Trans America Part V -- Texas
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Continued from Part IV - the South02 .
One of the more memorable George Carlin quotes was, “you know the good part about all those executions in Texas? Fewer Texans.” It may have been a hilarious offshoot of the age-long New Yorker vs. Texan rivalry, but I think the joke resonates much further in the rest of the country. Californians, for all I know, wouldn’t skip a beat in mocking Texans’ stubbornness, dumb politicians, and the fact that greying Texans still refer to their fathers as “daddy.” A 2013 Business Insider poll ranked Texas the “least favorite” state in the country and the top state “you would like to kick out of USA.” Clearly, nobody liked Texans. Incidentally, in the same poll New York was ranked as the “most arrogant” and the “rudest” state, so that explains good old Georgie’s hostility.
Given that, I didn’t have very high expectation as I headed towards Houston, with large pickup trucks zipping by me all along the way. It was unfortunate that Houston didn’t have much that interested me, expect a Space Learning Center (Houston, we have a problem, our city is boring!!!). So, I drove directly there, where I was greeted by an enormous Space Shuttle Independence, sitting on top of an even larger Boeing 747.
The Independence was not a real shuttle, but a full-size, high-fidelity replica that used many actual space shuttle parts (presumably from the scrap bins). It did give a quite realistic feel as far as replica goes, from each individually-labeled thermal tile on the flanks to the giant Micheline tires on the landing gears. Visitors could enter the shuttle to peek at the cockpit and examine the cargo bay, where the cargo, an Orbus 21 rocket kick motor was secured.
The Space Center could be considered the visitor center and museum for the NASA space command center in Houston. Here one could browse through some 60 years of American space exploration, from the first US satellite Explorer 1 in 1957 (a replica, the 3rd pic) to a running account of every single mission of the Space Shuttle program. On one of the wall was the group photos of all 135 space shuttle crews, all beaming at me with a radiant smile. I couldn’t help but noticed that these people were all so… photogenic. I wondered how much NASA has weighed attractiveness into their selection process. After all, half of the mission for the program was a kind of reality show of national prestige during the cold war, I thought.
It was not just a show of course; from time to time the space program did bring back curious memorabilia such as this small piece of moon rock. It was placed in a large plexiglass case with narrow slits, through which I could extend my hand to touch it. The rock, which I had no doubt had been caressed by millions of greasy fingers before me, felt oddly smooth and cold. It was not unlike any small pebble I would pick up from a stream. But that brief contact, I reminded myself, was about as close as I could get to that pale and solemn companion of our planet in the night sky.
It took me an entire afternoon to browse through the Space Center. When it was time for dinner, I decided to have a long-overdue crawfish feast. It was supposed to happen in Louisiana, the crawfish capital of the world, but the tight schedule rid me of the pleasure. Fortunately, there was a second chance here in Houston, where many New Orleans crawfish restaurants relocated after Hurricane Katrina hit the city in 2005. The restaurant I picked served not only Cajun crawfish boil, crawfish Gumbo, but also crawfish Vietnamese Pho, quite an interesting combination. So I had a feast of everything crawfish, which took me over an hour to finish – dissecting crawfish was delicate work.
On my way to the hotel, I drove pass Rice University. Impulsively I stopped to have a look, for no good reason other than the name was endearingly the foodstuff that I grew up on. Well, not really. Rice was a prestigious private institution known for its engineering, music, and architecture programs. Its treeless campus was quite small considering its reputation; I could easily make a circle without breaking a sweat. It was late at night in the summer break, but the study hall was still opened and students were quietly studying inside, instead of getting drunk in hundreds of sport bars out there. It reminded me of my own college years. I decided that I like this school, and removed Houston from my private list of “terrible cities” just for that.
The next morning, I continued westward on Interstate 10 towards San Antonio. There was apparently an accident ahead that jammed up the traffic. Armed with a GPS, I took the risk and veered off from the highway, tottering through the Texas countryside on a dusty backroad. It was a welcoming change of scenery, when I cut through wide open meadows interspersed with slowly revolving pumpjacks and red farm houses. The backroad then led me through a sleepy small town, where people hung laundry right in their front porch. Outside the local church, a Mexican is trimming the lawn attentively. There was just something lovely about such rural living in a small way.
