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Flying over thunderstorms

A morning in Denver and then a gentle journey to El Paso, Texas

semi-overcast 30 °C

Room 111, Best Western Mission Inn, Las Cruces, New Mexico
5.45pm, Monday 4 June 2012

A brilliant day, again, today, but, in this Blog, we're just going to get us as far as arrival in El Paso. But do remind us to tell you about the biggest pistachio in the world! Don't let us forget.

We'd had a problem getting to the Curtis Hotel in Denver on Saturday afternoon due to street closures. One of those closures was down to a street art exhibition. More on this shortly.

Opposite the Curtis Hotel....

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....is the great arts complex. Fairly new, taking in an old 30s building and new constructions. Opera house, concert hall, theatre and cabaret theatre, the local worthies were arriving for a concert by the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. We wished we'd done some research on this and got some tickets. We did catch some Americans "at work". To be fair, they do generally work very hard.

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Then came a dinner in a local diner, which was amazingly cheap considering we were in the centre of a major city.

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The photos didn't do it justice so will skip those but for $9.99, John's Calves Liver, Onions and Bacon, served with garlic mash and zuccinis was the star of the week. And Bob's fried chicken with similar was also good, both preceded by a large "Garden" salad. Puds are being avoided whenever they are unavoidable!

A wonderful sleep with curtains open to the Denver night skyline heralded free breakfast in the funky (that word again) cafe at the Curtis Hotel. A great selection with lots of things like fruit and oatmeal as well as the usual eggs, bacon and pastries. Guess which Arthur had?

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Back up in our room on Floor 15, we could spot the weather reporter on Channel 7 giving out the weather and chatting to artists in the street below us. We could also see her on our TV!

The exhibition had not yet officially got under way, so we beat the crowds which appeared later. Most of the artists seemed to be women and a lot could well be employed in libraries, Arthur thought!

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Our Channel 7 weather girl (very impressive - we watched her give the forecast live and interview an artist, no monitor, no notes, no prompter, no producer. Just her and the camera guy):-

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Here, a few shots as we wandered the streets of Downtown Denver:-

The free bus that shuttles up and down 16th Street Mall
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Our beloved Union Station, isolated by works and fences as they build a new interchange for an ever-expanding light rail network. Denver is buzzing.
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And we've always loved the towers in Denver, most of which were here when we first visited in 1987.
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Finally back at the room, we could see how busy the street art show had got
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An easy, if busy, drive to DIA as Arthur knows it (Denver International Airport) which is massive. Via a gas station nearby to top the Chevvy to brimming (always a challenge to find a gas station near the airport, but pre-planned, and it's not stressful).

At the airport this sign....
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reminded us of the ridiculous habit here of adding "e" to make things seem smart, or olde worlde (got me at it now). We've seen "shoppe", everywhere, "towne", "grille" and even a small-ad selling "Old English Buldogges".

Oh, and a great quote from Fox TV (sorry, it was an aberration). Their London correspondent kept talking about when the Queen was "coronated". But then, they only employ Republicans on that channel.

Our gate was right at the very end of the enormous United Airlines terminal, down in the basement where all the flights go to little towns using little jets. It was a bit like Luton Bus Station. There were just 30 others on our flight to El Paso. We had to climb up through a storm which made it a little choppy.

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... and we're pretty sure we drove that road today, into Las Cruces.

Checked into a great-value Radisson right at the airport and next door at the Cattle Baron's, we enjoyed a salad from what must be the biggest salad bar we've ever seen, followed by New York steak (Bob) and fried catfish + yummy tartar sauce (John) both served with sweet potato (mmmmm).

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then plenty of zzzz's (until VW España phoned at 4.30 am to tell us our new Tiguan instruction book would be in in about 2 weeks. They were not to know!):-

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More from El Paso including news of the world's largest pistachio!

Posted by Johnash 18:10 Archived in USA Comments (10)

El Paso, El Remolino (Mexican Maelstrom)

From Desert to Ponderosa Pine to Spruce to Swirling Mass of cars and humanity

sunny 35 °C

Room 1504, Doubletree, El Paso Texas
4.50pm, Tuesday 5th June 2012

Like many, I expect, we had an image of El Paso as a sleepy town, in a far corner of Texas on the Mexican border. Lazy Mexicans with large sombrero, dozing under cacti sipping tequila.

