Our hotel room on post didn’t have any windows, so when we strode out of the building early the next morning, we both halted just beyond the automatic doors due to the site before us.
“Mountains,” Garrick identified, pointing ahead.
I nodded. The mountains, a mixture of sandy tan and dark brown, stood jagged and stark along the outermost rim of city before us. Because we’d arrived in the dark, we hadn’t been able to see them – not even a silhouette.
Surprise mountains are a great start to any day.
We began our El Paso explorations where the city began, in Las Plazas district downtown. Pioneer Plaza was the poppin’ place to be in the 1870’s after a military guard was posted to protect citizens from those previously mentioned pesky Apaches. An irrigation ditch fed trees growing in the plaza, creating shade and the perfect place to hold meetings and events. There was even a “newspaper tree” where public notices were posted. Today a plaque marks the place where the newspaper tree stood.
Eventually the larger San Jacinto Plaza became the new central hub. In the early 1880’s the city parks and streets commissioner turned the desert patch into a garden and added a fence, gazebo, 75 Chinese Elm trees and a pond. Oh, and some alligators.
The alligators were a hit, obviously. People would stop by and lean against the fence to observe throughout the day and the reptiles were the star of many El Paso postcards and memorabilia. One of the first alligators placed in the pond was named Sally. This pleased me very much.
Alligators lived in the middle of downtown El Paso until the mid 1970’s, when they were moved to the El Paso Zoo permanently. Much like the newspaper tree, a statue now marks the place where something once lived and contributed to a forming culture.
Near San Jacinto Plaza (still called Las Plaza de los Legartos by many) was Coffee Box, a cafe made out of a couple storage containers stacked atop each other and seemingly plopped between two parking lots. The coffee was a bit overpriced but good enough – basically we paid to sit in or atop the adult version of a cardboard box fort.
We meandered through the Office District and Government District, following a self-guided walking tour pamphlet we’d picked up for free at the Visitor Center. While El Paso’s one-story-sprawl seems to spread forever, the few high rise buildings are confined to the comparatively small downtown. Most of the hotels and office buildings in the two districts were built in the early 1900’s.
We slipped into the Camino Real Hotel and strode through the elegant, high-ceilinged lobby, hoping confidence would mask the smell of riff-raff. I think softly chanting “casual casual casual” definitely helped. We made it to the acclaimed Tiffany window dome in the hotel bar and forgot all about playing it cool as we marveled at the crystal chandeliers and glossy wood furniture. The dome ended up being Garrick’s favorite thing in El Paso. He has an artistic eye and loves design and architecture. I like alligators.
The walking tour was a good way to see downtown if you don’t mind occasionally pausing on street corners and squinting at the map like a full on tourist. The city is clearly working on making downtown El Paso a destination for both locals and visitors – but it’s by no means gentrified yet – so the tour helped us appreciate what we were looking at by explaining what a structure used to be or what significant historic event happened inside. Without the walking guide I think we would have wandered the streets, occasionally remarked, “That’s a pretty building,” and left with only a vague understanding of the place.
Next we wandered around El Segundo Barrio in El Centro, the best district, in my opinion. As we strolled down El Paso Street the crowds became more dense by the block and the tables of merchandise along the road and sidewalk thickened. The clamour around us and music spilling out of the colorful, crammed shops became purely Spanish. I had to buy a hat and Garrick needed gloves (I told you we packed in a hurry) and the cashier spoke only in Spanish, as did the nice ladies chatting with me in a bathroom line. At least I think they were nice, my Spanish is at a high school level (and back then I was way more interested in drawing on my Converse than paying attention). But I can say useful things like “estoy perdido” and “gigante margarita, por favor.”
We took El Paso Street all the way to the Mexican border. The Stanton Street Bridge teemed with pedestrians coming into the US and leaving. I’m not sure why they’d come over to shop here instead of there, I can’t imagine things are cheaper. A lot of cars were rolling across the bridge into the US as well, creating a long line at the customs checkpoint. Not so many were going the other way.