When I merged back to Interstate 10, it suddenly started raining, and raining hard. As the windshield wipers swayed frantically, I entered a gloomy San Antonio. I never realized that San Antonio was such a large city. With a population of 1.4 million (2015), it was the 7th biggest city in the country, comfortably ahead of more celebrated metropolises such as San Francisco, Boston, and Las Vegas. It’s got to be the most low-key major city in the country, as I knew next to nothing about San Antonio except its basketball team, the Spurs. In fact, the Spurs was the only major league sport team in the city, poor fellas.
As the rain turned into a drizzle, I took a stroll along the top attraction of the city, the “River Walk,” a network of walkway along the bank of San Antonio River one floor below the main streets of downtown San Antonio. I’m sure it was supposed to be a cultural hotspot, with arch stone bridges, art galleries, fancy restaurants and all. But I don’t know if it was the gloomy weather or just me, the murky, 20-feet wide conduit failed to stir up any aesthetic interest in me. All I could say was, the whole idea of turning a sewage ditch into a cultural attraction was quite a masterpiece of marketing.
I picked a German restaurant for lunch, and stuffed myself with a Texas-portion of pork shank (was mediocre) and a giant glass of house-brewed root beer (was sublime). The rain stopped, and I was ready to take a proper look of San Antonio at the ground level.
One could easily make out the Latin influence on San Antonio’s colorful architectures, as the town started as a Spanish mission and colonial outpost. The streets were neat and quiet, in fact too quiet for 1.4 million people, considering it was a Saturday afternoon. You could find more pedestrians in San Francisco streets after a hail storm, I thought.
I found a much larger crowd in front of the Alamo Mission, the most renowned landmark of San Antonio and a World Heritage Site. Started as a Roman Catholic mission, the Alamo was better known as a military fortress that played a crucial role in the Texas Revolution. If you’re seeking a historic event that forged the state’s self-identity and a definitive manifesto of that famous or infamous Texan toughness, look no further than the Battle of Alamo. In February, 1836, a Mexican troop of some 1,500 surrounded the Alamo and a couple hundred Texas rebels within, who were fighting for the Texas’ independence. After a 13-day siege, the Mexican finally broke in, but the rebels fought bravely to their last man. Among the martyrs was the folk hero Davy Crockett, as immortalized by John Wayne wearing a hilarious coonskin hat in the 1960 movie The Alamo. It was a costly victory for the Mexican, however, as they suffered some 600 casualties. In addition, the Mexican’s brutality enraged and inspired the rebels in subsequence battles. Despite being severely out-numbered and out-gunned, the Texans was fueled by their high spirit and decisively defeated the Mexican army in the Battle of San Jacinto in April, 1836. The independence of Texas was secured.
As a shrine to Texas liberty and a monument of Texan defiance, the Alamo was not the burly citadel one woulld imagine, but a modest 33-foot tall, beat-up limestone structure, overshadowed by the lofty hotels all around in downtown San Antonio. It was clearly not designed to be a stronghold, and it must have not been easy for a couple hundred rebels to hold this against a 1,500-strong troop for 13 days.
On a plague on the front lawn was the “Letter from the Alamo” written by Commander William Travis during the siege, pleading for reinforcement. Addressed to “The people of Texas and all American in the world,” the last sentence reads “I am determined to sustain myself as long as possible & die like a soldier who never forgets what is due to his own honor & that of his country – Victory or Death.” It was one of the most dramatic and stirring documents in American history. Once the words spread, Texan and American poured in to join the Texas Revolution amid the battle cry of “Remember the Alamo!” It was certainly a more passionate age.
Inside the Alamo were more weathered limestone buildings and staffs dressed like overweight Texas Rebel soldiers with droopy mustache, who had to lean on their riffles to support their body weight. Aside from a monument and a few plagues to read, there weren’t much else that interested me. So, after half an hour or so, I bid farewell to the Alamo and San Antonio, and drove towards the Mexican border. Soon, I’ll be able to peek at that "s***hole country" of "rapists and murders" President Trump detested, across Rio Grande in Big Bend National Park no less.
