RV travelling can be such a see-saw. One minute we seem to be continually on the go, a new place to lay our heads every night and so many things to explore, and the next, we find ourselves plonked in an RV park, nearing the 4 week stay mark.
El Paso, I am so over you.
Our drive to El Paso from Carlsbad took only one day, but it was yet another long and continual desert drive punctuated by many stops for airing the bus– our first being at White City just a few miles outside of town.
Loops and I agreed we had to stop here to take a look at the place simply because all along the road to and from Carlsbad, there are roughly 30 signs – one right after the other, spaced about 20 meters apart – advertising the virtues of White City and why it is an amazing place to visit. You are tempted with offers of places to stay (RV park, tenting and motel – with showers!), things to buy (curio shop selling local crafts and tourist items, café, grocery store selling cold cherry cider and the last petrol for 150 miles!), things to do and see (waterpark with slides and playground, geological site, tourist information centre).
So we pull in (I need to buy a New Mexico magnet for my sister) and realise the reason for all of the signs – without them, no-one would even bother glancing at the place. It is true that there is an RV park and a shop, but either we are passing through on the off-off-off season or the motel and water park haven’t seen business in this century, the Indian crafts trading post is permanently closed to custom and I didn’t see any sign of a tourist centre or geological site (maybe they’re just talking about the dirt and rocks the ‘city’ sits on?)
Still, the one shop that is open kept us entertained for about 20 minutes, mostly because in the atrium between the craft area and the grocery area we found things like this to mess about with….
We keep on driving and make another much needed stop at Guadalupe Mountain National Park. This is the location of the highest peak in Texas, and I can attest that from the sheer about of fumes in the bus, we are up high and that Belle has had her work cut out to get up here. We fling open the windows and while the fresh air does its thing, we take a short stroll on the ‘nature path’ leading off the visitor centre (because we have to do something to earn the NPS stamp I just collected).
It is here that I realise I am obviously ‘desert-ed out’. This national park receives very few visitors each year; it is tiny in size by comparison to most of the other parks and its most notable feature is its peak – El Capitan – but not to be confused with the one in Yosemite National Park. I look at the surroundings, and should be in awe, or inspired, or feel something at least, but all I am feeling is hungry, hot and a little bit tired.
Yes, I feel I am ready to see lush green grass and trees again and to feel a cool breeze on my face.
El Paso, when we finally arrive, is a both a surprise to me and yet at the same time, totally expected.
It is the largest city we have seen since San Antonio, and therefore I am expecting yet another sprawling metropolis with skyscrapers and honking traffic; but it remains much in the same vein as the rest of the desert towns we have come through. Yes, it sprawls, but comes with the feel of a smaller town getting on with business here in the desert, and it just happens that it has expanded outwards creating a city.
The actual ‘downtown’ area with the courthouse, big banks and business, turns out to be rather small and there are only a handful of structures which verge on being named a skyscraper. Driving through the streets I get an overwhelming feeling of familiarity, almost of déjà vu. It takes a moment but I finally have it. “It’s Southampton,” I tell Loops. “Or actually, probably Portsmouth.” Yes, I am driving through El Paso, Texas and feel like this could be the centre of Pompey. And for those of you at home, you’ll get what I mean by that feeling.
As for the rest of the city, well, most of it belongs to the US Army.
At least half of El Paso seems to be made up of Fort Bliss, a huge army installation (according to Wikipedia, it is the United States Army Forces Command largest), but I can tell its size simply by the fact it’s the first army base we’ve come to that has its own shopping centre complex). From what I can tell by just driving around, it seems to be a very big support post; meaning that they keep tons of vehicles about the place, lots of warehouses (filled with equipment I’m sure) and lots of training army people running about in the very hot sun.
It also houses a very good library. I know, not the sort of thing you’d usually be worried about, but this library contains the best DVD collection of TV shows (both British and American – I found the whole series of Sharpe!) I’ve ever seen, and you can borrow them for up to 2 weeks at a time.
So overall, it seems that El Paso would not a bad place to hang out while we deal with the most pressing issue at hand – the exhaust leak. However, I’m am writing this now three weeks after we arrived, and we won’t be leaving for another week; no offense to the city and its residents, but I am ready to get the hell out of El Paso.
We had successes in our first week, it’s true. The second night in town we went and ate the World’s Best Steak. Please realise, I am not a big meat eater and so I don’t bestow that title lightly. If you pass through this part of the country and don’t make a stop to Cattleman’s Steakhouse Ranch in Fabens, Texas; you are a fool and I laugh in your face for missing out.
