On the afternoon of Sunday, November 7, Patrick and I wrapped up our day at Guadalupe Mountains National Park with very special desert vista before continuing on Bold Bison’s intense Texas video shoot adventure in El Paso. The unexpected magic of that evening would set a tone for the rest of the week as I explored—largely alone—this metropolis at the far western edge of Texas and got to know it and its art scene a little better.
We arrived at the parking area for McKittrick Canyon at about 3:15pm. We had a few limiting factors. The sun would set and the Park Service would lock the gate around 5pm, so we couldn’t venture far into the canyon. But even more so, our legs were spent from our earlier hike.
On the earlier trip in 2018, Adam, Sean, and I had gone partway up the Permian Reef Trail toward Wilderness Ridge, with fossils along the way and a good view up McKittrick Canyon. I suggested that Patrick and I might do the same so he could get a sense of McKittrick.
Almost as soon as we set out, we thought better of it. No more hiking for us that day.
So instead we strolled a little way down McKittrick Canyon to take a few photos in the fast-increasing shadows.
Someday I would like to do an overnight pack trip up to Wilderness Ridge.
After about half an hour, we said goodbye to McKittrick Canyon.
I suggested we drive around to the western side of the Park (which would be on our way to El Paso) and check out the sunset from the dune field.
It would take about an hour and a quarter to drive over to the trailhead for the dunes. We’d be racing the sun, but I had memories of how beautiful the Guadalupes were lit up with fading sunlight and wanted Patrick to get a chance to photograph them.
What we got was even better. About halfway there, as we passed the rare standing water at the salt basin, Patrick suddenly said, “Pull over!”
I hit the brakes and caused the cooler to tip from the back seat and spill water into the center console.
I said, “What? What?!” and Patrick replied that the mountains were reflected in the water.
He was right. It was a magical view. While he hopped out to grab some shots, I righted the cooler.
We kept going toward the dunes, turning right off of the highway toward Dell City. We were still probably half an hour from the trailhead, and the sun was setting rapidly.
Patrick proposed that we go back to the reflective water in the salt basin rather than continuing on. I left it to him since I had already done sunset at the dunes. He definitely made the right choice: going back to the salt basin.
On that November evening we were seeing the end of an extremely rare event that had begun in August with unusually high rainfall recreating a lake on the salt flats. The flats themselves had been caused by a lake that had existed here when the area had been cooler and wetter. But usually it was a playa, harsh and baked dry.
The ephemeral lake had been drawing visitors from El Paso for months by this point. And even that evening there was a gathering for sunset along the side of the highway.
On the south side of the highway, there was no water. There the flats looked like they usually did, a flat, dry, inhospitable expanse.
Since we were on the highway easement well outside Park boundaries, Patrick sent his drone up to capture some golden hour video of the lake and the Guadalupes.
Whole families were taking photos and enjoying the view. It was generally a jovial gathering with folks saying hi to each other and marveling at the vista.
Once darkness was truly coming on, we continued on for the hour and a half drive to El Paso.
We checked into our rooms at the Hotel Indigo downtown and then walked out for dinner at a nearby pizzeria.
We spent Monday, November 8 shooting interviews with staff, volunteers, and board members of The Frontera Land Alliance, El Paso’s regional land trust. Their work area extends out to the area around the Guadalupes—fantastic!
A big piece of their current work is advocating for Castner Range National Monument, a section of the Franklin Mountains owned by Fort Bliss.
The Franklin Mountains bisect El Paso, but even though White Sands, Guadalupe Mountains, and Carlsbad Caverns National Parks and Lincoln National Forest are also nearby, El Paso does not sell itself to the world as an outdoor recreation destination, which is a huge lost opportunity.
One of Frontera’s preserves is in an arroyo literally below the Whole Foods that Sean and I visited when we were stocking up for the Guadalupe Mountains trip three years earlier.
That same preserve is within sight of both the I-10 corridor and the border fence. It was not lost on either Patrick or me that we were walking in a place that was a fundamental example of how land conservation intersects with so many other issues.
After a great day touring and learning with Frontera’s executive director, Janae—and a lunch of super-good burritos—we said goodbye with one last interview to shoot.
Our thirty-third and final interview of the trip was with Monica, a Frontera board member who requested that we meet her in Socorro, a suburb bordering El Paso, the US-Mexico border and the major freight crossing between El Paso and Juarez.
The address we were given turned out to be for Casa Ortiz, a state historical landmark since 1973. It was built by Jose Ortiz, likely in the early 1800s. By the 1840s, Ortiz was trading salt from the salt flats we’d seen the night before all the way to Durango, Colorado. It was on the Camino Real (Spain’s “Royal Road”) just down the street from Socorro’s mission.
Monica was stuck in traffic, so we hung out and waited and wondered if we were in the right place.
When Monica arrived, she not only gave a fantastic interview connecting land conservation with the lived experience of communities, she also explained a bit about Socorro and the legacy of Latino farmers in the community.
She also explained that Casa Ortiz was being used as an art gallery and studio space for a handful of El Paso artists. One of the artists, Diego, stopped by just as we were wrapping the interview. He let us have a look around even though Casa Ortiz wasn’t technically open that evening.
