Blowin' in the wind ain't such fun on Highway 61

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The Independent Online
"When you're lost in the rain in Juarez and it's Eastertime, too ..." We were playing the Dylan song, and the entire Highway 61 album, as we set out from Chihuahua up Mexico's Highway 45 to Ciudad Juarez and the US border. It's a cassette I always carry with me.

We never got lost in the rain but by the time we were halfway there, we wished we had. It was a fine morning in Chihuahua, 200 miles south of the border cities of Juarez and El Paso, Texas - the perfect day for a drive, even if our wheels were only a small white Chevy, the US equivalent of a Vauxhall Nova.

By the time we stopped for coffee and petrol, a mean wind had whipped up and tumbleweed had piled up against the car. Most tumbleweed I'd seen was in the Peanuts cartoons, drifting past the Arizona home of Snoopy's brother, Spike. But as we drove north up Highway 45, we ran into the kind of tumbleweed we never want to see again. Or rather, it ran into us.

There were hundreds of giant balls of twigs crossing the highway every hundred yards and travelling at about 50 miles an hour. They got bigger and bigger until some were 10ft high, and not "weed" but bunches of hard scrub rocking the car with each hit.

Then came the sandstorm. Within minutes we were down to crawling pace, our emergency lights flashing, peering but barely seeing beyond the bonnet. When we saw flashing lights, we stopped and discovered others had collided off the road.

I'd been through sandstorms during the Gulf war, but there's a difference between being in a sturdy tent with American Marines and armoured vehicles outside, and being stranded in a small saloon car with sand piling up against your door.

We were edgy but I couldn't stop thinking of the song the British "Desert Rats" sang in the Saudi desert, waiting for the Gulf war. To the tune of Louis Armstrong's "Wonderful World", they'd croon: "I see skies of blue. And sand and sand. And sand and sand. And sand and sand. And I think to myself, wot a lot of sand." This time, there was no sky of blue. Only sand.

A huge lorry began crawling forward. We followed in a convoy until the storm subsided and we got to Juarez, where Francisco "Pancho" Villa launched the Mexican revolution.

There we saw giant advertising hoardings down, windows smashed and streets turned into sand dunes. Power was off, roofs had been torn from buildings and at least five people died. Most people had stayed home, and were surprised we'd been out on Highway 45.

There was only one place to go. If Dylan's song put Juarez on the map, Marty Robbins's ballad "El Paso" ("Out in the west Texas town of El Paso") did the same for the town on the northern banks of the Rio Grande. "Night- time would find me in Rosa's Cantina," Marty sang. So there we went.

Marty was born in Juarez and was inspired to write the cowboy song after a visit to Rosa's, a few hundred yards north of the border, in a dimly lit street, now overshadowed by a power station. The back door through which Marty's cowboy fled has been removed. It seems too many disappointed tourists were urinating in the back yard.