I couldn’t make it all the way to Big Bend National Park that night, but instead settled in a small town called Fort Stockton. As the name implies, the town started as a military camp in the late 1800s. Nowadays, it’s pretty much a small Mexican town. 71% of its eight thousand residents were Latino. Though the county courthouse was the familiar Greek-revival style, most street buildings, Catholic churches, and residences were decorated with Hispanic-style arches and murals. In the Central Park, a WWII memorial for the lost soldiers listed only a few Rodriguez, Garcia, and Sanchez, which were decidedly outnumbered by Campbell, Murchison, and Stephenson and the like. Today, however, almost all drivers that passed me were amigos with droopy mustache, who nodded a friendly hello from their pickup trucks. Clearly, the Mexicans were taking over Texas, just like in California. Since 2010, half of the population growth (some 1.4 million) in Texas came from Hispanics. No wonder President Trump panicked.
The Big Bend was named after a dramatic sharp turn of Rio Grande in western Texas that defines the US-Mexican border. If you look at a Texas map, the tip of its left elbow (southwest corner) is drawn along this Big Bend. That was where I was heading the next morning. It took me an hour to drive across the cactus and yucca-decorated Chihuahuan Desert, until the Santiago Mountains that marks the boundary of the national park was looming in front of me. For most of the trip I was the only car on the road, not a soul in front of or behind me for miles. Even oncoming traffic was sparse. This was such a remote corner that very few visitors ventured here (352,000 annually, compared to over 10 million to the Smokey Mountains I visited a week earlier). I pressed on until I hit the first crossroad at the Panther Junction, where a crossroad and a visitor center lied ahead.
I stopped by the visitor center to get my bearing. Around the building was a short trail that thoughtfully presented local desert vegetation with labels. On the trail I startled a Desert Cottontail Rabbit (Sylvilagus audubonii), before I entered the visitor center and found myself in front of an enormous 3-D map of the park. According to the map, the park was a desert (Chihuahuan) next to a mountain range (Chisos) next to a river (Rio Grande). I gathered that I had three choices for the next destination: drive 44 miles west to the Santa Elena Canyon, or 20 miles east to Rio Grande Village, or 9.5 miles south to Chisos Basin. I’ve already booked a lodge in Chisos Basin for the night, so no need to rush there now. The day was still early, so I would have sufficient time to make it to Santa Elena Canyon. In addition, I planned to drive to El Paso tomorrow night, so it’ll be wiser to leave a more relaxed visit to Rio Grande Village for the morning. So, I turned westward, heading for Santa Elena Canyon.
The desert view in the beginning of the drive was not very different from the previous hours, except that the cloud-scarfed Chisos Mountain in a distance was now the backdrop. But then I was surprised to find that in such an arid land, people were gritty enough to build homesteads and ranches to conquer the desert. I first came across the Sam Nail Ranch in a small oasis, an early homestead built in the 1910s. It wasn't much left of it though, except for the ruin of a couple adobe walls and two wind mills.
A few miles down the road was a more ambitious Homer Wilson Ranch, with a lonesome 2,400 square-foot ranch house stood proudly alone under the scorching sun at the foot of the Chisos Mountain. In its heyday in the 1930s, the ranch boasted 4,000 sheep and 2,500 goats, quite an astonishing achievement in this punishing desert (with day temperature up to a scorching 120F but just 5 to 11 inch of rainfall throughout the year). Was it a heroic frontier ranching story then? The truth behind was not as rosy, as usual. According to my guidebook, a century ago the Big Bend was a lush and attractive grassland. It was the overgrazing by ranchers like Mr. Wilson that stripped off much of the vegetation, gradually turned the grassland into a desert, and in turn forced the Wilson Ranch to be abandoned in 1945. Bummer.
Further down the road I was greeted by a twin-peak called the Mule’s Ears. The name was quite self-explanatory. They were two columns of igneous rock protrude high above the ground after the surrounding volcanic ash eroded away over eons. Back in the 1930s, the Army Air Corp made good use of the landmark in their drills by flying through the tight space between the ears. Must have been an exciting Nintendo moment, I thought.
The Mule’s Ears was not the only fascinating remnant of the volcanic eruption that created the Chisos Mountain Range some 38 million years ago. Another five miles down the road, I came across the Tuff Canyon, a narrow and deep valley revealing layers of shales, gravels, compressed volcanic ashes, and boulders, carved out by the Blue Creek over millions of years. The Blue Creek looked listless and turbid at the bottom of the canyon now, totally unimpressive. However, I was told that the stream would become much more violent during summer thunderstorm every year.