Wrong! Although we knew it had grown, we did not expect the swirling vortex of traffic jostling for position on I-10 and other highways. El Paso has grown to a sprawling city of nearly 800,000 people and, over the Rio Grande, behind fences and wire and cameras and lights, is Cuidad Juarez, a city of over1.5 million souls with a murder rate as high as any in the world.

Because of the problems over the border, a high level of law enforcement here means El Paso is one of the safer cities in the USA. It is 80% Hispanic, evident when we were wandering round a couple of the department stores (out of the 3: JC Penny, Macy's and Dillards) in a newish mall a few miles from downtown this morning. The only English we heard was from us and assistants when they spoke to us. It was just like being in Corté Ingles but without the English.

And far from being poor and run down, the suburbs we saw looked prosperous and tidy with lots of new and newish cars. Not the beaten up, dusty pickups we'd expected. But it feels very much a border town.

The hotel is one of only two hotels downtown which is a quiet and a somewhat desolate spot compared to the swirling mass around it. Though we will try and prove this wrong tomorrow morning when we plan a walking tour.

A view over the border, the Rio not-so-Grande into Juarez. A different world just over the fence
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We are on the 15th floor with only one other building in view of similar height. We can see a lot of parking lots, the Interstate and the railroad marshalling yards. Fascinating stuff. (Since this, we've driven around Downtown and it is much more interesting than first appears. More in next blog).

But, we're ahead of ourselves. More on El Paso soon, but back to yesterday, which turned into yet another fascinating day.

We had a loop drive planned, ending in Las Cruces, over the border in New Mexico. Indeed you are soon over the border here, unless you are driving East.

Our first target was Cloudcroft, a small town in the Sacramento Mountains. Amazingly, having driven across Chihuahua desert (Arthur kidded Stan that there were huge packs of small dogs roaming this area, snapping at people's heels. Stan did not really believe him, but kept a weather eye open). Through the town of Alamogordo, where most of the business signs were in Spanish, of course, we then climbed steeply to 9,000ft. From yucca and creosote bush, through cottonwood and ponderosa pine, to majestic spruce trees, packed in their thousands.

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Our plan had been to drive back down to Alamogordo to visit the space museum there. (A vast area of desert here is taken up by the military where the first atom bomb was tested and missiles are still tested. There is also a landing strip for the space shuttle.) But we decided to carry on in the pine forests and drive back down through the Mescalero Apache Reservation. In the forest they keep cattle and trade in wild horses and, from our own observations, spend a lot of time mending broken fences. Further down, towards tribal HQ Vivienne may well have recognised that we were in an indian reservation:- lots of "saved stuff", mostly very old cars, round the mobile homes that took over from tepees.

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One for Terry. Not junk cars, these.
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Our TomTom spokesperson, Lorri, was then supposed to take us to the maximum security federal prison where the UK businessman was being held after being extradited to the US (he is now out on bail). But instead, she took us to Alamogordo "airport".

Next port of call was the White Sand National National Monument. We did not expect much of this place but we were gob-smacked. Gypsum gets dissolved in rain and snow melt in the mountains and then gets carried down to the plain. Here, there is no outlet. The water evaporates in the desert heat, leaving the gypsum to form into snow-white dunes which creep across the desert. It was the most eery experience. At temperatures of 100F it felt as if we were driving through snow fields, with drifts all around us and ice, apparently, on the road. John was tempted to switch on the 4wheeldrive on our beast of a GM Yukon car.

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Due to our diversion into the Apache lands, we were by now too late to visit the White Sands Missile Range (which takes up a mere 3,200 sq miles) much to Arthur's displeasure, as he had been hoping to have a go at firing off a few ICBMs.

So it was back to Las Cruces for the night. Another town which was much bigger and far busier than expected, but very pleasant all the same and, again, very Hispanic. It is the fastest growing town in the US thanks in part to the New Mexico State University being located here.

Dinner in the local "Village Inn" then to comfortable beds in the local Best Western.

John: Chicken Cobb Salad, Bob: Enchiladas with cheese+beef taco with refried beans, nachos+green chilli sauce
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More on Mesilla old town and our exciting El Paso experiences in next Blog. Have a Mexican soap opera to watch.....