The show that was up, Ambos Lados, was a print show organized and curated by Manuel Guerra of Horned Toad Prints in El Paso. The show was a print exchange between artists primarily in the US and Mexico (with a few other nations included for fun).
I love printmaking, and so I immediately lost my mind. So many of the works were so cool. We also had a look at some of the studio spaces near the rear of the building, including vibrant paintings by Diego Robot and mind-bending linocut prints by Mario Perez.
Monica was thrilled that I was so enthusiastic. She asked how long we were staying in El Paso. Patrick was flying home the following morning (Tuesday), but I would be staying until Friday before continuing on to New Mexico. Monica asked if I wanted any recommendations, and I said, “Yes, that would be great.”
Later at dinner, I started getting texts from Monica. The first one read: I will start by recommending bookstores because you seem like you might like bookstores. Then came a flurry of bookstore, gallery, and restaurant recommendations.
The next morning, Patrick and I got up early and went back to one of the preserves to film ourselves talking about the trip, our impressions, and what we’d learned. We were a little pressed for time, so we likely won’t use the footage, but it was a good habit to start for Bold Bison generally as we think about how we can contribute to conservation, sustainable food systems, and other ways that we live on this planet.
We would premiere the video about Texas land conservation in New Orleans in September 2022 at Land Trust Alliance Rally: The National Land Conservation Conference:
(Judy Ackerman, the woman in the video so enthused about the desert and the ability of normal people to enact change, passed away in November 2022. A veteran, she was a longtime advocate for social and environmental justice, including for the creation of Castner Range National Monument. I’m so glad we got to meet her.)
After dropping Patrick off at the airport late Tuesday morning, I was on my own until Sean arrived late Thursday. In between working remotely from my hotel room with its view across downtown and into Mexico, I explored El Paso, using Monica’s recommendations as my guide.
I ate great tacos at Elemi and Taconeta, and I checked out Literarity, a wonderful little new and used bookstore. I got chatting with the owner about both my work and conservation focus and about the El Paso literary scene. He recommended a number of writers, poets, and memoirists who capture El Paso. After our conversation and after I’d made my purchase, he remembered another book to recommend, and he simply gave it to me free of charge.
This experience underscores my impression of the people of El Paso: They are so warm and generous.
Thursday was Veterans Day, November 11, so I joined Frontera for a veterans hike on one of their conservation easements. Local news came both to cover the hike and to hear more about efforts to create the National Monument.
In March 2022, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland toured Castner Range in advance of a possible National Monument designation. Here’s hoping!
The huge X on the Mexico side is a public artwork, La Equis, by Mexican sculptor Enrique Carbajal González, representing the merging of two cultures in Mexico: the Aztecs and the Spanish. It also visibly marks the border in what from a distance looks like one unified city.
Sean’s flight didn’t arrive until 10:40pm, so I spent Thursday evening having an El Paso art adventure.
Monica had connected me with Manny Guerra, the curator of the print show, who would be at his studio, Horned Toad Prints, that evening. He invited me to stop by for a tour. His small space, across the street from where his family had run a commercial printing business for many years, was a celebration of fine art printmaking from both sides of the border, with examples of works by master printers at the height of their powers. Manny showed me each of the works, gorgeous etchings and intaglios, striking woodcuts and linocuts.
And he showed me all of the equipment he lets artists use on a pay-what-you-can model.
Before I left, Manny let me select a small print of his as a gift. There were some cool Dia de los Muertos ones, but I chose this Mesoamerican themed one. It now hangs above my desk. He also gave me a copy of the Ambos Lados exhibition catalogue.
Casa Ortiz was open to visitors that evening, so I told Manny I was headed back to see the show one more time.
I worked my way past the intense semi-truck traffic at the border crossing and returned to Socorro. This time Casa Ortiz and the brewery next to it were all lit up with activity.
Not only was the gallery space open for visitors, but some of the resident artists were doing demonstrations and giving lessons in the courtyard. It was a good vibe.
This time I took my time with the exhibition.
I chatted with some of the artists, including Diego Robot and Mario Perez. When I told them that the next day I’d be celebrating my birthday in the Chihuahuan Desert for the third time, Diego teased me: “You’re an honorary Mexican. We’re going to call you Pablo.”
I bought a couple stickers and a small print from Diego, and he threw in a photo-reproduction of a painting of the Socorro Mission “as a souvenir of Socco.”
I was sorely tempted to inquire about a couple of Mario’s linocuts, particularly “Legacy of Land,” the plate for which was there on the work table in his studio. But I decided against it since I was in the middle of the trip.
Before I got back to Chicago, I regretted not getting the print, so I eventually reached out to Mario via Instagram to see if it was still available.
Now it hangs in our apartment along with fifteen other pieces by Mario that I’ve collected over the past year.
In fact, we’ve turned the hallway in our apartment into a gallery of Mario’s linocut prints.
And one of my favorites, Camino al Infinito, which depicts an assemblage of spirits on a bus, Mario printed at Horned Toad, bringing it all full circle.
After hanging out a Casa Ortiz for a while longer, I drove back along the border to downtown, picked up some tacos to eat in my room, and waited until it was time to go and collect Sean from the airport.