Weird and Wonderful Things We Found During a Summer at Home

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Even if you can’t leave your hometown during the summer, there are still adventures to be had and discoveries to be made right in your own backyard. All images: Rick Tate

We’ve had a weird and restless summer this year.

Each year we try to head out of town, even if just to a nearby mountain area to hike for a day or two. This breaks up the lazy monotony of summer and gives us something “special” to look forward to. Not this year.

Not only are we trying to save up for a big vacation in two years when my oldest daughter graduates, we’ve had dental and medical issues that have come with the expected (and unexpected) costs as well as impeding worries one of us may have needed to undergo a minor surgery. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case, but it did put other plans on hold. We’ve had workshops, recitals, and camps mixed in with regular deadlines, making it pretty impossible to leave town, even for a weekend trip. There has been driver’s education with the mandatory road hours for my 16-year-old, something that has been both expensive and a wee bit scary. Finally, for some reason, we thought it would be a dandy idea to pick this summer to refinance the house, creating nearly daily obligations for paperwork, phone calls, fees, and that wonderful inspection visit.

Needless to say, we’ve stayed in the area we live, work, and go to school in every day. The frustration is amplified when you talk to friends about where they are heading this year, or see others on social media posting “Look where we are!” images of their own trips.

A couple of weeks into this, we decided that even though we couldn’t leave our “hometown,” that doesn’t mean we have to be stuck at home. Whenever we had a day, afternoon, or just an evening during the summer, we would take advantage of it with little mini “staycation” outings to discover the cool little things we never knew about or never took the time to see.

For example, in our little corner of the world, on the edge of Texas, New Mexico, and Mexico, we found and learned some interesting things:

• Our scenic drive has a little version of Paris’ “Love Locks.” For years, the Pont Neuf bridge in Paris, France was a popular place for tourists and lovebirds to place locks with their names or date of visit written on them. Some loved this tradition, others (including city officials) did not, as they have had to remove tons of locks damaging the bridge. Well, fear not, Paris; they are continuing this practices on the overlook stair rails along El Paso’s winding mountain road.

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The old “practice mine” at UTEP (left) and El Paso’s growing “love locks” stairway.

• I finally got to see the actual “mine” at UTEP. University of Texas at El Paso was originally Texas College of Mines and Metallurgy, hence the mascot Miners. I always knew there was actually a “practice mine” on the campus, but I never looked for it. The mine tunnel once had an “underground” laboratory for those studying “Metal Mining and Mining Machinery.” It hasn’t been used since the ’20s, but the entrance is still visible near Sun Bowl Stadium. You can walk a few feet into it, and it’s a cool photo op. You just have to know where to find it.

• You can see the death masks of both Pancho Villa and John Dillinger within walking distance from each other. General Francisco “Pancho” Villa was a well-known fixture in El Paso and Juarez during the revolutionary war, so it is no surprise visitors can currently see his death mask mold at the El Paso Museum of History downtown. This in itself is pretty cool, but why would the historic Gardner Hotel and Hostel nearby want the death mask of a famous Depression-era gangster? Easy: Dillinger spent a few days in the hotel under a pseudonym shortly before his arrest. Not only is his mask on display in the hotel’s 1920s-style lobby, but guests who call ahead can spend a night in the room he stayed in—221.

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Seeing the death masks from two very different men from very different eras within a few blocks of each other reminded us that history isn’t just filled with names, it’s filled with people.

• You can see remnants from a huge hand-drilling contest held in 1905. While visiting our city’s Municipal Rose Garden (something else I had never seen) we came across a big granite memorial historical marker filled will uniform sized holes. The marker was made of Gunnison granite from Colorado, one of the hardest rocks found in the United States, and was used for a hand-drilling contest where people from all over the world came to compete for the big prize of $1,000. A couple of world records were set that day, but, alas, I forget the names of the victors.

• Our city is about to have a boom of historic tourism because there are some pretty avid streetcar fans in the world. For the past couple of years, El Paso has been working to bring back its historic streetcars. Now, the tracks have been laid, the route established, and the now fully restored and modernized streetcars are making test runs on the track. They will be ready to carry passengers by the end of the year, so the streetcar equivalent of “trainspotting” fever is building fast.

• El Paso has a growing number of places where you can dine, shop, or eat in former shipping containers. We ate at a bar and grill set in an old set of rail cars that have been around since 1972 this summer, but we also got to visit several new places that did some wonderful, artistic things with the former shipping crates. There’s a Coffee Box in the Downtown Plaza, an entire shopping, residential, and business areas that include some large shipping containers erected to serve as bright mural-covered stairwells.

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Our hometown is filled with colorful upcycled shipping containers and “hidden” murals.

• Speaking of murals, El Paso’s mural game is getting better and better. From hidden murals of Frida Kahlo behind small business areas to entire park areas where the underpass columns are covered with colorful urban art, there are more colorful murals commissioned and created nearly every week. We’ve always had some beautiful graffiti-style art (not actual graffiti, as these artists got permission to paint) in some parts of the city, but now there are more wonderful mural art examples found throughout the city—some pretty obvious, others you have to be lucky enough to find.

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An exhibit at the El Paso Museum of History gave us a glimpse at the return of streetcars.

We also discovered one other thing: you don’t have to leave town to discover something new. Being pretty much forced to hang around the city has actually given us a reason to look a little harder at what we drive past, overlook, and ignore every day. We enjoyed some of our discoveries so much, we are planning on continuing these little outings throughout the year.

Whether you live in a big city or small town, there is something, someplace yet to be discovered, even if it is some tiny corner of a neighborhood, some winding path near a stream or mountain, or an untold piece of oral history someone is just waiting to share with others, should they care to ask.

If you find yourself in a situation where you aren’t able to visit other places, look around and take Dr. Seuss’s advice in Oh, The Places You’ll Go to “un-slump” yourself and get out and about:

“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose.”

Your mountain is waiting! Even if it is just hill or staircase, go find your adventure. It’s closer than you think.