Below the Falls

We stood for a few minutes, admiring the view of the bluffs and the Cowley County Fishing Lake on a gorgeous autumn afternoon. While Randa snapped a couple more pictures, I noticed a faint footpath leading back to the west. Within a couple of minutes, I’d disappeared into the bushes and branches woven around the trail. After walking a hundred feet or so, I paused at the edge of the bluff and looked back toward the lake. My eyes followed the line of the flat stone across to the hill on the opposite side and then back toward the west. The line stopped abruptly toward my right.

It took me several seconds to figure out what seemed to be an illusion. The ground seemed to fall away to the west of that rock line. Seams of gray were interrupted by a wide band of a coppery color with a small pool of water lying to the side. Suddenly I realized that I was looking at the waterfall. Well, at least at what would be a waterfall if there was any water to fall.

Instead of the narrow, slight outcropping I’d expected to find in a little creek, this lip spanned sixty or seventy feet across, with a drop of thirty feet or more. The coppery color was the deep soil that layered beneath the seams of limestone. Large boulders at various angles littered along the edge down from the bluff to the bottom.

Using tree roots for handholds, Randa and I climbed down, with Layla trailing us on her leash. Sycamores and cottonwoods grew along the rock-strewn bed below the falls. That small pool at the base of the falls and a glistening seep along the southern bank were the only indications of water. There were signs in the sweep of old stems and leaves caught against trunks a couple of feet above the ground indicated there had been times of flow, though.

We probed around the scattering of stones and boulders and walked along the creek bed after it passed out of the bluffs just a hundred feet or so downstream. Dozens of different colors and half that many textures spanned the stretch of rocks and stones. We felt smooth edges and saw sharp breaks, suggesting the differences in spans of exposure to water and wind and time. The trees growing closer to the base of the falls were much younger than those growing downstream.

Along the northern bank, the thick base of an old cottonwood testified of decades of determination and endurance. In its roots, rocks the size of couch cushions were held at odd angles. Several feet above the thick base, the trunk had been broken and rotted, giving way to nothing but a jangling of strong branches holding a few quaking leaves in the gentle breeze. Yet the old tree still held to deeper soil, a mass of rocks and roots reaching down a few feet and then disappearing into the nourishing earth.

Given a deep enough grip and a solid enough determination, we can endure the storms and floods. Faith and hope can hold through the darkest nights and strongest winds. Eventually, though the stones may affect the shape, they cannot keep the roots from their seeking. Faith that overcomes mountains can certainly make its way around a few rocks.

H. Arnett

Cowley State Lake Waterfall 2

Waterfall at Cowley State Fishing Lake

Waterfall at Cowley State Fishing Lake

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Kansas Waterfall

On our way back from Tulsa the other day, one of the teachers in the group shared a tragic story about two former students. One of them had murdered the other some miles away and had then driven the victim’s car out to Cowley Lake. Perhaps thinking to somehow hide the real crime scene, he pushed the car into the lake.

On a much brighter note, she then said, just as we passed by the lake on Route 166 several miles east of Ark City, “There’s a waterfall.”

Considering the setting of these low rolling hills, I imagined a small creek dropping a slow trickle over a few feet of exposed outcropping. Still, a waterfall is a waterfall, especially in a place where it is not expected.

On a gorgeous afternoon, with mostly clear skies and the temperature just above seventy, Randa and I went out to investigate the waterfall rumor.

Native grasses bent in the wind of passing cars and trucks, reflecting the subtle colors of early fall in southern Kansas. Bits of stone gleamed gray in the bare places of hills and fields stretching out for miles. Along the ditches, cottonwood, elm and prairie oak staked their dark shapes. At the eastern end of a flat valley, I pointed out the big barn on its limestone base built into the side of the hill and nestled against the trees.

