Saturday, January 25, 2014

El Paso

I have never really given much thought to El Paso, Texas, it was always just some random town down south that I would probably never visit. Yet here I was pulling in through the suburbs into a sprawling metropolis. Apparently El Paso, along with it’s Mexican counterpart Ciudad Juárez is the world’s largest international metroplex, an interesting fact, considering I had always thought of El Paso as a mildly populous city, stuck out in the middle of nowhere. Alas El Paso is quite large, and I found myself quickly engulfed in urbanity as I raced on towards an unknown destination. 

Once I was well within the city limits I found a hotel and choose to stay two nights. It had been a long trip till this point and a day of rest and not driving seemed like a great idea. So I unloaded the contents of my car and instantly dispersed them throughout the square footage of my hotel room. Something about being cramped up in a car for days makes you relish in the concept of open space, and within moments my hotel room was littered with my belongings. I grabbed a quick nap, my legs were tired from the hike in Carlsbad Caverns, before heading off to find some food. My hotel was in the outskirts, and I knew the options for good local food were limit there so I headed towards downtown. I found a small dive bar across the street from a cemetery and tucked myself away at the bar. I ordered a plate of tacos and dazed off. The bar was filled with lively people all mingling and having a good time. It was clear most of these people knew each other, and more than once I noticed a group glancing my way. In my dazed state I hadn’t really noticed that I was the lone gringo in the place, which only boded well for how good my tacos, which were just arriving, would be. 

The tacos were great, and most importantly filling. I sat enjoying the tacos enjoying watching the people talk enthusiastically, about whatever is they were talking about in spanish. I finished my tacos and sat at the bar, eventually the place started to fill up and having my fill I left. The sun was just setting as I set off back to my hotel. The traffic was thick and I had to fight my way down the highway, a stark contrast to the thousands of miles of lonely road I had been calling home for the past few days. 

It was twilight when I got back to my hotel, but I had little ambition to explore anymore, instead choosing to tuck in with a book and relax. Soon I drifted off to sleep, I awoke to a text message at one and thought I had slept for 14 hrs straight in a chair. until I looked outside and realized it was still dark, it was 1am not pm. With a slight chuckle I turned off the lights and tucked myself into bed.

It was nearly midday before I ventured out, having spent a majority of the morning just enjoy the idea of not driving. El Paso was bustling, the highway jammed packed. I made my way downtown, it was still chilly outside and I decided to do some inside activities and allow the day to warm. Downtown El Paso is beautiful, where Spanish, Mexican and Texan architecture mix, giving it a unique appearance. I park along a main street and started wandering about, my East coast mentality told me to avoid eye contact with other pedestrians, but they all seemed rather eager to acknowledge me, and I returned the gesture. It strange to walk around a big city and exchange greetings with every person you pass. 

After just a couple blocks I found the El Paso Museum of Art, which my brain wanted so badly to be called Museo De Arte El Paso, it just seemed appropriate. All the signs in El Paso are written in English and Spanish, well all except that ones that are written exclusively in Spanish. It reminded me of Canada, except without all the snootiness of the French language. Upon enter the museo (see I just did that, and I’m not fixing it just to prove my point) I was instantly greeted by what can only be described as the cheeriest lady in all of El Paso. She didn’t even stay behind the information desk, she came right out and greeted me face to face. After a short stint of chit chat she explained the layout of the museum and sent me off. 

