Lee Groves

Travelin’ Man Goes to El Paso – Part I

RingTV.com’s intrepid columnist/historian Lee Groves returned to the road just days after attending the annual BWAA dinner in New York City and the International Boxing Hall of Fame’s Induction Weekend. If history is any judge, the Travelin’ Man surely will experience his share of adventures – and misadventures. To find out what happened on his trip to El Paso to cover the Julio Cesar Chavez Jr.-Andy Lee fight, read on. (Part II will run tomorrow).

Thursday, June 14: The past two-and-a-half days since returning home have been a whirlwind of activity. The tasks on the agenda included preparing pre-fight analyses and statistical packages for upcoming fights covered by CompuBox, polishing and submitting stories for both THE RING’s website and magazine, editing and burning the contents of last weekend’s shows stored on three separate DVD hard drives and preparing for today’s trip.

Not everything got done – after all, there are only 24 hours in a day – but enough of the most important tasks were addressed to the point that I could depart for El Paso with a relatively serene mind. That’s because once I return home I’ll have 11 full days to clean all the messes my extended absences created. As has been the case since I became a full-time boxing person five years ago, time management has been vital to keeping all the balls in the air. I also learned that everything that needs to be done eventually will be.

Still, ever since a calf muscle cramp jolted me awake at 6:45 a.m. I was in constant motion. I rushed back and forth from issue to issue with barely enough time to take a deep breath. I silently and repeatedly reviewed my checklist, fearful I would forget a small but pivotal detail. I typed out the list of programs to record, spelling out day, time and channel. I cleared out excess space on the hard drive DVD recorders to make room for the new programs. I scurried about the house gathering items to stuff in my laptop case and carry-on luggage. Amidst all this frenetic activity, I maintained a positive frame of mind. I kept telling myself that I was getting a pretty good workout, something that would benefit my “disintegrating physique” (just kidding Floyd).

I left the house at 9:05 a.m. under spectacularly sunny skies and drove into the Pittsburgh International Airport parking lot two-and-a-half hours later. Despite the signs indicating the “extended” lot was full, I knew that one space among the thousands would reveal itself. Surely enough, one opened up; out of the corner of my left eye I spotted a car pulling out and I pounced on it like a starving puma. Even better: The space was directly under the “11C” sign, a most welcome landmark for when I return to the Steel City four days hence.

But first things first; I had a plane to catch. Today’s itinerary would take me from Pittsburgh to Dallas-Fort Worth, then from DFW to El Paso. If all went well, the journey would require nine hours, including a convenient two-hour layover to grab dinner.

The security line was extraordinarily light this day; in fact I was unable to dig out my drivers’ license and boarding pass quickly enough to have them ready for the TSA agent. Anyone who flies out of major airports on a regular basis will tell you this is an extremely rare occurrence.

Once I passed through security and reached the main terminal I was greeted with a problem unlike any I’ve encountered in my seven years of flying: My flight was only one of two on the main monitor not to have a gate listed. The reason soon was made evident thanks to a helpful information desk employee.

Pittsburgh International Airport is a hub for USAirways, the airline I usually fly. But because American Airlines had much more agreeable flights to El Paso in terms of time of day I chose to fly with them. I was told American uses only two adjoining gates in Pittsburgh – D88 and D89 – so those who update the airport monitors feel little need to include those gates in the rundown. Add to that this bonus: Those gates were located the farthest possible distance from terminal center, so if I didn’t get enough of a workout during my morning sprint I got it here.

The flight from Pittsburgh to Dallas departed 10 minutes late, yet, despite flying against the jet stream, it arrived 20 minutes early. DFW’s excellent Skylink tram transported me to the correct concourse within two minutes and three minutes after that I was at my gate. Everything seemed to be proceeding well – too well, perhaps.

Anyone who has followed the Travelin’ Man series knows that trouble will eventually find me, and those troubles often take bizarre forms. Such would be the case here as I could have never guessed what would happen over the next several hours. But before I go into the gory details, I need to set the scene. So here goes:

The story begins with a pleasant twist of fate; someone also working the El Paso show was seated across the aisle from me on the Dallas-to-El Paso flight. We hadn’t seen each other in a couple of years but once we got reacquainted we spent the next several minutes chatting amiably. I asked him how he was getting to the crew hotel, thinking we might split a cab. He actually had a rental car and he invited me to tag along.

