The oldest road in North America runs southeast from
this west Texas town like a shuttle through a loom, weaving an unusual tapestry
of history, religion and culture.
The El Paso Mission Trail is a short segment of what was once El Camino Real -- the Royal Road -- which wound from Mexico City to Santa Fe, connecting Spanish settlements and Catholic missions decades before English settlers arrived at Jamestown and Plymouth.
A drive today along the 9-mile mission trail, which parallels the Rio Grande, offers an unusual look at a place where U.S., Mexican and Native American history and cultures converge.
The trail follows the old route out of El Paso to Ysleta, the oldest community in Texas. It continues to Socorro, the second oldest Texas community, and ends in the lovely plaza town of San Elizario. Each town has a historic Spanish mission church, still home to active congregations.
Many of the parishioners trace their heritage back to Native American tribes that lived in the region long before European settlers arrived in 1598. Along with the settlers came Catholic missionaries, who established Christianity -- and Catholic mission churches -- in the area.
Today, the Rio Grande has been dammed and diverted and is often barely a trickle here, adding to the dry, dusty feeling of the desert Southwest. Aromatic mesquite trees, quite exotic to a visitor from the Midwest, scent the air.
Through the years, the once-wild river swept away the mission churches many times, but each time the congregations rebuilt. The current churches date to the 19th century.
The noise of modern, suburban El Paso drops away as a visitor enters the chapels and time seems to slow a bit.
A pretty white adobe structure with a silver-domed bell tower, Mission Ysleta was founded in 1680 and rebuilt several times, most recently in 1851.
Like others on the trail, the mission is filled with colorful iconography: sculptures of saints, crucifixes, the traditional Stations of the Cross. Small shrines glow with traditional wax or electric candles.
The mission a few miles away in Socorro was begun about 1691 and served Spanish and Piro Indian families. The current church dates to 1843, but legend -- and some archaeological research -- indicates that the decorative carved cottonwood and cypress beams, exposed and forming the ceiling of the sanctuary, were part of the 1691 structure and were reclaimed when the original building was knocked down by a 1740 flood.
The building's simple exterior design, with an open, arched bell loft above the front doors, is one of the finest remaining examples of classic 19th-century Spanish mission architecture.
Visitors can also pay respects at the mission's cemetery, its sere landscape augmented by a riot of colorful tributes and decorations placed at grave sites by loved ones.
I was fortunate enough to visit Socorro during a Mass. Although obviously a tourist, I was welcomed with waves and smiles. The forms of the traditional Roman Catholic Mass were familiar to me, but the language, Spanish, was not.
Perhaps it was the weight of history, perhaps the language, perhaps just the smell from the censers and candles after a long day on the road, but my spirit seemed to roam far afield as I sat at the back of the church in a simple wooden pew. And, when the others recited the Our Father, my whispered English version did not seem out of place.
The chapel of San Elizario was built for the presidio established there in 1789 and served the families of the soldiers as well as the community that subsequently grew.
Built in 1882, the chapel is known for its colorful pressed-tin ceiling added in the 1930s. It also boasts richer stained glass than does its more modest sisters to the north.
Although the churches are, of course, the highlights of the Mission Trail, there are other fascinating points of interest.
Across the plaza from the chapel of San Elizario, visitors will find the Los Portales Museum and Info Center. Among the information to be found there is a terrific walking-tour brochure highlighting the many historic buildings in the San Elizario Historic District.
The town is also home to several cute galleries and the only jail that Billy the Kid ever broke into.
Along the way, visitors will find several authentic Mexican restaurants -- such as El Meson De Onate, noted for its pico de gallo, red enchiladas and what is claimed to be the coldest cerveza on the Mission Trail.
Other interesting stops along the trail route include the Rio Bosque Wetlands Park, the Tigua Indian Cultural Center and the strange and delightful Licon Dairy, famous for its asadero-style cheese -- a white, semi-hard cheese similar to Monterey Jack -- and its free petting zoo with camels, llamas, parrots, goats and more.
Communing there with a friendly burro, I thought of the missionaries who rode such beasts along El Camino Real and gave silent thanks for the blessings a traveler can find along the Mission Trail -- in an air-conditioned rental car.
(c)2013 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)
Visit The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio) at www.dispatch.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services
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