Why buses are better than planes, part one. Flying to El Paso, my plane (ironically, an Airbus) began emitting strange high-frequency blips and unexplainable static from various locations above the passengers' heads. After an air-mile or two, many of us wondered aloud what the unsettling sounds might be. Now, I admit this could happen likewise on a bus, but onboard a bus, such an experience would not conjure images of plunging fiery death. (Of course, such logic applies to the inherent difference between a bus ride's bumpiness and a plane ride's turbulence as well.) Why buses are better than planes, part two. Buses thread directly through the landscape, bringing the mountains, plains, and valleys of this land our land right to us. Planes rise haughtily above it all, vast distances, promoting detached indifference.
Why buses are better than planes, part three. You can see the guy (or gal) who's taking you places onboard a bus. He (or she) is not some disaffected, disembodied voice.
Why buses are better than planes, part four. Can you claim that you've visited a state if all you've done is flown over it? If I'd never been to New Mexico, and then I bused through it, I would definitely be able to count New Mexico among the states I'd been to, even if I never got off the bus. But does a state's airspace count as that state? I think not.
El Paso and San Diego, on paper at least, are rather similar. Both border Mexico and have foreign sister cities to the south. Both share the varied and abutting topographies of mountains and deserts. Like S.D., E.P. is a military town, with Fort Bliss, an Army base, occupying the northeast. Both cities have zoos and trolley systems and nearby wineries and owe their early expansion to the original railway systems of the 19th-century American Southwest. Spanish explorers arrived at both of these places in the 1500s. And because my plan for this article, explicitly stated, was to write a portrayal of what it's like to take a long ride on a bus, I had needed to find a good place to fly to and to bus back from. El Paso to San Diego seemed an excellent expedition.
Preparing for my El Paso sojourn and 806-mile bus trip home -- purchasing tickets, doing research, scribbling notes -- I'd come across an opportune news article in the sports pages proclaiming that El Paso was in fact the Sweatiest City in the United States. Some scientist had determined that the combination of high temperatures (93 degrees average in summer) and high humidity (70 percent average) in El Paso caused the residents to produce over a liter of sweat apiece every 60 minutes. The article went on to note how the people of El Paso could fill a swimming pool with sweat in just four hours.
I'd inhaled sincerely, thought a long moment, removed the now-superfluous-seeming deodorant from my list of Things to Pack, and scribbled instead a little note, a reminder. "Breathe around El Pasoans less deeply." When in El Paso...
Flying into El Paso, you notice the typical Southwestern terrain spreading beneath you: a lot of rocky brown (and rather beautiful) nothing, and then, suddenly, a city plopped there.
After I landed, I experienced one of the dualities of El Paso, Texas, desert city: mellow, easy, air-conditioned indoors, and then, the moment you step outside, your lungs get crushed right out of you. Breathing 100 hot, wet degrees.
Most of the other dualities of El Paso straddle the fact that it's a border town. And not just a border town, but a double border town. South El Paso touches the Mexican state of Chihuahua, and west El Paso adjoins the American state of New Mexico. El Paso also borders a bygone time. There is no edge of El Paso that doesn't touch something very different from El Paso, a diagnosis that might account for either maddening schizophrenia or a certain charm. Whatever El Paso is, in its heart, it is also Mexico, New Mexico, and Texas, with a dose of old western thrown in.
Whatever El Paso is, I was there for all of 20 hours, 8 of which I slept. Anything I tell you about the heart of El Paso is part fancy, part hearsay, and part inference. You may take my words with a spoonful of salsa, if you wish. I can, however, list a few of the peculiarities I noticed.
Most of El Paso's city buses have no advertisements on them, which is surprising and refreshing in this age of the sellout. One sign city buses do sport, however, next to the image of the cigarette with a line through it, is a picture of a handgun with a line through it.
El Paso boasts the world's largest outlet for boots.
Walking around, I counted at least ten images of a steer's horned head.
Downtown, I visited a shooter's supply store.
From the upper windows of my hotel, anyone with half-good eyes could see the wrinkling geometry of two giant flags, unfurled among the pavement and the concrete, not far away: one starred for the state of Texas, the other colored for the country of Mexico.
Gas in El Paso started around $1.89.
After I checked into my downtown hotel, I set out to do what I knew I had to do while I was in El Paso. I had to have a drink at the mythical Rosa's Cantina.
Because when it came to El Paso, there was only one thing I had known for a long time. That old song. "Out in the West Texas town of El Paso / I fell in love with a Mexican girl. / Nighttime would find me in Rosa's Cantina..."
The story runs that the real cantina inspired Marty Robbins to write his tale of love fought for and love lost on the old Western frontier. So I found a taxi driver, and I asked him to take me over to Rosa's.