Oops, almost forgot, on the drive back towards Las Cruces, we passed through pistachio orchards, and, being Americans, they had to create some sort of attraction. So here it is, the biggest pistachio in the world

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Exciting eh? And... as we flew into El Paso, we noticed large plantations of trees which mystified us. This morning we found out.. they were Pecans. Judging by the size of the plantations, an awful lot of pecans are grown in Texas (New Mexico?). And it's Pecaaaaaaawn by the way. Not peecan!

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Posted by Johnash 20:45 Archived in USA Comments (10)

On A Mission

Three of them, actually.

sunny 37 °C

Room 1504, Doubletree, El Paso
450pm, Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Gosh, I'd hate to be a picture editor as it has been difficult choosing those to put in the Blog today. There are a lot, so I apologise to those with slow Internet connections, Vivienne.

Spooky that Brenda mentioned haircuts as first priority yesterday, after free breakfast at the Las Cruces Best Western, was to get our collective hair cut. Googelmaps is a boon on these trips. Put in "barber" with the hotel selected on the map and, Bob's my partner. Jack was my Uncle, and Sam.

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City Barbers had 6 barbers, all latino, waiting for us. We were out in a jiffy with neat heads (hats now fit better) and $13 lighter. Well Bob's was $14 as he was too proud to ask for the over 60s price!

Next was a car wash. The Sherman tank was looking the worse for wear after the sand dunes. Pulled smartly into what John thought was a car wash and it turned out to be a Jiffy Lube bay. We had to be pretty quick before the really pleasant young man could change our oil and lubricate our parts.

Next door we negotiated, in Spanish, a price of $10 for a hand wash while we waited in their waiting room - which appeared to be an abandoned KFC. No question our possessions were not safe. Indeed at no time on this trip, though we've got lost a few times in the big cities, have we felt in the slightest bit unsafe. And it's just been confirmed by the mayor, and he should know, that El Paso is the safest city in the US. Does not quite tie in with the murders we've been seeing on the local news but am sure he is rightish.

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So, feeling much smarter, we headed for Mesilla, a separate town next to Las Cruces. Unspoiled and unchanged, this is still like a Mexican pueblo. Although the shops contain smart gifts and cafes etc.

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The church was hosting a funeral attended by the local fire chief who said "Good Morning Sir" to John. Not uncommon in these parts.

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We thought the numberplate on the hearse was a bit unfortunate, though.

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Then on through pleasant countryside, with, occasionally flooded, fields of Pecan trees.

We were soon in the sprawl of massive El Paso, but our first port of call, for a new pair of Levi's for Bob, was Cowtown Boots "factory outlet" which turned out to be 15 miles out from the centre, yet still in El Paso. Massive store, should you want a new pair of boots, hat or shirt.

We followed "Border Highway", following the formidable fences and unknown defences, where US Border Patrol vehicles are placed every half mile or so.

Just remembered: we were stopped at a checkpoint on Monday on the way to Cloudcroft and interrogated by a US Border Patrol officer, looking for illegals. It emerged we had no entry stamps in our passports. Part of the new ESTA entry system which did not seem to please him. But he shrugged and we drove on. Best English accents intact! Arthur kept very quiet.

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Back to Downtown and found the hotel without too many heart-stopping moments. Parked on the 5th floor, room on the 15th.

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We took a drive out later on Mesa street towards the University where we found a strategic place to park and look across into Mexico

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Back on Mesa Street was a row of restaurants, mostly chain. But we stopped at "The Mesa Street Grill (no "e" this timee) and decided to try that. We'd parked up, but then spotted "Free Valet service". Those words, linked with the words "fine dining" always end in a hefty check. We stuck with it and John's Crabcake duo (2 crab cakes with asparagus and carrot strands - NO CHIPS) and Bob's Half Roasted Chicken over Couscous were both delicious and worth a bit extra, we felt. We rushed out before viewing the dessert menu. The place was patronised by local Anglos, mostly of the lawyer/politician variety. On a nearby table a posh-looking middle-aged woman arrived and sat alone. Then a tall, smart, bossy guy arrived in expensive sports coat, accompanied by the restaurant owner. They then spent the evening holding hands across the table, manoeuvring posh pasta into their mouths with the other. An illicit tryst, without doubt! He could well have been a big politician. Maybe the mayor?

And so home to bed to watch Spanish soaps.

Now on to today. After the included breakfast (thanks to B's Gold Card, again: what an asset).....

