Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Big Bend Country

One of the most unique areas of Texas is the Big Bend country. It is so remote and off the beaten path that even relatively few Texans have ventured to that part of the state. But it is one of my favorite places, and I look forward to visiting there often in the future. I’m no stranger to the "Last Frontier", as locals often call that region. From 1991 to 2002, I lived on the edge of the “Trans-Pecos” region of Texas, and my job from 1997-2002 took me there often.

One way to get to know that region is through literature, and there are two books I highly recommend. The first of these is I’ll Gather My Geese by Hallie Crawford Stillwell. Hallie is a legend in the Big Bend country. As a young woman in 1916, shebegan her teaching career in remote Presidio, Texas, in the western part of the Big Bend. In 1918, Hallie married Roy Stillwell, who owned a 22,000 acre ranch about 50 miles south of Marathon, Texas. From that time on, she spent most of her time on the ranch, and her book traces her life through World War II in an honest, simple writing style. Hallie died in 1997, and her descendants still operate the Stillwell Store in a remote location southeast of Marathon.

J. O. Langford suffered throughout his young life from malaria, which he had contracted as a child in his native Mississippi. After marrying, he began moving west in hopes of reviving his health in a drier climate. While in a hotel lobby in Alpine, Texas, in the early 1900s, he overhead some men discussing a hot spring on the Rio Grande which supposedly contained curative powers. After inquiring about the land, he learned that it was open to homesteading and filed.

In 1909, Langford moved his wife and infant daughter to the property at the mouth of Tornillo Creek, which is located in the eastern portion of today’s Big Bend National Park. His book, Big Bend: A Homesteader’s Story, follows the lives of his young family as they grow to love this isolated country and its inhabitants. What I especially enjoy about the book is how completely the Langfords are able to immerse themselves in the culture of the area and how they learn to live simply and in harmony with their surroundings and their neighbors. For example, Mr. Langford thinks nothing of his weekly trip to the post office, a round-trip of 14 miles which he walks.

I’ve found that most local libraries usually carry these books. Although they describe a Big Bend of the past, they detail the history of the land and they capture the spirit of the frontier that still exists in the region. If you plan a trip to the region, start by reading one or both of these books.

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