The Steakhouse is not just a restaurant but an actual working ranch, with small animals like goats and sheep arranged petting zoo style for guests, horses I think you can book out and ride, and of course cattle – Texas Longhorns and Bison! I am thrilled by the Longhorns – I didn’t want to leave Texas without seeing some and guess what….
We dined in fine style; Loops outdid himself by bringing us here. I was treated to a Filet Mignon (my first ever), which I’m pretty sure ran to $40, but was worth every single penny. I have never eaten a steak that when you pressed on it was squashy to the touch, nor so easy to slice through, like butter. Put it in your mouth and it literally dissolves. Oh my god. If someone would serve me a steak like that every night, I’d never eat anything else again in my life.
Not only did we dine, but I spent the whole week catching up on writing and editing videos, Loops changed out the band clamps on the exhaust to see if that made a difference (it didn’t) and I convinced him to walk up to a cave in the Franklin Mountains State Park (which is located directly behind us and forms the striking backdrop of mountains we can see from our windows). Technically the park is the largest urban park in the US, because the 40 square miles it covers is all within the boundary of the city limit. The cave walk provided some much needed exercise, given it was up a hill and included step rock crop steps, but the best bit was watching the excellent parenting of a lady who dragged her 3 small children to the top of this slippery shingle cave outlook, and then proceeded to hide Easter eggs for them to find on the rock outcrops and shingle slope. Now I’m all for kids enjoying the outdoors but even I know when to use some common safety sense.
The second week was flavoured with more of the same activities, but additionally included some baking for me (I now know how to make my own Victoria Sandwich, should I ever be missing home and need to eat one), uploading videos at the Army library, Loops getting the bus washed, a trip to a special cantina and a visit to the Border Patrol museum for us.
The museum was of particular interest what with our having passed through a number of checkpoints on our way west and seeing the patrol vehicles passing up and down the roads as we drove. The first thing I learned (and once again, this is where I sound a complete moron) is that the border patrol doesn’t just cover the southern border with Mexico; it also covers the northern one with Canada and also the coastal areas. I guess because all you hear in the news is about Mexico and the impending wall of doom, you (like me) might forget about the other borders!
The museum is free to enter, donations appreciated, and you can only take photos, not video. It is divided into several sections across two sides of the building. The left-hand side contains vehicles that the different Border Patrol sections use, including a rather spanking looking chase vehicle (from the 60’s I think) and a scarily basic helicopter.
There is a small area near this which serves as a memorial for staff who have died while serving and contains a book listing the people and how they passed away (and I will say, I was shocked to see the number of people who actual died due to traffic accidents – rolling their vehicles while on general patrol, in pursuit or simply driving to work). In addition there is another memorial to two patrol agents (Agents Newton and Azrak) who were kidnapped and murdered in 1967. There is a newspaper clippings book telling the whole story from the time they went missing until their murderers were arrested. By all accounts it is harrowing to read through.
On the right side of the building there are exhibits related to the history of the Border Patrol (with quotes from early staff explaining they had no real idea of what their job was when the agency was developed, they had no power of arrest and could not carry firearms, so they would walk around looking assured and stern and trying and keep people in line with their words); as well as information on uniform changes over time and examples of methods people crossing the border have used (which also helped explain why we saw patrol vehicles dragging tires on chains behind them as they drove their chalk road – to help monitor footprints of people crossing the road out of the desert).
I was interested to learn about the Border Patrol Dog Unit and was glad to see the dogs themselves actually gained recognition for their work too, having a tally kept of their individual drugs hauls; as well as discovering that there is also a rescue section of the Border Patrol team, which I suppose would make sense especially on the northern border if people are crossing in the mountains and snow.
I thought initially the museum might be a bust, I mean, how interesting can patrolling a border be? But I was really pleasantly surprised by how much there was to learn and what an interesting branch of the government they are; definitely worth the time to stop in.
Our trip to the cantina also has to be worth a mention, even if nothing else than to serve as a forewarning to others.
Loops is an enjoyer of old music, songs sung by people I’ve never heard of and consider obscure. One of these people happens to be someone called Marty Robbins, who wrote a country ballad song in the 1950’s called Rosa’s Cantina. The song is about a guy who falls in love with a Mexican girl (who works in Rosa’s Cantina in El Paso), kills another man over said girl, flees and then returns only to die in her arms, after being shot when he came back into town. Loops made me listen to it (not my cup of tea), and then drove us out to the real life Rosa’s Cantina – the site the song was either about, or written in the car park of, depending on which story you read.
