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The El Paso experience
A glorious view of the El Paso landscape
A glimpse of the town; downtown El Paso
The statue of Fray Garcia de
San Francisco
One of the earliest missionaries to El Paso

What’s the best time to make a long road journey in the United States' I reckon it is probably any time between Thanksgiving and the New Year. The Thanksgiving and Yuletide spirit make even the fiercest cop a bit more generous and if your luck holds, you may (like we did) escape the $100 spot fine for being slightly over the speed limit.

We had flown from Washington DC for a winter break with friends in Dallas. Our next destination was El Paso and we bravely decided to drive the 600 miles to the city that nestles in the tri-junction of Texas, New Mexico and Mexico. The city dominates an ancient mountain pass amidst the Franklin Mountains.

If you’re more used to steering along the Grand Trunk Road, then Interstate 20 West can be a slightly daunting proposition. You have to battle 18-wheel road monsters that come thundering down the highway in both directions. But, yep, it’s a great feeling when you finally switch gears, step on the accelerator and get past the lumbering creatures. In fact, I finally decided that grappling with the giant trucks alleviated the monotony of the seemingly endless drive. The arid Texas landscape gets tedious after a while with only occasional ranches and oil rigs dotting the countryside.

A couple of stops for a snack and gasoline apart, we travelled non-stop for nearly 10 hours before the lights of El Paso twinkled in the distance. “Look for the single star on the mountain to your right,” our host, Amit, who teaches at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), had told us.

If you haven’t been watching many Westerns recently, remember that Texas is the ‘Lonestar state’. We were relieved to finally see the ‘Lonestar’ shining on the mountainside. To our left ran the vast plains of Mexico, as we navigated the last few miles.

Warm sunshine greeted us the next morning, as we set out to explore the university. Founded in 1914, the new buildings on campus are all styled like the royal palace in Bhutan. The wife of a former university president visited the Himalayan kingdom and was so impressed by the design of the palace that an architect was commissioned to make replicas for the UTEP campus. The predominantly Hispanic student population almost look like tourists amid the artificially-created Asian landscape.

Our friends insisted on taking us to an Indian restaurant imaginatively called the Indian Palace. This was our second attempt at eating out Indian-style on our travels. At Santa Fe in neighbouring New Mexico, I had been pulled in by the Cuisine of India restaurant’s claim of serving “exotic, fragrant dishes.” This one was thankfully more authentic.

Next we headed off to the ropeway that takes sightseers to the Franklin Mountain peak. From there we got a lovely view of three US states and two countries: the varied landscape of Arizona, the desert of New Mexico, the plains of Texas and a bird’s eye view of the Mexican town Juarez, just across the trickle of the Rio Grande and the highway.

By day, traffic in and out of El Paso and Juarez defies borders and the constant vigil of US border guards. Because of NAFTA, (North American Free Trade Association) goods made by low-paid Mexican workers come back in a never-ending flow by train and truck to the US.

Also, the newspapers are full of reports of Mexicans trying to sneak past the border guards into the Land of Plenty, only to die of thirst barely two miles inside US territory. Alternatively, they face the threat of being electrocuted by the livewire fences.

We looked on all this from a vantage point, a telescope in the mountains. It was like looking down on a slum from a highrise, an experience that many Indians can relate to.

To dispel these sombre reflections, we headed up and away in the Wyler aerial tram to the Ranger Peak of Texas State Park. It was an enjoyable ride to a fairly freezing altitude, although nothing as exhilarating as the one to the Sandia Mountains in Albuquerque, on the world’s longest ropeway.

From the ground station, one has no inkling of the howling December winds that seem to numb one’s bones. The summit has exciting mountain treks on offer, as well as ski zones for the more adventurous.

The view from the top is truly memorable, providing an all-encompassing aerial survey of the craggy contours of the American southwest. With longer hours of daylight (compared to the eastern time zone I’d come from) the ropeway could ply till twilight. It is a visual treat to watch the two trams operating simultaneously from either end.

For visitors to El Paso, a trek to Mexico to sample local cuisine or visit the crafts mall is as easy as walking across the Santa Fe Street bridge to the historic border town of Juarez. Not that El Paso is any less Mexican in flavour. We opted for enchiladas and quesadillas to add variety to the staple tortillas that night, as well as fajitas, with generous helpings of tequila, which we enjoyed even more than the Texan margaritas we had been drinking.

Tour guides insist that a visit to El Paso is incomplete without heading to the Chapel San Elizario, the 19th century graveyard, Concordia Cemetery, where John Wesley Hardin, the notorious gunfighter, is buried. Also, we visited the bell tower at La Purisima Socorro Mission.

Then, there’s the Fray Garcia de San Francisco monument and Magoffin home site which are also popular tourist sites. But it is Mt Christo Rey that draws the most crowds, 15 miles northwest of El Paso, which is a pilgrimage destination for Christians at Easter.

Like the neighbouring states of New Mexico and Arizona which have large numbers of American Indians, El Paso has the reservation of Ysleta del Sur Indian pueblo. Built by Tigua Indians in 1680, it has one of the oldest missions with a silver domed roof.

While visitors to the El Paso pueblo are not permitted to enter homes, residents at the Isleta reservation on the way to Santa Fe warmly welcomed us into theirs.

The daunting prospect of another marathon drive back looming before our weary, if satiated senses, we gave the local pueblo a miss. But we bravely decided that it was time to make the journey back to Dallas. With the Christmas spirit still in evidence, the officer at the border checkpost smiled benignly as he waved us on, not even glancing at the passport I waved at him.

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