Day 409 – Fort Hancock, TX > El Paso, TX


I’ve taken in a lot today and I’m struggling to get my thoughts together and into this blog, but here goes…

The lay of the land in round numbers –

El Paso fills 250 square miles at the western edge of Texas, across the Rio Grande River from the Mexican city of Ciudad Juárez. It snuggles up against the border with New Mexico, which wraps around it from the west to the north. Inside those 250 miles are 700,00 people, part of the massive Fort Bliss Army base and 17 miles of the Franklin Mountain Range.

The 40 miles from Fort Hancock to the edge of the city is full of farms growing mostly cotton and pecans providing lush green hues to contrast with surrounding arid brown landscape. I’ve included an image of my route superimposed on a Google map because it looks awesome! The farms make the long tail of an arrow whose head, composed of Juárez and east El Paso, points to the southern tip of the Franklin Mountains. Seriously a freakin’ mountain range with a 7K summit is within the city limits. Cue everything is bigger in Texas chorus.

To keep the crops green a massive amount of water is sucked out of the ground and fed into canals that feed smaller cement troughs that then empty into the fields. Both pecans and cotton are water intensive crops that require liberally irrigation in the form of flood and furrow respectively (see pics). Even thought the drought has ended in this part of Texas, I’m curious how sustainable growing these two thirsty crops is. I’m also curious if the economics could be worked out to switch over to drip or another more efficient form of watering that would require more expensive infrastructure.

On my way into El Paso I had to ride through the massive Western Refinery that straddled Trowbridge Drive (pic). Even with the wall of pretty flowers working to obscure its massive, pungent PETRO-industrial-ness, it was depressing to cycle past. The brilliant sun cooking the emissions from the refinery and the infrastructure it feeds throws up a disturbing amount of haze. I’ve included a picture of the Franklin Mountains from 10 miles out at the intersection of US-76 and North Zargosa. I’m sensitive to it because I want my wide open vista clear after spending so much time in NYC. Elon Musk hurry up and make your electric cars more affordable!


Off course?

I missed a turn off Trowbridge Drive? I blame the fumes!


I was supposed to turn off North Loop Drive at Delta Drive before North Loop turned into Trowbridge Drive?

I didn’t have to go past the refinery!?


Actually I take that back.


Missing that turn gave me a reason to rant about the fossil fuel industry and play to my stereotypical enviro-cyclist type boy do I feel superior…

Not really. In truth I am looking at buying a compact SUV once I’m done with this trip so I can get around this huge country easier. It’s not going to be a hybrid either I can’t afford them. Elon Musk hurry up so the vehicle I buy after this one will be all electric.

Now that I’m on Delta Drive…

Did you know we had a border dispute with Mexico that wasn’t resolved until 1963? Neither did I. So it came as a pleasant surprise to come upon the Chazimal National Memorial and learn that it’s possible for us to settle a border dispute without resorting to violence. Such as the Mexican-American War that was ended with The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo which got us 550,000 square miles of additional land and made the US border within the state of Texas the Rio Grande River.

I’m not sure if it was chosen to expedite the surveying process or what, but rivers move over time so there were going to be issues later on. Sure enough, by 1873 changes in its path had ceded 600 acres of Mexico, referred to as Il Chazimal, to the US side of the river. This didn’t sit well with Mexico so they petitioned the International Boundary Commission, which ruled in their favor. The US government did not accept the ruling by pointing out some legalese so it remained contested.

Over the next 50 years Il Chazimal became a place of unsavory characters and dubious activity, as disputed lands tend to become. No doubt helped along when a meandering part of the river was cut through in 1899 for flood control purposes creating the island of Cordova. This island, belonging to Mexico, surrounded on three sides by the US and administer by no one became even more unruly. The increasing lawlessness in Il Chazimal, now with it’s own island, combined with other geo-political factors like the Soviet Union’s eyes on Latin America (think the Commies are coming from the South), to finally convince the US to work on a solution.