Next on the road was Cerro Castellan, yet another volcanic landmark rising 1,000 feet above the ground. The rock tower was consisting of sandwich layers of lava flow, volcanic tuff, gravel, and clay. Different erosion rates of these materials gave the peak the peculiar shape of a stone hut.
At the foot of the Cerro Castellan was Castolon, a former military outpost in the early 20th century to manage the Mexican bandits and thieves from across the border a few miles away. Today, the border is closed and the outpost has long become a ranger station. Near the station was an adobo farm house and the remnant of a cotton processing plant from the 1920s – yes, the banks of Rio Grande was fertile enough for a cotton plantation. A rusty wheeled steam boiler (for irrigation), a diesel engine (to power the cotton gin), and a carriage added ornaments of vicissitude to the desolate landscape.
From Castolon, I could see in a distance, the Santa Elena Canyon rise steeply and stretch afar like a wall that defends the realm from the great beyond. In fact, with the Rio Grande flowing right on its foot, it was sort of a border wall between us and that third-world country of wildlings down south. Also like the ice wall in A Song of Ice and Fire, however, it wouldn’t stop the intruders from coming in, as we shall see later.
I drove another 8 miles and reached Rio Grande and the Santa Elena Canyon Overlook, the end of the road. Rio Grande was a quiet, expansive, marshy piece of water, cloudy with sand and silt. Nothing about this sleepy stream suggested that it was the formidable force that carved open a huge cut in the awe-inspiring 1,500 feet wall above my head. For two million years, it was such turbid current, gritty like liquid sand paper, that slowly but ceaselessly grinded through limestone and split up gorges along the way.
If you’re obsessed with numbers, the Ice wall in A Song of Ice and Fire was only 700 feet tall, a midget compared to the Santa Elena Canyon that was towering above me now. The limestone wall was not created by magic of course, but through eons of tectonic movement. Some 25 million years ago, the fault line (Terlingua Fault) between two tectonic plates was over-stressed and the limestone surface fractured. One edge was slowly lifted over the other to become this dramatic cliff. It was a cross section and a geological textbook on the continental crust formation dated back to the Cretaceous age. The textures on the wall – fracture points, fissures, and layer upon layers of limestone formations, were all pages that recorded the geological movements of the distance past.
At the Rio Grande Overlook, the limestone wall was cracked open by Rio Grande, which flew calmly flow through the chasm.
On my way back, I was excited to spot an old childhood friend from Looney toons, the Roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus) on roadside. He was just as smart and agile as I remembered, ever ready to storm through Wile E. Coyote’s elaborate contraptions and wreak havoc. He studied me for a few seconds, then quickly disappeared behind the bushes. And no, he didn’t sound like a car horn, but more like a cuckoo (which he was).
While we’re on the topic, the Big Bend was an excellent spot for bird watching given its location at the middle of the continent (an important stop for migration) and a diversity of habitats. Below are some of the species that flied by my camera. A Yellow-headed blackbird (Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus, 1st 2 pix); a Black-throated sparrow (Amphispiza bilineata, 3rd pic); a Bell's vireo (Vireo bellii) munching on a cicada.
As I headed back, I took a right turn towards the Chisos Mountains in the south. The Chisos Mountains was a steep and lonely mountain range that rose in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert, at the heart of the Big Bend National Park like a green island. As I ascended toward the misty peaks, the vegetation grew denser and the temperature dropped to a much more pleasant range.
Feeling ambitious, I stopped for the Lost Mine Trail, a 5-mile hike that featured arguably the best panoramic view of the park.
On my way up, I kept having this ticklish feeling that I was being spied on. Sure enough, a pair of velvety antlers was probing tentatively out of the bushes. They belonged to a couple of Mule Deer (Odocoileus hemionus) that were grazing gracefully on the slope. As our eyes met, I could see no vigilance or fear, but just a kind of leisure curiosity. After staring at me for half a minute, they decided that I was not a worthy distraction and immersed back to their munching, their antlers swaying back and forth rhythmically. It was already mid-August, but their antlers still look immature – the velvety skin was the tissue that supplies nutrients for antler growth.