Up the hill and around another curve, we turned down the gravel drive south of the highway and wound our way back past the campsites. The state fishing lake in Cowley County looks as if it was built into the abandoned bed of an old rock quarry. Vertical bluffs rise up along the north and south boundaries, especially toward its west end, opposite the small creek running in from the east. A turnabout marked the end of the gravel drive. Ceresa lespedeza lined the parking lot, along with shrubs and trees. A fence drifted along the edge of the bluffs, above a wide flat of stone that spanned north and south, varying from a hundred feet wide to maybe three hundred feet or more as it stretched east, ending at the water a quarter-mile away. I stood for a while taking in the view of stone bluffs and the dark greens of trees and bushes with a touch of autumn color just beginning to brush the leaves and grass.

It was lovely and totally unexpected, a microcosm of Vermont or New Hampshire transported nearly to Oklahoma. It is a rare and rich blessing to bask in the goodness of certain moments, scenes and events and then discover that something even better is just around the corner. I was about to find that this was one of those moments.

H. Arnett

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The Blessing of Inconvenient Travel

I’ve known for many years now that interstate highways tend to lie about the places they go through. It’s not anything malicious or malevolent; it’s just the ways of things when the purpose of convenience gets elevated above all others. And it’s certainly not that I object to convenience, either.

If I wanted to experience every bump, dip, hill and twist of western Kentucky, I’d get right off of the WK Parkway and get right onto the misery of those four-digit semi-paved trails. In most situations, especially the ones that involve getting from E-town to Murray in the shortest time possible, I very much enjoy the fact that I can zip right along at seventy miles an hour, smoothly winding my way through the curves and over and around the hills.

But back to my original statement: if you really want to experience the geography of a place, forget the interstate. All that smooth grading, even sloping and gentle turning is not the true nature of the places through which you are traveling. The truth is a bit less convenient, a bit more varied and more nuanced. And, if you’ve got the time and inclination, infinitely more interesting.

I discovered this fact many years ago about Highway 50 as it weaves and bends its way across central Kentucky when I took a deliberate detour and enjoyed an hour of chasing crawdads in a stone-bed river. I enjoyed this truth about Doniphan County for a bit more than a decade in and around northeastern Kansas, hiking for hours in mostly futile searches for mushrooms. And I’m looking forward to approaching revelations about Cowley County and the Flint Hills.

Some folks would simply rather move right on through and be on their way. They see I-35 or US-77 as nothing more than the least inconvenient conduit from Where I Am to Where I Want to Be. As long as there is an ample amount of fuel available and a sufficient store of readily available nourishments and refreshments, they care less about the terrain through which they travel. They might enjoy some sort of break in the scenery from time to time but they have neither the time nor the inclination for greater familiarity.

When we become so absorbed in our daily destinations that we ignore the settings of our sojournings, we are at risk of losing more than the road. We were meant to be engaged travelers, not bored tourists. If we can open ourselves a bit and slow down a little, we may find some good changes in more than the scenery.

H. Arnett

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Tulsa Time

A few Cowley College teachers and I went over to Tulsa last Friday for a session on one test publisher’s alternative approach to predicting success for entering college students. We drove a bit over two hours each way for a two-hour presentation at Tulsa Community College’s Northeastern Campus. The presenter did right well, managing to minimize the commercial aspects and maximize the research, reasoning and thoughtful implications.

We did right well, too, minimizing the effects of the road noise and maximizing the opportunity for a limited time of profoundly professional discourse. We filled in the other four hours of travel with friendly banter and getting to know one another. Truth be told, my own motivation for the trip probably had more to do with that than with the Tulsa part.

Road trips, along with all sorts of potential for PG-13 movies that should be rated “R,” have an almost unrivaled capacity for forming and strengthening collegial ties. Away from the office, away from the expectations of routine and absent the constant self-consciousness, people tend to ease off on the demands that we put on ourselves and one another.

The bumps and rumbling of the road, the view of miles of prairie hills and the occasional visual prompts for personal reflection all lead to a sort of smorgasbord of sharing: marriage, family, professional paths, personal likes and dislikes and the various perspectives of all the places we’ve seen and the people we’ve been.

Of course, there’s always the risk of being a tad too honest, revealing a political bent of one sort or another, but as long as you’re with decent people, the risk is pretty low and the tolerance level is pretty high. As for me, I had the privilege of being with some mighty fine people.

