Burnham, an associate professor of history at El
Paso Community College, likes to dress in Old West
attire and give tours of Concordia Cemetery in El
Paso, Texas. Here, he stands in front of the grave
of gunslinger John Wesley Hardin
craziest things get swirled together in El Paso, Texas ó
horned lizards and chihuahuas, baseball diamonds and city
offices, tiny shops selling pants designed to "lift
your butt" and sprawling stores stuffed with cowboy
the border, and every now and then I need a fix.
spent seven years living in McAllen, Texas, and love the
cultural mashup that erupts where Mexico and Texas
collide. Itís sun-baked and blistered and a little worn
around the edges, but chock full of character you donít
find farther inland.
700,000 people live in El Paso proper. About twice that
many live across the border in Juarez. Some speak English,
some speak Spanish, and most speak a combination of both.
Itís the same way with the food, the architecture and
just about every other element of life.
stayed at the Camino Real Hotel downtown, just a few
blocks from the international bridge, where a drink
beneath the beautiful blue stained-glass ceiling in the
Dome Bar helps settle the dust after a day of exploring.
Itís a block from the cityís new minor league ballpark
and museums, and a short stroll to a funky retail district
packed with mom-and-pop shops selling cheap imported toys,
$2 sunglasses and those booty-enhancing trousers.
didnít head across the bridge this trip, but people were
eager to tell me that tourism in Juarez is picking up
after years of drug cartel skirmishes. If you decide to
go, remember youíll need a passport ó and a guided
tour isnít a bad option.
Wright, who offers two-hour tours of both cities, showed
me around the El Paso side of the Rio Grande. We wandered
into an old neighborhood called Chihuahuita near the
bridge that dates to the days of Pancho Villa and the
Mexican Revolution. You can walk right up to the border
one of the most culturally unique cities in the United
States ó like San Francisco, New Orleans or Miami. Itís
that distinctive," Wright says of El Paso.
downtown, you canít help but notice the Franklin
Mountains, which bisect the city. At night, the outline of
a huge star illuminates one hillside. During the day,
Franklin Mountains State Park is a playground for mountain
bikers and hikers. During the summer, arrive early, carry
plenty of water and keep an eye out for
prehistoric-looking Texas horned lizards and rattlesnakes.
an easy jaunt from the parkís headquarters to the Wyler
Aerial Tramway, which looks like it should be whisking
skiers up snowy slopes. El Pasoís slopes are studded
with cactuses instead, and the four-minute ride takes you
to the top of Ranger Peak, where you can peer all the way
to the shimmering Samalayuca Sand Dunes, south of Juarez.
downtown, stop by the Plaza Theatre, a Spanish
Renaissance-themed show palace modeled after a 1700-era
Spanish hacienda. The 2,000-seat "atmospheric
theater" was El Pasoís only public building with
air-conditioning and chilled water fountains when it
opened in the 1930s. It was nearly demolished in the
1980s, but a $42.1 million public-private renovation in
2006 saved the space. Today you can still watch projected
clouds skim across the ceiling and stars twinkle in the
sky at the theater, which hosts a classic film festival,
concerts and other special events.
renovation) launched a sense that El Paso can do good
projects well," says Gary Williams, who gave a tour
and told me that the city is also working to bring back
its pre-World War II art deco trolleys.
downtown spaces donít look anything like they once did.
The old Greyhound bus station has been converted into an
art museum, and this summer marks the inaugural season for
the El Paso Chihuahuas ó the Triple A affiliate of the
San Diego Padres. They play in a brand-new ballpark built
on land occupied just two years ago by City Hall.
wanted to brush up on El Pasoís Wild West background,
too, so I headed to Concordia Cemetery, dubbed "the
Boot Hill of El Paso."
60,000 people are buried in the cemetery, just off of
Interstate 10. Albert Burnham, an associate professor of
history at El Paso Community College and grave researcher,
likes to dress up in Old West attire and talk about some
of its most famous residents. Among them? John Wesley
Hardin, a notorious gunslinger who supposedly killed 26
people, including one man just for snoring. The constable
who shot him is buried here too, along with Chinese
railroad workers, Buffalo soldiers, Texas Rangers, and a
7-foot, 7.5-inch sideshow star named Jake Ehrlich who once
reigned as the worldís tallest man.
my contention you canít take a step in here without
stepping on someoneís grave," Burnham says as we
roam among the crumbling tombstones.
the tour, we stop at nearby L&J Cafe, an El Paso
landmark that draws huge crowds. We nab a spot at the bar
and I order what the waitress tells me to ó green
chicken enchiladas. They are the best Iíve ever eaten,
of food, thereís lots of good food around here.
the Little Diner in the neighboring town of Canutillo, a
10-minute drive from the Camino Real Hotel, Lourdes
Gallegos-Pearson holds court over a hole-in-the-wall
restaurant her mother opened in 1977. Twice a week,
employees grind corn to make tortillas and masa. That ó
along with some chopped red chile pods ó makes the
tamales and the fat, Colorado chile-filled gorditas
special. (Regulars argue over which is better, the red or
green sauce. I vote red.)
youíre not in the mood for Mexican, head to Ardovinoís
Desert Crossing, a funky blend of an old speakeasy and a
1950s diner, where Patsy Cline once performed on a stage
built over a now-dilapidated pool. Youíll actually be in
New Mexico, but still within an easy drive of downtown El
Paso. Arrive early, spend some time watching trains rumble
past and take in the sunset. The restaurant hosts a
farmers market on Saturdays and live music on weekend
the sun sets and the air cools, youíll have just enough
time for a quick trip along Scenic Drive, which traces a
ridge of the Franklin Mountains above the city. Savor the
borderís eclectic flavor.
stayed at Camino Real Hotel, 101 S. El Paso Street,