Don’t get any romantic images in your head of the cantina. It sits along a dusty tarmac road on the outskirts of the city, just past the site of the major reconstruction work of the I-10. It’s surrounded by rough looking, and some boarded up, businesses. It’s not on a tourist road or in a little village; no-one comes here accidentally if they can help it. But the car park is jam packed and we have to park on the road, dreading how long we will have to wait for a table inside. However, Rosa’s is a veritable Tardis. It looks like a tiny white-washed stucco building from the outside, but has plenty of space inside for a bar, tables and a stage for live entertainment.
We find a seat right away, and check out the very slim menu. After a couple minutes we manage to catch the waitress’s attention and order some nachos and water. And so begins our adventure.
Our waitress appears to potentially be the only person working in the building. We count at least 10 other couples who entered Rosa’s, sat down and 10 minutes later walked out again without ordering, because no-one came to serve them (even the one guy who waved several times at the waitress).
Our water arrived first. It tasted like ass. Now, I am not a complainer of food and drink, my Britishness does not allow me to verbally voice discontent in a restaurant, I eat and drink what I am given and either accept the mediocrity or complain viciously, once I have left and no one can hear me. But this water tasted like ass. And so I agreed for Loops to order us a coke instead because I just couldn’t take another sip.
The nachos were as mediocre as they come, but edible. Sadly, we were a little put off our food by the lady wailing on the stage. She must have been in her 50’s, wearing a dress made for someone in their 20’s living in the 90’s, and was singing rather off-key in Spanish. It was more like a bad karaoke experience than anything.
By this time, of course I thought this whole experience was hilarious; Loops was more interested in the fact the enterprise was missing out on so much business. It got even better when we couldn’t get the waitress to give us the bill, even though Loops asked for it, twice. Finally I told him to go stand by the register until she appeared there.
While he was doing his best to force money into her hands, the door of the cantina is flung open and in strides a biker gang. A real live biker gang! (Be aware, I don’t necessarily mean they were like a gang of outlaws.) They all had the same outfit, their biker cut-off vest type jackets with the La Cruces logo on the back and on the front they all had a role tag – I saw one guy with one that read ‘Enforcer’ but I found it hard to take him too seriously when he pulled a comb from his pocket and began combing his little goatee beard.
By this time Loops was done, we made a dash for it and at least we can now say we have visited the infamous site of Rosa’s Cantina!
Which brings us to week three – when we finally found out what was wrong with the bus but then received some very sad, but unrelated, news right after it.
Despite Loops’ very best efforts, the source of the leak has continued to elude him, but he finally managed to track down a truck repair company here in El Paso that had just received a (brand new, still in the box) piece of equipment that will test for leaks in your exhaust system using coloured smoke. We had to wait five days (!) for the guys to fit us in, but they agreed to test their new $4000 machine on our bus and happily didn’t charge us for the use of it.
After some uming and awing, a bit of reading the instructions, watching the demonstration videos on YouTube and gathering as many technicians around as possible just to poke and prod the machine and nod in an enthusiastic manner; they were ready to go. A small inflatable canister was placed down the exhaust pipe from the roof to seal it, the dye was added to the air valve on the machine and then it rumbled into life. It took only two minutes for the smoke to appear in the engine compartment pointing out our problems – a smaller leak in the stack area of the exhaust pipe (where Loops hasn’t reached up into to fix) and a large leak with smoke steadily pouring out of the exhaust manifold.
Now, I know nowt about mechanics, but the predicted bill they happily provided us with quoted 16 hours of labour and over $3500 to fix it; so I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s a fairly large issue to remedy. Loops of course takes one look at the bill and promptly decides he’s going to find a different answer to our problem – which might be up in Arizona in the shape of a mobile truck mechanic who has been recommended by other Bluebirders.
However, his plan is going to have to wait because shortly after, we receive a very sad phone call to inform us that Loops’ cousin had passed away unexpectedly, and this means he will be making a return trip to Florida for the week to attend the funeral and be with his family.
I am being trusted to stay behind and look after Belle and the Beast, without breaking anything, which is a rather exciting and yet terrifying prospect in one go. Fingers crossed we will all still be in one piece when he gets back, and we will once again get on the road again.
I can tell you, I can’t wait to get some more miles under our wheels and I’m certainly ready now to wave goodbye to Texas and see some more of the country – hopefully something a bit greener and cooler!
Thank you and goodnight, Texas. You have been wonderful.