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milk in a gravy tureen?

...we finally managed to find a parking space in Downtown outside the local flop house. From our bedroom perch it looked as if there were plenty of parking meters, but not, of course, when you need one.

There was some life in the old Downtown, but much of it is in a sorry state with empty parking lots, empty old office buildings and shut-down business. This, of course, is repeated across the USA, with a few notable exceptions (eg Denver). The only busy-ness we found later was around the City and Federal buildings, mainly the courthouses!

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The Plaza Hotel was the first high rise hotel opened by Conrad Hilton, then known as the Hilton! Now being restored, we think
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The beautiful lounge in the restored Hotel Camino Real
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Towards the border, Hispanic shops are livening Downtown

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Then on to the Mission Drive. Via the Tigua Indian's pueblo. A second tribe where tidiness seems to be a motto. We were escorted round their museum by a Tiguan indian. He is now aware that VW sell a car using there tribal name and he thinks Big Chief Tigua may be onto VW pretty damn soon. Ugh!

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Tidy!
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Then through the El Paso suburbs to 3 beautiful Spanish missions dating from the 17th Century though all have been rebuilt to a certain extent and the last (located in very Mexican, Elizario) is being restored inside.

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Finally back to drive "Scenic Drive" which skirts the mountains behind the city with great views over both El Paso and Juarez, its giant Mexican sister. At the end of the Drive are enormous houses, no doubt owned by the sort of people who dine at "The Mesa Street Grill" (no "e") with tremendous views over all their poverty-stricken neighbours in both some parts of El Paso and most of Juarez. Huh!

Ironically some Hispanic kids looking back towards the country of their parents
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It's easy to spot the stream known as "Rio Grande" and no man's land.
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A finally, a typical local supermarket:-
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Tomorrow we move on Eastwards, along the border, towards Big Bend National Park.

PS Just back from an unexpected major highlight of the trip: meal in Mexican cafe. More soon.


.

Posted by Johnash 19:54 Archived in USA Tagged missions el_paso las_cruces mesilla border_mexico Comments (10)

A Road from Nowhere to Nowhere Else

Stunning Just Driving through empty West Texas

sunny 37 °C

Room 101, Hampton Inn, Alpine Texas
4.27 Central Time, Thursday, 7 June 2012

Howdee pardners. Bob is home at last. Deepest Texas.

To get you in the mood, let this play while you read on: should get you in the mood.

We left the pandemonium of El Paso behind,

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... taking the road towards Carlsberg and heading for the much ignored National Park of the Guadalupe Mountains which includes the highest peak in Texas. A 75mph all-but empty road. Some stunning vistas. We had not realised it was a National Park until we got there.

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We turned back on ourselves for a few miles to get onto Texas Route 54. We left nowhere in particular on this road, to arrive at a place called Van Horn, which was as good as nowhere too. We'd not read about this and judging by the number of cars (around 4) it's not even a well kept secret. Just no one knows about this dead straight road (well, a bend after about 30 miles) with dramatic views as good as any we've seen. Don't tell anyone!

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We then hopped onto I-10 for a few miles at 85mph (they don't hang around in Texas. The fastest we've driven, legally, in the US).

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Then down another backwater of a road, Texas 118. Again, long, seemingly never-ending straights until Bob took over the driving for a while. He happened to say "we've had no decent road works with convoys on this trip" and immediately, the road turned into a twisty switchback with the shoulder crumbling away and, round the 22nd bend, there they were, major roadworks to contend with. They were repairing the crumbling shoulder, making it even more crumbly in the process. But Bob kept his head and managed very well.

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It seemed a long way before we hit Fort Smith, an old army fort, now abandoned and a National Monument, but still a small Western town, in the middle of not anywhere in particular.

Then on to a town called Marfa (not named by a cockney after a Beatles' character, my dear, but named for the heroine of a Russian novel. The wife of Chief Engineer of Southern Pacific Railroad, who was reading the novel, suggested the name. The novel must surely have been The Brothers Karamazov by Feodor Dostoyevsky). I may get that book finished tonight, at last. The town had the most magnificent court house, and little else.

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The final stretch on a fast and quiet road, brought us to our resting place for the night. A town (incomprehensibly named Alpine) that may be about to be revived by the building of a new university. It is also the "gateway" for Big Bend National Park, which is the main highlight of this part of our trip.