I left with a good opinion of all of them and came back with an even higher one.

Somehow, it got me to thinking that it wasn’t just the lessons and lectures that got Jesus and his disciples bound up so close together. I’m guessing that the walking from Jerusalem to Galilee, the treks up the backsides of those lonely mountains and the long, slow meals away from the eyes of the maddening crowd were a big part of it.

One key difference: Unlike the Master and his students, I’m pretty sure that I learned more from the folks I was with than they learned from me. And I’m pretty comfortable with that. Not expecting me to be the smartest person in the room sure takes some pressure off of me.

And spares everybody else from some disappointment, too.

H. Arnett

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Funeral Invitation

Just for the record, just in case I forget or don’t get around to it later, I want everyone to know: you are all welcome to come to my funeral. Everyone. Well, almost everyone. Here’s the deal: you have to behave yourself. You can’t come and use my funeral as an opportunity to be rude, mean, disruptive, unpleasant or otherwise behave yourself in some uncomely manner. Otherwise, you’re welcome.

If you want to, come share an embarrassing story like the one about the time when I went out to practice basketball (while the cheerleaders were practicing at the other end of the gym) and I had on my shoes, socks, shirt and jock strap… but no shorts. Come ahead, share the story, enjoy the laughs and how red my face would turn if I could have been there and been aware.

If you want to come share one of my awkward moments like when I sort of indirectly cast a slight aspersion on a particular religious group only to find out two minutes later that the new Vice President of Business and Finance was a member of that particular religious group, come ahead. Share the story, chuckle about my occasional lack of forethought and enjoy how red my face would turn if I could have been there and been aware.

If you’re one of those folks I insulted, hurt, wronged in some way, slighted or just plain ole sinned against, come ahead. Hopefully, you’ll know that I repented of that, felt bad about it and wished I’d never done it. Most likely, if I was aware of it, I already asked for your forgiveness; I usually do.

If you’re one of those folks who insulted, hurt, wronged, slighted or sinned against me, I especially want you to come. I want you to know that I forgave you long ago, even if you never asked me to forgive you. Heck, even if you still refuse to admit that you insulted, hurt or wronged me, I want you to come. And I want you to know that I love you and I would run into a burning building to rescue you. Although, I’d rather we just sat on the back porch together and shared a beer. Or a glass of iced tea if that’s what you’d prefer. I want you to know that no matter how big the hurt, how wrong the wrong, I’ve forgiven you and I love you.

I’ve forgiven you even if my wife, my kids, my friends and my dog haven’t forgiven you. But I can promise you that they’re willing to forgive you and it would make it a lot easier for them if you would at least pretend that you’re sorry about it. Okay, the dog is probably going to require something more sincere than that but for the rest of them: the pretending would be a good start.

I want you to come and enjoy my funeral. I want there to be jokes and stories and laughter. I want the tears to be genuine and unashamed. I want the laughs to ripple all the way through the building and spill out onto the sidewalk. I want my funeral to be a celebration of mercy, love, forgiveness and grace. I want my funeral to be a continuing legacy of the very best ideals to which I have aspired, the absolute grandest notions I’ve ever encountered. Even though I will admit that there have been times when getting to mercy, love, forgiveness and grace was more of a struggle than it should have been, I never quit trying. The last thing that I would want would be for my funeral to be a monument to my worst faults, my darkest traits, my greatest struggles.

So, if you want to come to my funeral and share a bit of sadness, come ahead. If you want to come to my funeral and share how some small thing I did touched your life, please come. And sit right down front, right by the family. If you want to come just to verify that the reports of my demise were not greatly exaggerated, please come. If you want to come just to gloat, come ahead but keep the gloating to yourself, please.

I’ve already forgiven you.

H. Arnett

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A Matter of Choice

In spite of my whining and whimpering about my sore knee, I’ve got to confess I think I got off pretty easy. At least I’m not losing any toe nails.

