would’ve ordered seconds if I thought I had any tasted buds left.
Belly full and tired from so much driving, I headed to a hotel I’d found through Priceline.com earlier. I didn’t know it yet, but tomorrow I’d be witness to a gunfight.