Bob checked in and seems to have been promoted to Hilton Honors "Platinum" according to the girl at the desk (Bob and she had difficulty understanding each other!) but "Diamond" according to the letter in the room. And what a room. Bob's card does not usually entitle him to an upgrade at Hampton Inns (glorified motels) but here we have "the best room in the hotel". Ridiculous!

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For those who don't know our travelling companions, Stan & Arthur, who's on the left, of course.

Whoops, nearly forgot:- our dinner last night. Bob had spotted in a magazine, reference to a Mexican cafe (L& J's Cafe) which has been somewhere in the back streets of El Paso for some 80 years. We decided to go and have a look. We arrived at its location in a somewhat down at heel Mexican area and, in the old days, we would have kept the car doors locked and got the heck out o' there.

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But we decided to have a look in. It was basically a shack with a name on the side and a metal door. Hispanics were loitering outside smoking but responded politely to John's "hola". He pulled open the metal door to be hit, literally hit by the noise of hoards of people having fun. Many standing round a circular bar, and many others sitting at long tables enjoying freshly cooked Mexican food. Many were local Anglos who obviously knew the place's reputation for cheap and good food which was being cooked in a tiny kitchen in the middle, with 4 cooks and others squeezed in.

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We stayed. And were found a small table in the middle. Bob had Chicken Fajitas and John Mexican Steak: steak sandwich in spicy bread with tomatoes, chili strips, onions, fresh, ripe avocado, smeared with hot chili sauce. The atmosphere was GREAT and the food was pretty good too.

We had fits of the giggles when someone had ordered something that came on a smoking skillet. The kitchen was full of smoke which billowed out into the dining room. The recipient of the hot chicken skillet immediately put a great chunk of chicken into his mouth. Did he not think it may be hot? Well it was! The Mexican Hot Dance (haha)!

Here's the menu. Click

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An unexpectedly fantastic evening.

We must go and find somewhere to eat early this evening. This looks like to sort of place that closes down at around 8pm.

Tomorrow, no TV, no Internet as we're staying at the lodge in the National Park. Oh, and checked on the Hilton website and they have made Bob a Diamond geezer!

Posted by Johnash 18:52 Archived in USA Comments (10)

Where Texans Come to find Mountains

And Germans too!

sunny 38 °C

Room 321, Hampton Inn, Del Rio, Texas
3.30pm, Saturday, 9 June, 2012

We left you in Alpine, Texas and we had still to find somewhere to eat. So, let's get Penny's Diner out of the way.

There were two places to eat in Alpine. Some posh-looking "fine dining" place which we rejected on economy grounds in favour of Penny's Diner on the edge of town.

As we parked behind the steel trailer of an eaterie, an old man in an ancient, wheezing pickup, dropped off what appeared to be his fat boy of a grandson, who waddled into the diner. Inside we were greeted by an elderly thin woman in a cap. We placed our order without too much difficulty, and the fat grandson appeared from somewhere to cook our meal. No grandson but possibly, grand-daughter with very short haircut. It was a joy to watch her performance at the griddle on Bob's pork chop and John's chicken-fried steak with mashed potatoes n' sausage gravy and savoury country gravy on the chicken-fried-steak, served with "veggies" 'n Texas toast. At the end of this performance grand-daughter/son peeled off her overall and marched out.

Then appeared a very large black youth who must have weighed 400-500lbs. He was a lovely kid and it was very sad to witness his obesity. Then the owner, badly in need of a hip-op (unaffordable for most in this land of the free!), hobbled in and told the black youth to make up a sign. Somethin' about bein' closed.

By this time we were spookily alone in the diner. We hurriedly ate our food, which was perfectly edible with the exception of some burned peas(!). We paid the black youth who was sitting under the counter where the till was. He had a lovely voice and is no doubt a lovely kid trapped in a humongous body, and skedaddled out o' there, pausing only to read the notice, now taped to the door.

It read "Diner Closed - except for Railroad". Well, we will almost certainly never know what the heck was going on. Has Alfred Hitchcock come back from the grave, anyone know?

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Next day, we set off for Big Bend National Park. Quite a long drive on, generally fast, Texas roads. The best kept roads in the country, as far as we can tell.

