In Spring of 1974, Art Jennings, one of the founders of the International Jugglers' Association (IJA) and long time family friend, came to visit my family in Maryville, Tennessee. At the time I was attending the University of Tennessee, but still living with my parents. When Jennings pulled into town with his young wife and his Airstream trailer we were excited to welcome him into our home.
My father was a young man not yet married when he first met Art in the late 1940s. The older Jennings was a sort of renaissance man with diverse interests and a high intellect who was outgoing and bonded with my father. As a child I recall seeing Art Jennings on various occasions and always being fascinated by him, perhaps in part because of his alternate persona of juggling clown Happy Daze.
We hadn't seen him in a while but my parents had remained in contact with him via mail that always included his yearly newsy Christmas greeting message. Now in his 70s he was back on the road presenting a bicycle safety program as Happy Daze at schools throughout the United States. Since the passing of his wife he had also acquired an attractive wife many years younger than he was.
Jennings was quite the raconteur and I enjoyed listening to him and my father reminisce about the early days of the IJA and show biz stories. Having recently taken an interest in film making, I was particularly interested when he hauled in his 8 MM projector and collection of films taken on his travels. Much of his recent travel had been in West Texas and since I was not too familiar with this part of the country I was quite interested in his films.
His film making was above par compared to typical home movies. He had edited them into very watchable travelogues. The portion that caught my attention the most was the sequence about Big Bend National Park.
Coincidentally, I had just read a newspaper story about Big Bend and therefore had already developed a curiosity about the place. Seeing the sights on film increased my interest in the area. It was then that I became convinced that I needed to go to Big Bend.
It didn't take much for me to convince my friend Vernon to go there for his summer vacation. He'd just bought an older van that had once been owned by the telephone company and he was anxious to give it a real road test. A trip from East Tennessee to West Texas was just the thing. He began working on the van to make sure it was worthy of this epic road trip.
In July of 1974 Vernon and I set out in the old van and made the trip. We were not only not disappointed by the experience, we were amazed by the place. The rugged desolate landscape was so different than what we were accustomed to seeing in Tennessee. We camped in several locations in the park and savored every minute of the magical time we were there.
So enamored were we with Big Bend that we made a return trip in the same van--this time accompanied by our friend Dave. In some ways the second trip was even more amazing. Big Bend became one of the highlights of our lives.
Since those trips I returned to Big Bend one more time after I married my first wife. It was still as magical and amazing as ever. Big Bend is one of those places I still long to go back to visit.