The first sign of what was to come showed itself when we reached his rental vehicle. Of the hundreds of cars in the Hertz parking lot, ours was the only one whose space was blocked by another parked car.

“Are you sure you want me to come along?” I asked my colleague in the spirit of providing fair warning. “Strange things like this happen to me all the time and I can’t promise you more won’t come.” He assured me my company was still welcome.

As fate would have it, he forgot to pack his GPS device and instead relied on Mapquest-like directions to navigate from airport to hotel, in this case the Camino Real El Paso on South El Paso Street. During the final stages of our drive we encountered a traffic jam so profound that it made midtown Manhattan look like Candyland. Not only were we greeted by four lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic, there also was a line of tractor trailers to our left desperately trying to pry themselves into our line. This scene was completed by the traffic light that stayed red for 90 seconds but remained green for just 15. The snail-like pace eventually frayed nerves and at one point four sets of horns blared simultaneously.

Through it all we were looking for the street that represented the start of our final turns. Though we saw a road to our right just before the first traffic light, there was no indication that it led anywhere. Once we passed through the second light the traffic flow picked up considerably and seconds later we found out why – we were about to drive straight into Mexico.

My colleague rolled down his window and called out to the border agent.

“Is there someplace we can turn around?” he asked. “We’re trying to find our hotel in El Paso and we mistakenly ended up here.”

“No,” he said. “You’re going to have to drive into Mexico and then turn around.”

At that point we looked to our left and spied an extraordinary snarl of cars and trucks. While the queue coming into Mexico was bad enough, the line seeking entry into the U.S. was at least twice as congested. What looked to be a relatively simple 15-minute drive from airport to hotel now could morph into an international incident since neither of us bothered to bring our passports. But that was a problem to be dealt with later; our first issue was to maneuver our way into the line bound for the U.S.

Here we caught a break. About 200 yards into Mexico we saw a place where we could make a legal U-turn but two trash cans partially blocked our access. Two more fortunate developments occurred; (1) there was no oncoming traffic when we reached that point in the road; and (2) a man was standing by one of those trash cans. When he realized we were about to swing around, he moved the trash can just enough for us to get by.

The next hour was an agonizing game of “hurry up and wait.” We sat in traffic for minutes on end just to gain the privilege of lurching a few feet forward. At least six vendors selling items ranging from food to flowers to sombreros wandered freely between lanes in search of buyers. Another one simply held out a plastic cup begging for cash. Because we made sure to avoid eye contact, no one bothered us.

Though it would have been easy to get frustrated, I somehow knew everything would turn out all right. After all, I’ve been though plenty of these episodes and each time I emerged relatively unscathed.

But before that could occur we still had the matter of our absent passports. I asked my colleague if he had any unique identification cards to prove to the border guard we were working Saturday night’s fight. He did. Plus, he intelligently came up with the idea of presenting his boarding pass to prove we were in the U.S. a very short time earlier. We also hoped we would see the border guard who saw us enter Mexico to further authenticate our story.

The moment of truth soon arrived. We explained our circumstances and presented our forms of identification. He seemed satisfied.

“How long have you been in Mexico?” he asked. “And did you buy anything while you were there?”

“We were there just long enough to turn around and come back here,” my colleague replied. “We went nowhere else.”

Convinced we were telling the truth – and we were – he didn’t ask us to produce passports. When we requested directions to our hotel, he proceeded to give us a precise and accurate route. Ten minutes later we arrived at our destination.

After checking in and settling in, my friend and I spent the next couple of hours at the hotel bar, watching Game 2 of the NBA Finals between the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder and reliving our humorous dual-national mishap. I later was told that had circumstances gone in a more hostile direction, my colleague and I could have been detained in Mexico for two days – if not longer.

Before this day, my colleague and only knew each other peripherally. But this adverse adventure allowed us to form a bond born of shared crisis, though in the end it wasn’t much of a crisis at all. From this day forward he and I will see each other differently. While Bogart and Bergman will always have Paris, my friend and I – in a different and definitely platonic way — will always have Mexico.


Lee Groves is a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, W.Va. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won seven writing awards, including four in the last two years. He has been an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame since 2001 and is also a writer, researcher and punch-counter for CompuBox, Inc. He is the author of “Tales From the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics. To order, please visit Amazon.com or e-mail the author at l.groves@frontier.comto arrange for autographed copies.

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