Every so often I come across a book so wonderfully Texcentric, so authentically grounded in the Texas landscape, that I must recommend it as a good read. “Yonderings” by Ben English is such a book. The title alone recommends it. It’s about Ben English’s life of hiking the brutal but beautiful mountain desert of Big Bend.
He told me that as a young boy he attended a two-room school in Terlingua. It had a dog run in the middle. One side had the classroom and the other the library, which was filled with books donated by local ranchers. So he was exposed to his favorite author, Louis L’Amour quite early, along with J. Frank Dobie and classic works going back to Plato.
English said that as a young boy he knew he wanted to do three things in life. He wanted to be a U.S. Marine, a Texas Highway Patrolman, and a writer. He said he figured he’d get the first two done and then settle into writing afterward, which is exactly what he did. He spent 7 years in the Marine Corp and 22 years working as a Highway Patrolman, mostly in West Texas. In that time he never stopped hiking and camping in Big Bend because he says it was his refuge and sanctuary.
When I read “Yonderings: Trails and Memories of the Big Bend,” I thought immediately of Edward Abbey’s “Desert Solitaire.” I thought to myself, ‘my goodness, Ben English has done for Big Bend what Abbey did for the Arches National Park – and what John Graves, also a Marine, did for the Brazos River.’ English is an explorer who is a writer and a writer who is an explorer.
You get from him practical, straightforward Marine-boot-camp instructions about hiking the trails of Big Bend. He also provides a kind of poetic prose about the magic you’ll encounter along the way.
Here’s a passage from “Yonderings” that gives you the Marine orientation talk to keep you safe.
There is one matter that requires strong emphasis at this juncture . . . any time you are negotiating the Chisos Mountains trails complex. Though some of these paths can run within a couple of hundred yards of each other on occasion, as seen on a map, one should not be tempted to cut across in an attempt to save time or cut distance. The intervening terrain is often a lot tougher going than it might first appear . . . this is tricky unforgiving country with steep ravines, bluffs, unstable slides, and dozens of other hidden pitfalls piled atop one another. If you get hurt or lost, it may be a long while before anyone finds you – and longer still before they can get you any help. . . people have died . . . do yourself a favor and stick to the routes laid out. Works out better for everyone.
“Yonderings” provides plenty of the poetry you expect from the naturalist genre as well.
You are almost upon the South Rim before you know it, walking slightly upwards until the trees part and the blue sky falls away to a horizon that now seems strangely below you. . . . The sky was blue, the sun was shining, and a southern breeze was sending hawks, eagles, and other large birds soaring both above and below us, catching the wind currents along the massive bluffs and pirouetting in the graceful manner that only these royalties of the air seem to possess.
We’re coming upon Big Bend’s best season. You might oughta take a copy of “Yonderings” when you go. I think it’s the best travel guide you could wish for.