We stood at the edge of the bridge and gazed across the Rio Grande at Mexico. The Army would get mad at Garrick if we went to Ciudad Juarez. My Mom probably wouldn’t be too happy, either. Something about drugs and hostages and El Chapo.
So we just enjoyed El Centro. The area was practically Mexico and a delightful dose of the culture, but with less cartel.
Next we walked to the Union Plaza district, dominated by the El Paso Union Depot built in 1906. The industrial buildings in the area are starting to be turned into mixed-use spaces, including art galleries, night-life venues and residences.
We walked down West Overland toward the river – still and quiet compared to the bustle of El Centro. As we crossed an intersection, a middle aged man with a thick braid emerged from a building on the corner.
“How are you?” He called.
“Good,” we said as we reached the opposite side of the street.
“Want to see the Rock House?” He asked.
We said sure and ran back across the road, because it is always a good idea to follow a random guy into a dark, empty stone building.
Our new friend Mike (sorry, Al) gave us a tour of his business, the Rock House Cafe & Gallery. Several narrow rooms displayed art for sale by creators from both El Paso and Ciudad Juarez. The main room had a bar, chairs and tables, a stage and edgy/rock-n-roll/cave-chic vibes. Mike said they bring in new art monthly and host open-mic nights for musicians and poetry slams. They also serve menudo – cooked in an old fashioned hearth stove – on Sundays. Menudo, by the way, is beef stomach and broth with a red chili pepper base and is a BFD in El Paso.
We stepped back outside with Mike, who told us about the history and recent transformation of the neighborhood, as well as the struggles residents were having with a particular district representative.
We left Mike with promises to spread the news about his Rock House, returned to our car back in Las Plazas district and left downtown.
I think El Paso is unfairly put down. It’s not glamorous and it’s not trendy right now like Portland or Austin, but it had a lot of history and a true sense of place, to use the colloquialism. The way the cowboy culture of Texas blended with the Mexican culture was distinct, and shouldn’t that be all the true traveler needs?
“It was the epitome of Tex-Mex,” Garrick said.
It took just half a day to explore downtown adequately and I don’t feel a need to go back, but I would definitely recommend it as worth seeing once.
We pulled up to Los Bandidos de Carlos and Mickey’s, a Mexican Restaurant and Cantina suggested by my cousin Robyn, who was meeting us there.
My Dad’s family is based in California, but on my way into El Paso, around the time my phone thought we were in Mexico, I remembered Dad saying Robyn had moved there. I think I met her when I was two, but those were my whirlwind, wild days and so I don’t really remember.
It was a little weird, messaging a stranger and basically saying, “Hey, I’m out of diapers now and in your city, want to hang out based only on the fact we are related?” Luckily she was all about it.
Shortly after meeting Robyn we found out it was her birthday. She wanted to celebrate with some afternoon “gigante margaritas, por favor.” I liked her immediately.
And so passed three and a half hours of getting to know each other, talking about people we both knew (my Dad and her Mom, who passed away when I was a kid) and learning more about people we knew of, but not about (stories from Robyn about my late grandmother, stories from me about my bad ass, now-six-foot baby brother.) We oo’d and ah’d over old and new pictures and pointed out family resemblances, found out we have similar political views and made plans to keep in touch henceforth.
We also watched Garrick try menudo. Gross.
After pictures and hugs we said farewell to Robyn, who carried on with partying that evening. I hope I’m that fun when I’m 52.
The last stop of the day was Scenic Drive, recommended to us by Mike. The route winds through the southern edge of the Franklin Mountains past stately mansions and leads to an overlook with views of El Paso and Ciudad Juarez.
It wasn’t on purpose, but we parked at the overlook right as the sun began to set. We walked along the rim, several yards apart, silently gazing at the close-yet-so-separate cities and desert beyond. Then it was dark and, shivering, we returned to the car and made our way back down the mountain.