We took the local road south and managed to avoid the freeway all the way from Truth or Consequences to El Paso. We wound through tiny weather-beaten settlements, with farms and orchards in every piece of flat land, watered by irrigation ditches from the Rio Grande. We saw signs of last fall's cotton crop, new fields with sprouting onions or garlic, many signs for chili pepper packers, but our big surprise was miles and miles of pecan orchards. The trees are precisely spaced at twenty-foot intervals, thoroughly pruned and groomed; whenever a tree becomes unproductive, a new one is planted and soon will start to bear. There was no green visible on the trees this early in the spring, but the farmers and farm workers were busy irrigating the land. In New Mexico the Rio Grande is wide Rio Grande

The little farming towns are wonders, with weather beaten old buildings and a few small stores. The older homes are built of adobe bricks, covered with stucco, or of local stone of irregular size, shape and color, surrounded with shade trees, with here and there a wall around the yard. Spanish is the dominant language, judging by the signs.

A flock of large birds in the middle of a field caught our eye. Once again our faithful Sibley provided identification: sandhill cranes winter in this part of the country, and we were witness to more than a hundred of them finding good things to eat.

A couple of INS border stations reminded us that the Rio Grande is a national border here. As we drove in El Paso we looked across the river to Ciudad Juarez. There's something metaphorical about the Mexican houses facing hopefully toward the U.S., and something deeply disturbing in the huge difference in economic prosperity which is apparent from a glance across the Rio Grande. The homes in Juarez were small and badly kept, the roads dirt, with no traffic in the residential area near the river.

We found a most amazing gourmet food shop in the Sunland Park Mall, down the street from our motel, where we went for a stroll. We thought the selections of cheeses, meats, pastries and wines rivalled anything we had seen on either coast -- an unexpected dollop of sophistication.

The mall was also unusual in that it boasted a large pipe organ, providing a much nicer musical accompaniment for shoppers (and mall walkers) than the more typical Muzac.

The Tourist Information office in downtown El Paso offers a walking tour map and guide. Before the suburbs drew the money from the center city, the central plaza boasted a pond with alligators and many trees. The alligators were eventually moved to the zoo, but a local artist has created a fine large sculpture of alligators in the middle of the plaza. Our walking tour featured 1910-era commercial buildings, some of which have been restored, while others are undergoing restoration. Hilton has recently purchased a hotel with a Tiffany stained glass dome, as well as some grand old chandeliers and hanging cages which used to hold exotic birds. A young hotel manager enthusiastically described the features; They want to turn it into a four-diamond hotel. (We refrained from wishing him luck.) The hotel stands between the museums and a downtown shopping district whose mercados and tiendas are distinctly Mexican in language, decoration and goods, a great contrast to the blander suburban malls.

We're taking a break to do our taxes, and in a few days we'll continue eastward, trying to find some untravelled and unfamiliar paths across Texas.