President Kennedy paid a visit to Mexican President Mateos to start negotiating a solution for Il Chazimal in 1963. The treaty wasn’t finished until after Kennedy was assassinated so President Johnson actually signed it on September 25th 1964. The Memorial on the US side was authorized 2 years later. In addition to having exhibits on the history of the dispute and settlement, it serves as a center to celebrate US, Mexican and the resulting hybrid culture that has developed between the two border cities. On the Mexican side there is Parque Público Federal El Chamizal (Chamizal Federal Public Park), 124 acres of replanted forest dedicated to culture, education and sports.

With the constant tension between our two countries, it’s uplifting to see a Memorial in the US dedicated to the peaceful resolution of the dispute and an ongoing program of cultural presentations. If you are in the area I highly suggest checking it out. There is a lot to see and it is well put together.

After all that learning it was time for a feeding and I was craving pizza. I had been craving one ever since getting into El Paso because I needed something besides Mexican food in my stomach.

Ironic, I know after Chazimal, but true. I got my fix downtown by devouring a large pepperoni and pineapple pie in addition to 6 glasses of ice tea.

At the restaurant my waiter suggested I see the DIGIE Wall at the nearby El Paso Museum of History and so I did. Outside the entrance to the museum are 5 huge touch panel displays. The interface is navigated by swiping around a 3D landscape of images reminiscent of Monty Python animation that link to information and additional images about El Paso history. If you click on the link above and mouse around the heading of the page you’ll get an idea of what it is like. It took a few minutes to figure out, but once I did there was a lot of information and fun to play with.

The last thing I wanted to do before heading towards a motel for the night had to do with a book I got from Fred Egloff, the docent from the Western Museum of Art back in Kerrville on Day 375. The book, El Paso Law Man, is about the events leading up to a gunfight on April 14, 1881 that lasted 5 seconds and left 4 men dead. Apparently it was a popular tale written about many times, but without the original source materials and dedicated research that Fred put into it. His account earned him a key to the city in 1980.

Reading the book in Chisos Basin on Day 391, got me thinking about what history is.

At it’s most basic it is those events that happened before right now. But, as soon as a human gets involved in recording it, bias and the limitations of perception and memory infuse it. As more and more people get involved in the process of documenting, storing and transmitting history it’s narrative diverges. Determining what actually happened and its significance makes a lot of work for those interested in knowing, “what really happened.” It would be enjoyable to attend a history lecture where contested narratives that I know about are of debated. Like Christopher Columbus discovering America for example.

I only read Fred’s version and a brief recap of the famed Four Dead in Five Seconds Gunfight here to write this, so I don’t know the details of the others first hand. But my understanding is that the characterizations of the two primary men differed significantly depending on who was telling the story. Fred argued that former El Paso Marshall George Campbell’s character was diminished while his successor Dallas Stoudenmire had his character burnished.

I believe character is the bedrock of a person’s social worth, which is distinct from inherent worth. Character is something we have a choice in developing over time as we learn about ourselves and the society we live in. Our actions, thoughtful or not accumulate over time and reflect who we are. It resets upon the foundation of inherent worth which I believe is equal for all people at all times, immutable and unchangeable. I first learned about the concept of inherent worth in a self-help workbook I was using to combat clinical depression in NYC. The name escapes me, but you can find similar information here. The same idea is expressed through the idea that we are all Gods children, but it never made sense to me that way. Which leads to my belief that there are many paths to understanding and growth and none is inherently superior to the other.

Going back to Fred and his book – I always appreciate it when someone physically hands me a book to read. It makes me privilege it over others on my list. The fact that it was compact and about a piece of Texas history in a location I was traveling through made it all the more attractive. So thanks Fred for taking the time to correct the perception of George and Dallas and giving me a means of physically connecting with history along my ride.

Even though all the buildings at the time of the gun battle where gone, the street layout was the same so it was easy to find the intersection of El Paso and San Antonio Avenue (see pics and diagram from book) where it took place. However, after 30 minutes of searching for the plaque that got Fred interested in the story in the first place, I determined that someone had taken it off the side of the hotel nearby. I’ll have to contact him and see if he knows the history about that.