My final destination of the day was the Chisos Mountain Lodge in Chisos Basin, the only hotel in the park. I wasn’t expecting much in the middle of a desert, but the lodge turned out to be quite agreeable. Their buffet was tasty, by desert standard anyway. I developed an appetite for their pickled okra, a Texas specialty. The concept of acidizing one of the more alkaline and juicy vegetables provided an amusing contrast. In addition, both the café and my room had an excellent view of the Window View, a west-ward V-shape opening of the Chisos Mountains that was known for its spectacular sunset.
It wasn’t a good day for sunset, however. The sky was grayish and heavy; the sun has been absent all day. When the time was near, I could only make out the gilded edge of the cloudy ceiling reflecting the splendor of the descending sun. I chatted with two college girls from Austin about our misfortune. They stayed here so late just for the sunset. As it was getting dark and chilly, they left in disappointment. I wasn’t in a hurry to go back to my room because the lodge didn’t have wi-fi. What did I know, just minutes later, a miracle happened.
For the briefest of moments, right before the sun was swallowed by the horizon, it exploded mightily without any warning, through that narrow slit between the cloud ceiling and the skyline. It burst with such intensity that the whole world was stained with a dazzling bloody hue. God that was the most vivid, the most dramatic, and the most spectacular sunset I’ve ever seen in my life. Everyone gasped in disbelief. But before we could pick up our jaws from the floor, the glaring orange flame was quenched behind the silhouette of the Chisos Mountains, almost as suddenly as it came. The salmon-color ceiling gradually faded into blue and purple.
Feeling content, I spent probably the best night I ever had in a desert, and emerged all fresh and crispy early in the morning. I left the Chisos Mountains, and headed east toward Rio Grande Village. It appeared to be a much brighter day over the Chihuahuan desert. Far away on my right (south) was the wall-like canyon that hedge along the Rio Grande, still looked majestic from a distance.
Along the way, I stopped at the historic Boquillas Hot Spring District, possibly the most remote resort in the country. It was accessible only by 2 miles of narrow, rugged one-lane trail, which was a hairy drive. At the end of the road was a few derelict old houses, the relicts of a “hydropathy” fad in the 1930s. In those good old days, the leisure class had cultivated a peculiar notion that hot spring bath has the mysterious power of curing anything from malaria to polio (a belief firmly held by Franklin Roosevelt). The Boquillas hot spring, geothermally heated to 105-degree F, was thus developed into a resort, a first in the Big Bend area.
The resort was out of business in 1942 after Texas decided to build its first national park in the Big Bend area. But I wasn’t sure if the expropriation was the main reason for its closure, given that this was such a secluded spot. I don’t know who would drive through hundreds of desert miles just for a dip. Today it surely wasn’t a popular destination, for I was the only visitor in the parking lot. I wasn’t here for the hot spring of course, but for a hike to see the desert and the Rio Grande from a different angle.
A trail brought me up the layered limestone above the warm spring, onto an austere and rugged highland of gravels. Vegetation was sparse, but I was delighted to find that the spiky Devil’s Head cactus was in bloom with their delicate yellow blossoms. In a distance, the pale desert floor cracked open to let the Rio Grande to meander through, creating a trail of lush green.
Delighted by the sight, I drove all the way down to the river bank at the Rio Grande Village, and hiked into that lively world. The water was teeming with fishes; a Softshell Turtle (Apalone spinifera emoryi, a southern delicacy) boated by, with only its tiny eyes sticking out of water; Cicadas were screaming from ocotillo branches; Desert Millipedes (Orthoporus ornatus) the size of a finger roamed around the pebbles; a rainbow-colored Earless Lizard (Cophosaurus texanus) danced around me as I walked by. It was a lovely sight.
From an overlook, I could make out the colorful buildings of Boquillas Del Carmen, a Mexican village across the river. It used to be a tourist town where American could freely walk across the border for beer, tacos, souvenirs, or a pony ride. Then the 911 tragedy in 2001 almost killed the town, as the border was shut indefinitely. It was not until 2013 that the border opened again under much restrictions.
