Thursday, December 14, 2017

Yonderings: Trails and Memories of the Big Bend ~ ~ Blog Tour & Review!

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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“Born of a family with the innate urge to go and see beyond 
what the eye could first perceive, for me the die was cast
at conception and it came as natural as breathing.” 

Early on in Yonderings: Trails and Memories of the Big Bend, author Ben English establishes that his love of the Big Bend runs deep within his bloodlines. As readers follow English as he meanders through that country, it’s clear that the Big Bend is also housed deep within his soul.

In parts hiking guide and history book, and fully memoir, Yonderings takes readers on a series of journeys with the author as he travels, mostly on foot, on the trails and off the beaten track of the Big Bend country of Texas.  As English says, “No matter what you may have in mind for extravagant scenery, there is likely a little bit of it to be found someplace within the Big Bend.” Though I’m not sure he’d be pleased to have more tourists invading his sacred spaces, the result of English’s publication may very well be readers coming in droves to see the sights so spectacularly described.

And, oh, the descriptions! English has a way with words that puts the reader in the scenery and sets a tone of wonderment. Whether it’s the breathtaking, sweeping views which are “a work of art filling the mortal soul with contemplation and awe,” or the abandoned and long forgotten homesteads where the author passes by quietly, “observant to an open graveyard of someone else’s dreams,” readers will feel immersed in the landscape. There is a sense of slipping back in time as the author considers the forces of nature that created the Big Bend as well as the human history of the place. He is at times melancholy, but he is always thoughtful and considerate in his recollections and ruminations.

One characteristic that impresses me to no end is English’s self-control. He would know that just around the bend/down the slope/up the mountainside/across the ravine likely lay a feast for the eyes and mind: possibly the century-old detritus of man, possibly the eons-old creations of nature. Rather than pressing forward, he’d check his watch, his trusty topographical maps, and his surroundings and turn around and head back from where he came, leaving the undiscovered, undiscovered. English knows and respects the limitations of man – and that’s what’s kept him alive, though he will readily admit (and elaborates upon) how even the most experienced can make rookie mistakes with near deadly consequences.

It is in English’s elaborations that the book shines. His unique and sage perspectives allow the reader to view the world from a new angle.  Having made several trips to Big Bend, I enjoyed gleaning new information about familiar sites. I laughed and nodded having had similar experiences with road closures and blocked passages, all of which led me to discover new and amazing things. Though my husband and I weren’t like the driver of the van English describes in one story, on one of our trips, we did have a Dodge Grand Caravan that we took places it shouldn’t have probably been in Big Bend. Our motto, after all, was “Mini-van, Mega-fun.”

Of note: English's writing is beautiful – even mesmerizing at times – and it calms and quiets the spirit. And hallelujah! The book is cleanly edited. Included in the book are numerous photos, all either taken by the author or from his own collection. Though I wish they were in color (I completely understand why they aren’t), even in black and white, they are dramatic and many still convey the sheer awesomeness of the Big Bend and give perspective of how small we are in the grand scheme of things – physically and otherwise.  They make a fine addition to the book and perfectly complement the text.  The only elements missing, especially if one intends to find any of the trails or places discussed in Yonderings, are maps. Of course, this may have been an intentional exclusion since the author loves NOT seeing people on his hikes. Nonetheless, even to the armchair explorer, and overview of what is where would be fabulous.

Perhaps it’s my own (limited) firsthand knowledge of the Big Bend that took this reading experience to the next level and created a real yearning within me to return there. (Ahhh, to see Santa Elena Canyon up close again. It’s been ten years.) But I am certain that after reading Yonderings, even those who have never been there will find themselves itching to make plans – and wondering if Mr. English would consider being their guide. *HINT* In the meantime, in several places, English references numerous other novels in the works. HOORAY! I am most thankful that he’s been meticulous in recording his journeys and the history of a place that nature is recapturing, and I eagerly await future publications.

Thank you to Lone Star Book Blog Tours, TCU Press, and the author for giving me a treasured print copy in exchange for my honest opinion – the only kind I give. 

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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