Rambling Boy – Making the trek to El Paso, then and now
By LONN TAYLOR
In the summer of 1879, a 46-year-old ex-Confederate colonel named George Wythe Baylor started out from San Antonio on horseback to take a new job in El Paso. The job, which paid $75 a month, was a lieutenancy in the Texas Rangers. Baylor later wrote that as he had a family and “had been about two years on scant rations and no pay,” he was glad to get it.
Baylor made the 638-mile trip in style. While he rode horseback, his wife, his two daughters (one 14 and one 4), and his sister-in-law traveled in a hack drawn by two mules, followed by a wagon packed with a piano, a cook stove, household furnishings, trunks, and a coop of fighting chickens. Behind that wagon was a second wagon loaded with groceries for the trip and forage for the animals. A two-wheeled cart carrying two men who were bound for New Mexico and did not want to travel alone brought up the rear. Five mounted rangers escorted the group. Tom Lea’s luminous painting “Ranger Escort West of the Pecos” depicts Baylor’s caravan traversing the desert west of the Quitman Mountains. It was used by the University of Texas Press on the jacket of the 1965 edition of Walter Prescott Webb’s The Texas Rangers.
Baylor’s party spent six weeks on the journey, following the old military road from San Antonio to El Paso. At Howard’s Wells, near present-day Ozona, they saw the remains of a government wagon train that had been looted and burned by Apaches. That night, Baylor recalled, they were especially vigilant in camp. He told his wife, “If a row comes off tonight, don’t scream. Put Mary (the youngest girl) in the oven of the cooking stove. Lie down with Kate and Helen, and remain quiet.” Fortunately the Apaches, seeing that they were outnumbered by Baylor’s party, bypassed it. The Baylors went on through Wild Rose Pass, up Limpia Canyon and through Fort Davis, past El Muerto Springs and Van Horn Wells, where they again saw signs of Apaches, and finally reached the tree-shaded plaza of Ysleta, their destination, in safety. Twenty years later Baylor wrote an account of this trip to the “far, wild country,” as he called it, for the El Paso Herald. By then El Paso, which had a population of several hundred when Baylor arrived, had grown into a city of 16,000 people.
Today El Paso has a population of 800,000. I have been replicating the western end of Baylor’s trip for nearly 10 years now, driving from Fort Davis to El Paso and back once every couple of months, and recently it has seemed like half of those 800,000 people are out on Interstate 10 every day. It took Baylor about two weeks to get from Fort Davis to El Paso. It takes me about three hours, but it seems like most of the other folks on the Interstate are trying to cut my time in half. I put the cruise control at the legal speed limit of 80mph, but other drivers constantly breeze around me at 90 or even 100. The worst offenders are Californians, who not only hit three-digit speeds but have enormous bundles flapping in the wind on the tops of their SUVs. Like Baylor, they travel with a lot of baggage.
My earliest memory of El Paso is of changing trains there on a trip to California when I was seven, in 1947. My mother and I had an hour between trains and we spent it walking along a street near the station looking in shop windows. One window had an entire miniature frontier town in it, populated by live white mice, who scurried in and out of the buildings on a bed of wood shavings. Something had agitated the mice just as we approached the window, and they were madly racing around the little village, ricocheting off buildings and off of each other. It made a lasting impression on my seven-year old mind and is a perfect metaphor for El Paso today.
I find El Paso almost impossible to drive in. The city is squeezed between Mount Franklin, Fort Bliss, a huge railroad yard, and the Rio Grande, and no matter where I want to go one of these features is in the way and I get lost trying to drive around it. The streets are always full of fast-moving traffic, unlike those in Fort Davis, which are primarily used as napping spots by dogs. There are other hazards. El Paso is the violent weather capital of America. My wife and I once ran into the worst rainstorm either of us have ever encountered in our lives on Interstate 10 just east of town. It was coming down so hard and fast I could barely see the hood of our car. I managed to pull onto the shoulder and stop, but the wind was buffeting the car so hard I was sure we were going to be tipped into the ditch, which was full to overflowing. We sat there and prayed for a good half hour before the storm moved on. On another occasion we drove into a blinding rain coming into El Paso from the north. I thought it would be safer to get off of the Interstate so I pulled onto Mesa Street, which was not only a foot deep in water but full of the boulders which had been placed down the center strip as ornamental rocks and were now tumbling down the pavement in the current. It was like driving down a Colorado trout stream in a spring flood.
I recently had to drive to El Paso and back twice in one week, first to purchase and then to pick up a new computer in Cielo Vista Mall. My compensation for the trips was two delicious lunches, one at the Café Central downtown, which I regard as the best restaurant between Dallas and Los Angeles, and the other at Tara Thai on Mesa Street. But the trips were still made nerve-wracking by the amount of traffic encountered. In between them I stopped off at the hospital in Alpine to visit Cecilia Thompson and I ran into my friend Mojella Moore, a lady in her 80s, sitting in the waiting room. I joined her for a few minutes and told her I had just been to El Paso and had to go back, and she said, “The last time I was in El Paso was on December 23, 1991. We drove through a snowstorm on the way there and another one on the way back. I haven’t been there since.” Mojella is a smart woman.
Lonn Taylor is a historian and writer who lives in Fort Davis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.