If you want to explore a museum I suggest going at midday on a weekday. The place was empty except for one elderly couple who were just leaving as I entered. The downstairs had an exhibit by a local artist, the influences of the region clear in his work. I’ve never been a big fan of art museums, they feel dead, dull, like walking through a taxidermied collection of animals, lifeless. With out the context of setting, the pieces lose something, and I passed from painting to painting without much emotional conjecture. I headed upstairs where the main gallery was, most of the paintings were of the American Southwest, there was a striking absence of Mexican art. 
My favorite painting in the museum.
A few paintings caught my eye one by an American artist Theodore Earl Butler, who had studied under Claude Monet., whose influence was more than apparent in the piece. It’s hard to imagine how Monet, along with other Impressionist painters, like Renoir, Pissaro, Cézanne, and Degas, had been so systematically rejected by the art world in France, that they had to open their own gallery in order to exhibit their works. The same works today which fetch millions at auctions and have become so familiar they transcend the art world into pop culture. I have never really had much of a affinity for realism, something about it just strikes me as mundane. Impressionism has emotion in it, it forces you to examine the piece from alternate perspectives. I sat and stared at the vibrant colors for more than a few moments. I was alone in the museum, which allowed me ample time to enjoy each piece. 
Fireworks, Vernon Bridge. Theodore Earl Butler, 1909. 
Putting aside my opinions of art museums in general, the El Paso Museum of Art was beautifully laid out, with an impressive collection of European art to compliment it’s regional exhibits. I left in peaceful bliss, art museums, especially empty ones, have a way of allowing you to set the world aside and enjoy a moment of inner peace. 

I headed back out into the day, the air had warmed and the sun was shinning bright. A team of workers were busily working on building a new baseball stadium for the El Paso Chihuahuas, a minor league affiliate of the San Diego Padres. A sign read, coming spring 2014, if that was the case these men were going to have to work fast. 
Seriously, they have three months!
The history museum is just a couple blocks away from the art museum and I slipped in for a quick look around. The El Paso Museum of History is a small museum focused on the history of El Paso and the immediate region. 

It’s funny how art museums tell you to not touch but history museums insist on everything being interactive. It was clear the history museum, like most history museums, was geared toward children, and it only took me a few minutes to walk through. 

I decided to walk around downtown and see the city on foot, most of the streets were empty, save for workers sprucing up facades and streets, all of whom greeted me with a smile and a nod of the head. I found a small restaurant down a side street, it seemed to be the only business open, and I stepped in. Again the place was empty and I was the lone patron, a distinction I had gotten all too familiar with on this trip. The place was decorated in wood, as in everything was wooden, even the displays of art work on the back wall. I ordered two tapas, managing to slaughter the Spanish pronunciation in the process, and a german stout. I sat staring around the room and noticed they also sold cigars, for smoking with your tapas. This was a novel idea to me, but I was reluctant to participate. 
My food was amazing, I don’t think I had had a bad meal yet on this trip, but this was a stand out, which it should have been considering the price tag. I sat savoring each bite, and staring into the emptiness of the vacant dining room. I finished my food and washed it down with my stout, whose german name I dared not try to pronounce. 

I decided to continue walking around, the weather was beautiful and I had paid for four hours of parking, of which I had only used three. I walked haphazardly through the streets, just staring and taking it all in. Eventually I reached a commercial looking street, where vendors were selling their wares, I was promptly harassed by merchants, my camera and lack of Mexican heritage marking me as a tourist. A man trying to sell his hip hop mix tape came up to me, explaining to me he was the top hip hop artist in El Paso, a lofty claim for a guy selling CDs out of the back of his pick-up. Upon my rejection his attitude turned foul and I decided to head back to my car. 

I love cities that are flat and built on a grid, it makes wandering so much easier, as I was able to navigate back to my car effortlessly. I had read about a road called scenic drive and decided to give it a look. It was only a little ways away. I reached the road in a couple of minutes, it’s winding pavement climbing up the side of a mountain overlooking El Paso and Ciudad Juárez. The police academy is situated near the summit and the cadets were out running along the road, it was a narrow road to begin with, with blind turns, and I had to negotiate between colliding head on with oncoming traffic or running over a team of police academy cadets. I managed to not injure myself or anyone else and made it to Murchison Park, where I pulled off to take in the amazing panoramic view of the largest international metroplex in the world. The flatness of the landscape below allowed one to see for miles, the urban sprawl spreading far out onto the horizon. 
You can see forever!
I sat at the park, which is more just a small viewing area, for a couple minutes relishing in the warm sun and enjoying the view. The image of the medium sized town I thought El Paso to be was erased with this view. 

After awhile I headed back to my hotel, it had been a short day, admittedly, but I had enjoyed myself throughly, and I needed to plan for tomorrow and get some rest before I entered the wilderness of the American Southwest. 

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