But the soft border of Rio Grande wouldn’t stop the Mexican from sneaking across and dredging for a few dollars. Throughout the park, I found booths of various craft items left unattended by Mexicans merchants, all priced for sale. There were walking sticks, necklaces, bracelets, and craft animals. Across the Rio Grande, I spotted a couple Mexicans were making craft items in the shade; their canoes hiding behind the bushes. I supposed they would ferry across the river every morning to set up the booths, and collect their money and remain items at by sunset. The park warned the tourists against purchasing these craft items, as it only encouraged illegal trespassing. But the truth was, craft items were probably the least of the border patrol’s concern.
In recent years, the Big Bend area has been considered the weakest link along the US border. With 118 miles of border along the Rio Grande, which was only a few yards wide, and the smallest patrol staff along the southern border, the Big Bend area has become the hot spot for illegal entry. In 2017 alone, border patrol agents have detained 6,000 smugglers and illegal immigrants, and seized 40,852 lbs. of marijuana from the area. Some others managed to evade the patrol but surrendered to the suffocating heat, and ended up as skeletons in the Chihuahuan desert. I supposed that’s why President Trump’s been dreaming of a great border wall, presumably towering all along the Rio Grande river bank. Here I should stress that I’m not against stricter border control, but I think it would be preposterous to test yet again an idea that the Chinese have tried and failed over 2,000 years ago.
With that thought still swirling in my mind, I left Big Bend National Park, and was immediately greeted by a border patrol check station. These checkpoints have appeared quite frequently near the US-Mexican border. I wasn’t sure if it was high-alert time, but they put out those orange traffic cones to direct all traffic through the station for inspection. An agent signaled me to stop with an outstretched palm, glanced at my California license plate with a frown behind his pilot sunglasses, studied me for a few seconds, and beckoned me to pass. That saved me the trouble of reaching for my driver’s license, which I kept handy on the passenger’s seat. I supposed I did look sufficiently innocent and decidedly non-Hispanic, but still it was an unexpectedly easy pass – I could have fitted 3 Mexicans in the back of my station wagon, I thought.
My next stop was the Guadalupe Mountains National Park, a short excursion before hitting El Paso for the night. Guadalupe was a small national park that nobody outside of Texas has ever heard of; but it was Texas’ roof top, with the highest point, Guadalupe Peak rises 8,751 feet above sea level. As I approached from the highway, I could see the Guadalupe Mountains looming in my windshield. The most dramatic sight of all was El Capitan, a massive limestone reef that towered over the highway like a dominating castle that ruled over the world.
El Capitan was such an imposing spectacle, it has long been a landmark for travelers of the old route connecting the east and the west. The Butterfield Overland Mail Trail, the first reliable stagecoach service between St. Louis and San Francisco, set up a station here to service their coaches in the late 1850s. The old “Pinery” station was located inside the park, but was now reduced to a pile of rubbles, with only a couple of partial walls still standing.
What attracted the coach line to build a station here was its lush grazing area and reliable water source, features that did not escape the notice of early homesteaders. About a mile east of the station was the Frijole Ranch, one of the earliest homestead in the area in the 1870s. Around the Frijole Spring (a modest springhead that seeps out 6 gallons of water every minutes), the Frijole ranchers have built a self-sufficient little world that include a generous living quarter with a modern-looking kitchen, a guest house, storage barn, and even a school house for local children. To survive and thrive in this largely arid desert land was no small achievement.
From the foot of the Guadalupe Mountains, I could see the highway stretch afar onto the distant desert. From there I made my descent, heading towards El Paso.
It was already dark after I checked into the hotel in El Paso. All I could see is an extensive plane of nightlights stretched as far as the eye could see. It was time for some Mexican food. There was a good Mexican Buffett near the hotel, and I was pleased to find a variety of Mexican soups available. Their menudo, a savory beef stripe stew, was to kill for.
The first thing I did the next morning was to drive up to the Scenic Drive on the north side to enjoy a panoramic view of the city, or rather the twin city of El Paso and Ciudad Juárez.
