“El Paso, not Plymouth, held the first Thanksgiving,” declared Peggy Boone of the El Paso, Texas, CVB. “In 1598, the 500 settlers led by Don Juan de Onate from Mexico to El Paso held a feast to celebrate their safe arrival. On the last Sunday in April, local history buffs re-enact the event at Chamizal National Memorial.”
Another fun event is Chamizal’s Music Under the Stars World Festival, held Sunday evenings June through August.
During my day trip to El Paso, I am confronted by menacing gunfighters, a sheriff and shady ladies at the Concordia Cemetery. One hombre is the spitting image of the infamous outlaw, John Wesley Hardin. He and other re-enactors from the Concordia Heritage Association are impersonating characters from El Paso’s checkered past.
My next stops are the Catholic missions. El Paso del Norte (North Pass) was a key crossing in the Americas for Spanish gold seekers. Catholic priests followed and built a chain of missions 90 years earlier than those in California. The oldest is Guadalupe Mission (1659) at Ciudad Juarez—El Paso’s twin city across the Mexican border.
A convenient way to investigate the region’s international culture is to ride the “Border Jumper” trolley from the El Paso Convention Center—easy to identify with its sombrero-shaped roof—to downtown Juarez, Mexico ($11).
Nearby Fort Bliss was established in 1849. The fort’s “Buffalo Soldiers,” or black cavalrymen, fought Apaches and Pancho Villa. Today, the fort is the largest air defense center in the Western world. Adjacent to the Buffalo Soldiers Memorial at the fort’s Robert E. Lee entrance, historian Ulysses Davis—astride his magnificent mare Mercedes at full gallop—punctures a line of balloons with his saber, exhibiting the skill of the black cavalrymen for me.
From June through August, the El Paso Association for the Performing Arts celebrates its grand history in the scenic McKelligon Canyon Amphitheater in the nearby Franklin Mountains, with songs, dance and pageantry titled “Viva El Paso!” El Paso’s famous Star on the Mountain, lit since 1940, is on the south side of the Franklin Mountains.
To get out of the heat, tour El Paso’s museums. At the Museum of Art, you’ll find some pieces from the famous Samuel H. Kress Collection of European masters. The private Hal Marcus Gallery features bright Hispanic and tropical themes. Adair Margo Art Gallery is the exclusive representative of the late artist Tom Lea, a Texas favorite. The Centennial Museum, El Paso Science Museum and Tigua Indian Cultural Centre are other sites worth seeing.
For dinner, try the Edge of Texas Steakhouse of Jimmy and Bucky Bowen. Bowen is a business magnate but prefers to be known as a good cowboy. For romance, head to the historic La Hacienda, which has strolling musicians most nights. (Don’t forget the margarita, as locals claim the drink originated in El Paso.) The titanic dome of Tiffany glass in the historic Camino Real Hotel is also worth seeing and as a bonus, you may rub elbows with a cattle baron or two.
JoAnn Roe is a member of Western Writers of America and Society of American Travel Writers, and has written 14 books.