Thursday, December 02, 2004

El Paso: It's not so bad!

El Paso: it’s not that bad!

I’ve never really ventured west. Aside from a couple of camping trips through Colorado and New Mexico growing up, I’d never spent much time west of Houston. However, after my parents made a sudden move to El Paso, it gave me an excuse to explore a part of Texas I’d never seen.

I didn’t expect much more than a desert. I was certainly surprised to find that El Paso was mountainous, and before I left the Land of the Sun I grew rather fond of the place.

Despite the fact that El Paso has such an arid climate, it was raining upon my mid-November arrival and had been snowing just a few days before. The snow was still evident around the tops of the Franklin Mountains which split the city.

On day one I took the Trans-Mountain Highway to the Franklin Mountains State Park and began a hike through the prickly pears and yucca to find the snow.



The clouds were settled onto the peaks of the Franklin Mountains, which were still spotted with snow my first day in El Paso.

Having been trained in wilderness survival as a Boy Scout, I always have my eyes and ears open for signs of animal life and a way to survive in a harsh climate. I was shocked at the absolute lack of life I found in the park the first day. While water was available in pools along the rockier parts of the terrain, I found only two small, dried animal droppings and heard one bird call the entire duration of my afternoon hike. However, as I hiked up into the clouds hanging around the peaks of the mountains, I did find a beauty to the barren landscape.



The stalks of these yucca-like plants are the tallest foliage in the landscape.

That afternoon we visited the historic Magoffin Home, an adobe home that was scored to look like brick built in the mid-1800s by Joseph Magoffin, one of the founders of El Paso. We got lessons in Victorian-era furniture and d├ęcor while learning about the construction of an adobe home. Did you know settlers lined the ceilings with herbs to keep insects away?



This Historic Magoffin House provides a view into the 19th Century with period correct furniture and decor.

Day two proved to be much warmer, and the fog and snow had melted off the mountains by mid-morning. I had returned to Franklin Mountain State Park to explore what were billed as the Aztec Caves. With the sunshine came more animal life, and insects began buzzing through the air while quail foraged and clucked through the brush. The Franklin Mountains began looking much less harsh than they had the day before.



The mouths of the Aztec Caves lie halfway up the Franklin Mountains.

After a steep hike, we found the caves, but whether or not they were used by the Aztecs is debatable. The cave paintings seemed to be mostly graffiti created by bold tourists, and the shallow caves themselves smelled of cigarette smoke. Cigarette butts littered the floor of the caves. There’s no telling how many people might have taken shelter in those caves high on the side of the mountain over the last 200 years, but it is unfortunate that tourists decided to mar their natural beauty with graffiti and litter.



Cave paintings, graffiti or just cave crud? Who knows?

We climbed on past the caves to a ridge near the top of the mountain for a view across El Paso and were surprised to not only hear, but also feel the percussion of explosions, which we assumed were coming from Fort Bliss, which is housed on just the other side of the range.



El Paso is spread out at the base of the Franklin Mountains.

After another morning in the mountains, we drove into New Mexico and visited Historic Old Mesilla near Las Cruces. Incidentally, the locals don’t call it Las Cruces, they simply call it Cruces. Being just around 20 minutes apart, Cruces and El Paso share most of their television and radio stations despite being located in different states.

Old Mesilla was a bit of a tourist trap. While the town dates back to the late 1800s, the old buildings are now filled with touristy shops selling the same t-shirts and knick-knacks you can find most anywhere in the region. The area would be comparable to Houston’s Old Town Spring, but with more adobe. After dinner at La Posta, we headed back to El Paso for the night.

Day three took us into New Mexico again, but in another direction. We drove east through the Guadalupe Mountain Range to Carlsbad Caverns National Park where we toured the cave.

Being the off-season for Carlsbad, White’s City, which is the tourist support area just outside of the park was all but deserted. As we drove on into the park there were only a few cars in the parking lot, but I was amazed at the origins of each vehicle. Along just one row there were cars from Chihuahua, California, Utah, Texas, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Massachusetts and New York.



The Devil's Spring isn't really a spring at all. The water drips down through the ceiling of the cave and pools on the cavern floor.

With tourism being so slow that day, the park rangers were more than happy to take a minute to chat with us about the history of the cave and to assure my overly-paranoid mother that although these giant rocks had fallen out of the ceiling at some point in time, only one had ever fallen in the cavern during the nearly 100 years people had been visiting the site. That rock fell out of the ceiling in the year 2000 during the night, and the parks service speculated that it had been knocked loose from blasting done to open the trail through the caves.



The Whale's Mouth formation, named such because it is thought to look like a whale's mouth.

Having been assured that only one rock had fallen off the ceiling in the last 100 years and that no tourists had ever been squished, my mother was finally able to relax and enjoy the tour.

While our New Mexico guidebook suggested eating at the Velvet Garter Restaurant in White’s City, it was unfortunately not open during our visit, so we grabbed a pretty decent burger at Jack’s, which is housed in the same building and headed back to El Paso.



White's City features an authentic looking cliff-dwelling replica, which according to our waitress was built in the 1950s as a museum. However, the crumbled structure is now fenced and must be viewed from afar.

On the return trip back across Texas, I was amazed at the beauty of the salt flats just west of the Guadalupe Mountains. With all the rain the region had received the week before my visit, the flats held some standing water, which reflected the majestic Guadalupes in what can only be described as a picture perfect scene.



The reflection of the Guadalupe Mountains in the standing water along the saltflat was an incredible scene.

Then, just when I thought the day couldn’t hold any more grandeur, as the sun set, we were treated to a scene that in itself would making living in El Paso worthwhile.



The sky looked like it was on fire as we drove back into El Paso on day 3 of the trip.

Day four of the trip took us back into New Mexico for a visit to Ski Apache in Ruidoso. Just four hours away, El Paso makes a great jumping off point for ski trips into this area. Unfortunately, we were a week early as the slopes didn’t open until the day before Thanksgiving, but the courteous staff was hard at work stocking the restaurants and ski shop for the season and was more than happy to let us hike through the area. This was a real treat as I hadn’t seen snow for the last ten years I’ve been living in Houston.



The slopes were ready and waiting for the ski-crowd to show up when Ski Apache opened the week of Thanksgiving.

After an exhausting hike through the mountains, we once again returned to El Paso for a good night’s sleep.



I prepare to take cover as my wife packs a snowball during our hike along a scenic trail at Ski Apache.

On our last day of the visit, we stopped by the El Paso Zoo. The highlight of this trip was definitely the zoo’s new, state-of-the-art sea lion exhibit. Sunny, a California sea lion who was born at the zoo, now has three female companions in his large exhibit, which features a waterfall, amphitheatre and underwater viewing areas. This exhibit was exquisitely designed, so that no matter where the sea lions might be lounging there’s always a window or viewing area for visitors to see them. Of course, Sunny has such an exuberant personality, he wouldn’t let any of his fellow sea lions get away with lounging around when there were visitors to entertain.



Sunny the Sea Lion would allow no lounging from his companions while there were people to entertain at the El Paso Zoo.

Don’t get me wrong. At times the brown of the landscape of the El Paso region can get a bit depressing, but even if you wouldn’t want to live there, it makes a great base camp for vacations in the region.