Sunday, December 10, 2017


Trails and Memories
of the Big Bend

Ben H. English
  Genre: Memoir / Travel / Texas
Publisher: TCU Press
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Date of Publication: November 17, 2017
Number of Pages: 221

It was a time before Terlingua Ranch, chili cook-offs, and when you could drive a hundred miles without seeing another vehicle or another person. The year was 1961, and the tides of humanity that ebbed and flowed into the lower reaches of the Big Bend were at their historical nadir.

It was a vast, empty land spotted by isolated ranch headquarters, a national park with few visitors, and the many ruins of a past shrouded in legend, lore, and improbable truths. Six generations of Ben H. English’s family have called this enigmatic region home. With his family headquartered at the old Lajitas Trading Post, he worked and lived on ranches and in places now little more than forgotten dots on yellowing maps. He attended the one-room schoolhouse at Terlingua, prowled the banks of the Rio Grande, and crisscrossed the surrounding areas time and again on horseback and on foot.

Some fifty years later he writes about those years, revealing along the way the history and legends of the singular land he knows so well, separating fact from fiction, and bringing the reader into a world that few have experienced. He also explores the lower Big Bend as it is found now, and the extraordinary vistas one can still discover just over the next rise.

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Excerpt from Yonderings: Trails and Memories of the Big Bend
By Ben H. English

There are certain places in this world that seize the soul of those who journey into their environs. They tantalize our senses, both physical and otherwise, with a thousand varieties of awe, wonderment, mystery, and exultation. Even though we may only visit them but once, the mental snapshots we develop during the event never seem to fade or go away, remaining firmly entrenched within our psyches from that moment forward until death’s bed or beyond. Someone once said that life is not a series of years, but a recollection of special moments. The same can be said about those special places exemplified by the Big Bend of Texas.

These same moments and places call for a more introspective look at ourselves and where we fit into the larger scheme of things, which often enough leads us to questions about those who came before. Did they truly see and appreciate what was here, or were they so involved in their existential struggles as to not take much notice of the rare natural beauty surrounding them? What did they learn from this unique land, what enigmas did they unravel here? For many, we will never know, as their stories have been irretrievably lost, trapped in a void of forgotten memories or anonymity. They were too busy living history to have the opportunity or inclination to leave written documents of it. Their implacable enemy was time, or to be more accurate, the lack thereof.

As I have grown older the true value of time has become more apparent to me, and far more precious. It is the one thing we cannot change, call back, speed up, or slow down. With all of our advanced technological marvels and attending vanities, time pays no more attention to our needs and schemes than we of a tiny fleck of dust laying upon parched, barren soil. Time remains the unchanging constant in our mortal continuance, unconcerned with nothing else but its unrelenting march forward.

Yet this does not mean we mere mortals don’t entertain fanciful wishes of being able to bend it to our petty wills. As the decades have passed by, I have found myself wishing that I had just one hour to talk with Aunt Mag about the Hot Springs, “Sis” Hay concerning early Marfa, or Grandfather Cash regarding his days as an underaged infantryman in Lajitas. Much more so, I wish I had just one more hour to sit with my father and Papa English and hear their voices again. The two of them prowled a big part of this region of the Big Bend, spurred on by a consuming passion for this land and what there was to be learned from it.

No measure can be taken of any land without speaking of those who make use of it. What they hold to be true and inviolate sets the tone for what will happen to that ground in the future. In this respect there are basically two competing groups and philosophies, championed by those who think upon themselves as land owners versus those who consider themselves more as people of the land. The latter have a deep emotional attachment to what they stand upon and desire to keep it as naturally pristine as possible. The former faction sees whatever land within their grasp mostly in terms of how much wealth can be extracted from it; the long-term results are of secondary importance.

Though some may find this perspective to be overly simplistic or demeaning to one group or the other, it nevertheless cuts straight to the heart of the matter. The Big Bend country of Texas has had ample quantities of both breeds, as well as ample evidence of where strict adherence to each of the two philosophies can lead. In reality our nation needs both groups to successfully meet the unending challenges we face as a society, but there should be certain locales set aside that deserve the respect and the support of both parties for the mutual benefit of all.

The Big Bend has been repeatedly lauded by many of our fellows who profoundly care about this land and intuitively comprehend just how special it really is. They understand that God did not give us such splendor to have it defiled and abused, as so many other areas in our part of Texas have been. We as a people should never take this priceless gift lightly and need to pay proper homage to those with the forbearance to see what was being lost, and the personal courage to go forth and do what needed done to halt the ensuing blight.

       For myself I will enjoy the Big Bend as long as possible in the most intimate way one can, on my own two feet--sometimes going where no trail has ever been known to run. Early on I made a promise to myself not only to go and see, but to write about what I learned and experienced. This book contains only a few of the hundreds of stories I could tell about this country, and before I die I hope for many more to come. 

An eighth-generation Texan, Ben H. English was raised mostly in the Lajitas-Terlingua area. An honors graduate of Angelo State University, he served in the United States Marine Corps for seven years, was a high school teacher, and retired after twenty-two years in the Texas Highway Patrol.

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