Review Of Big Bend: A Homesteader's Story

Copyright © by Jessica Schneider, 11/18/09


  Following a recent visit to Big Bend National Park, I located a number of books in the Visitor’s Center on Big Bend, one of which was Big Bend: A Homesteader's Story (University of Texas Press) by J.O. Langford and Fred Gipson. The book offers a historical perspective about the park, detailing the lives of J.O. Langford and his family in 1909 as they search for a new home near the Rio Grande.

  Horses, burros and wagons, these are the olden days where there are no highways, only gravel stretching from one vast place to the next. And the prose, while spare, presents both sides of this beautiful terrain: the distant points of the mountains noted from afar, coupled with the bandits and rattlesnakes the family closely encounters along the way.

  Containing over a dozen landscape photos, Big Bend is seen as a timeless entity, as well as an indifferent one. Fred Gipson, the author of works such as Old Yeller and Hound Dog Man, relays the myths that compose the history of the landscape, such as Dead Horse Canyon, (located on the Texas side near Boquillas Canyon), which received its name after ranchmen acquired horses from Mexico, only to abandon them after crossing the Rio Grande. The horses then died of starvation in the canyon.

  Yet when encountering a Texan named George Lewis, anyone who has lived in Texas can see Gipson is spot on when it comes to describing the warm Texas character that is all too common:

  “George claimed that he walked every one of the hundreds of miles from his farm to the Big Bend. I couldn’t swear to that, but anyone in the Big Bend country could testify that George certainly walked the eighty-five miles from Marathon to the Rio Grande. He refused to ride with anyone. He accepted few favors, and ate with no one. He was cheerful enough, and humorous, always laughing and talking—about anything and everything but himself.”

  The writing in Big Bend: A Homesteader’s Story is not overtly poetic and nor does it probe into the depths of the human condition, but rather, it is a slice of life tale which dips into a place of history within this vast panorama of sights. For anyone who has visited the park, the photos will no doubt be familiar, such as the beautiful Santa Elena Canyon, Boquillas Canyon, the Carmen Mountains, and the enduring Rio Grande, all of which were just as lovely then as they are today. And given the narrative takes place before Big Bend became a National Park, one can feel satisfied in knowing these natural structures have not since been eroded by greed and all things human.

  Odd quirks appear within the Langford family’s tale, such as their young child, Lovey, referring to herself in the third person, and their devoted dog, Tex, who accompanies Langford while he goes fur-trapping. “Tex ran the trapline with me and could never understand why I wouldn’t let her tear the animals apart,” he notes. Then later, when trying to hunt for blacktailed deer, Langford fails and the deer gets away, but not before observing the blue quail that manages to escape the hawk. The book is rife with nature observances, though some might wish for him to let the animals be.

  Big Bend ends on a somewhat sad note, that is, when the Langfords return years later, they notice that the land has been impacted by the war in Europe. As the demands for livestock increase, the grass becomes sparse, and the pools filled with gravel. The natives are thus left in between two worlds: too advanced for their old civilization, and not modern enough for another. “So now they existed in a sort of nebulous suspension between two cultures and were fitted for neither.”

  Big Bend: A Homesteader’s Story is part nature writing, part history, part survival tale, and part bittersweet, leaving one with the message of loving the landscape, but hating the humans that ruin it. The beauty of the natural world will persevere, but one can only wish that human nature could be as innocent.


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Examiner.com website.]


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