El Paso is at the intersection of Texas, New Mexico, and Mexico, which gives it an interesting blend of borderland flavors. Together with Ciudad Juárez, a neighboring Mexican city with a population of 1.5 million (El Paso had 685 thousands), the two cities formed a unique binational metropolitan area across the border. Historically, the two cities pretty much functioned as one large community, despite a border running through them. Ciudad Juárez, being the larger metropolis by far, had arguably more profound influence on El Paso than the other way around. In addition, El Paso never experienced the fire and blood of the Texas Revolution (1836) because it wasn’t part of Texas till 1848. In popular culture, the name El Paso was history more often associated with wild-wild-west characters such as Billy the Kid (this was basically his turf) and Pat Garrett (an El Paso native) than Texan folk heroes such as Davy Crockett. In modern days, the El Paso - Ciudad Juárez area is the new west for drug trafficking and the headquarter of Juárez Cartel. Many of their brutal public executions of law enforcement officers and rival gang members have shocked the world in recent years. All in all, El Paso was probably the least “Texan” city within the state, but radiated the vibe of a frontier town and a Latino community.
I could say that because I spent the rest of the morning walking all the way to the Mexican border on the Southside of town. Here you won’t find large chain supermarkets and department stores, but thriving colorful bazaars, small shops and eateries. All the billboards, shop names, and café menu posting on the windows were in Spanish. On the top of a side door of the Sacred Heart Catholic Church was a wrought iron sign that read “Centro Pastoral Sagrado Corazon” (Sacred Heart Pastoral Center). How exotic. Impressive street murals, a Mexican specialty, were everywhere. The residences on the side alleys were no different from what I’ve seen in any Mexican village – small boxy adobe structures with tile shingle roofs and bright color walls. Every single living soul on the street looked Mexican and chatted away in Spanish, except me. For a delirious moment, I thought I was lost and have accidentally crossed the border to Mexico. But then I looked back north and spotted the reassuring silhouette of the Wells Fargo building, and found my bearings.
At the southern edge of the city, I reached the Mexican border, where I could make out the huge engraved letters on a mountain on the Mexican side: “La Biblia es la verdad. Leela.” “The Bible is the truth. Read it.” Well, at least it’s helpful, I thought. It’s much better than that “Hollywood” sign over another equally sinful and violent city, if you ask me. This would be the end of road for me. I could only look up at a walking bridge that span over the Rio Grande to connect the two countries. The traffic seemed to be only one-way from Mexico to the US. The US and Mexican national flags were flying on top of it. I looked at the travelers in bright color T-shirts hastily walking by, wondering if the passage would be clamp down, or intersected by a wall soon. Hurry up, my friends, just run.
It was lunch time, and fortunately Yelp and Google still worked fine, however Mexican this place looked. I had a steamy plate of Fajita rice and a refreshing cup of shrimp cocktail – Mexican food are fine cuisine when done properly.
While fiddling my phone to look for the next attraction, a Holocaust Museum with rather favorable review caught my eye. El Paso, of all places, was the last spot I would expect to find a significant Jewish community – I thought they exist only in metropolis with thriving trades and handcraft industries. But then when I thought about it, there probably weren’t that many places with less bias toward Jewish people than a border Latino community. In general, the European colonists in the Latin world seemed to be a bit more tolerant – consider the fact that they allowed intermarriage with the indigenous people, unlike their uptight northern counterpart.
I decided that the museum was worth a look. I never been to a Holocaust Museum before, and I found myself not quite prepared for the mental shock, even though I thought I was familiar with that part of history. There was nothing compared with going through the excruciating details of how the Jewish people suffered throughout history, especially in the darkest era of the 1940s. The exhibit was well presented with high-quality artifacts, reconstructions of pre-WWII Jewish family scenes and the concentration camps, supplemented with videos of historic documentaries and testimonies of survivors. What I liked the most was a portrait of Anne Frank composed by many tiny images of the victims, next to a sculpture labeled “Remember the Children”. It was a powerful display. The old lady on the front reception desk probably noticed my expression as I walked out; she smiled knowingly and wished me a good day.
As I walked back to the car, I was still immersed in amazement. What a remarkable race, the Jewish people. After suffering millennia of injustice – dispersed from their homeland, persecuted by mainstream religions, prohibited from owning land, confined within ghettos with narrowing career prospects, they still maintained their racial and cultural integrity, exceled in every field of society, and lastly, overcame a thousand obstacles to rebuild their home on their unforgotten motherland, and developed it into the most civilized country in the region. Quite a dramatic and inspiring story won’t you say?With that story lingering in the back of my head, I prepared for my own exodus, leaving El Paso, Texas, and the South. I would be on my way back to the West.
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