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The "Border Patrol" features big in this part of our trip. Continually on the look out for illegals breaching the border with Mexico, we have been stopped at checkpoints three times and seen patrol vehicles everywhere. At the checkpoints, one guy talks to you and checks the car and your papers whilst at least two others, hands on weapons, ready to draw, keep an eagle eye on you and the vehicle. Sometimes a dog is on hand to leap on whatever may appear.

We managed to prevail on Arthur NOT to do his Pinky & Perky impression of Speedy Gonzalez. "Hey Rosita; down at the cantina they're giving green stamps with tequila". Or tying up his shoe laces.

Big Bend is a park reputed to be one of the quieter of the big parks, it being really off the beaten track. Indeed it is a very remote spot and it was certainly quiet. It was like the old days back in '81/'83 when, out of season, we used to have the National Parks almost to ourselves. Not bus-parties of Japanese cameras, nor carloads of snotty-nosed- tattooed kids bearing burgers. At nearly every look-out point and scenic loop, we were alone. Glorious. This vacation has been marked by an absence of other tourists. Quite an achievement.

Big Bend refers to a great swoop in the Rio Grande, all the way here, marking the border between USA and Mexico. And, apart from at higher altitudes, we were still in the Chihuahua Desert. We have still not seen any of Arthur's packs of tiny wild dogs but did spot two in captivity, shut in a parked piuckup while its owner bought something in a convenience store. These vicious animals howled and barked at us as we past the vehicle. We're glad we did not encounter them in the wild.

We did, however see a coyote crossing the road on the last bit of road down to Santa Elena canyon. It gave us a dirty look for being on his road. Unfortunately he did not hang around for us to take a picture but this is exactly what he looked like:-

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Apart from him, some other images from Big Bend:-

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Mule Ears peaks:-

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To the left of the canyon is Mexico, in front and right is the USA:-

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Here in Santa Elena Canyon, we could almost have paddled across to Mexico but did not for fear of setting off an alarm or something

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We stayed overnight within the park at the Lodge in the Chisos Mountains.

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We had dinner in the restaurant where there were Texans and a couple of Germans. Yes, apparently Germans make up the biggest group of foreigners to visit. Lots of Germans emigrated to Texas in the late 19th century. Texans come here, many from posh Austin, as there are no other decent mountains in this enormous state.

We watched the most amazing display of nature in the form of a thunderstorm around the mountains and down in the valley. No pictures possible. Apart from a few drops, no rain on us. Although it is badly needed.

We went back to the room with really dark skies overhead. Suddenly it seemed as if someone had turned on yellow floodlights. But no... the skies had cleared enough to reveal a magical sunset.

This place is awesome!

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The food was, er, average.

Exit for a limbo-dancing thin person?:-

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Today we left early on a drive following the border to the town of Del Rio. We'd expected this to be a sleepy, dusty town but then realised it was a city of some 25,000 people. However, beyond the "gasoline alley" of motels, fast food places, gas stations and stores, the city itself was the deadest we've been to. Not one business in downtown has survived.

No wonder the producers of "No Country for Old Men" chose this place to film part of this Oscar-winning movie. We watched it before we came and it's enough to put you off this part of the U.S. If you get to watch it, well, the ending is not what you're expecting!

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We stopped for a fine breakfast in Marathon, a nice place, cooked by a very nice lady from the town and her cousin, and had a long chat with a guy from near Houston who was waiting for his wife to get up so they could get on into Big Bend.

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Tomorrow a long (400 mile) drive to Fort Worth for a couple of nights.

A few other notes:-
The car we picked up in Kansas City and dropped off in Denver, Colorado, had Texas plates. The car we picked up in El Paso, Texas had Colorado plates.

On quiet roads, you wave at cars going in the opposite direction, especially if all are wearing big hats.

TV and Internet services are incredibly expensive here. The girl at the hotel desk said at least $129 per month for basic package. There is only one provider.

In response to "how'urr you doin' today?", you don't just grunt. We have to say we have only met one grumpy person on this entire journey. A young man working in a gas station on the way out of El Paso who was having a row with someone on his giant celphone.

We just had dinner in a local steakhouse/Mexi and it was 102 degrees F when we came out.

Night night.

This year, the Country music on radio has been poor. Very disappointing. This from a previous trip (a nice story and great music):-

Posted by Johnash 18:39 Archived in USA Comments (7)

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