One of my new colleagues, who is about twenty-five years younger than me, ran a 50K race Saturday. Yes, folks, you read correctly, “50K.” For those of you who might be about as metric-impaired as I am, that’s thirty-two miles. Thirty-two miles in one day. Well, actually, about nine-and-a-half hours in Ben’s case. He did the last ten miles or so after tripping on a big rock, smashing a couple of toes and landing hard on his left side.

“I’ve lost two or three toenails already,” Ben stated very matter-of-factly, “I’ll probably lose a couple more.”

According to Ben, and I have no reason for skepticism, the relentless pounding of the toes against the pavement and/or ground causes so much trauma to the nailbed that the nail just comes loose. Like me, Ben wasn’t moving very fast today. Unlike me, you had to look pretty closely to notice that. I clopped around like a lame horse.

Ben is much sorer than I am, I’m sure. There aren’t many muscles that don’t get sore when you run for thirty miles or so. All that motion, all that pounding, all that swinging, all that repetition of motion and force takes its toll.

In spite of that, Ben kept a smile on his face, a cheerful tone in his voice and a pleasant manner.

I’m trying to take a lesson from Ben, trying to aspire to greater display of cheerful resolution and chipper resignation to the fate at hand.

I think God likes it when His children opt not to gripe and grumble about the day He has made. Even when we’ve managed to screw it up a bit. Or maybe especially then…

H. Arnett

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Paying the Piper

Paying the Piper

Well, folks, I’ve gotta tell you that Sam and I sure got our money’s worth over at Extreme Timber Challenge in Bonner Springs, Kansas, Sunday afternoon. Well, except for the tee shirt, we got our money’s worth. The tee shirt is definitely the most pedestrian of any of the ones I’ve gotten in my twenty-plus obstacle course mud runs in the past four years. Plain white cotton tee with a Bigfoot logo on the front and the names of a dozen sponsors on the back… But, in terms of interesting obstacles, challenging terrain and sheer fun factor, XTC was a definite bargain!

Courses are typically described as flat, rolling, moderately hilly or mountainous. Since I knew this one was in the “bluffs” of the Kansas River, I figured it would be somewhat hilly. “Bluffs? In Kansas?” I thought… right.

Well, having spent about an hour-and-a-half jogging up and down rock-strewn, log-jammed creek beds, over the creek and through the woods, I’d have to say that “mountainous” would not have been terribly mis-leading. I also have to say that “fun” for old freaks like me might be a bit of an under-statement.

We climbed over, around and through two old school busses (one of which was set on the slope of a steep ravine). We held onto ropes and worked our way down steep trails. We climbed up on cargo nets, old tires and tree roots. We swung our way over a mud pit and clambered over a fifteen-foot sheer rock face. We held onto a bicycle grip zip line and zipped across a little valley, over a couple hundred feet of slope, pond and mud. We climbed the stairs to the top of a seven-floor -tall wooden tower, wowed at the view of the river bottom and climbed back down. We hiked over rip-rap, scaled a wall of old tires and conquered big bales of hay. We slid down a hundred-foot slip-n-slide into a muddy pool. The race sponsors claimed they had forty-five obstacles in the four-mile run and I don’t think they exaggerated even slightly.

We had so many obstacles and so much fun that we reached the next-to-last obstacle at least thirty minutes earlier than I thought we would. Maybe they exaggerated the distance; maybe it was only a bit over three miles. I don’t know. But I do know that we climbed over that last A-frame wall at the finish line a lot sooner than I expected.

The last obstacle wasn’t there at the race track.

Even though I didn’t notice any pain or even discomfort throughout the whole race, by the time we got cleaned up and into the truck, I told Sam, “My knee doesn’t feel quite right.”

Sam was a little short on sympathy, having jammed his thumb pretty hard when he snagged it on the side of the slip-n-slide.

A night later, I’m sitting here with ice on my bruised and swollen left knee after spending the whole day limping around like Walter Brennan in “The Real McCoys.” So far, the folks I work with have kept their smirks and snickers out of my hearing range. I’m calling this final obstacle, “Getting Over the First Forty-Five.”

There’s not much fun in this world that doesn’t come with a price tag of some kind or another. I’ll sure take this over some of the other ones I’ve had to pay!

H. Arnett

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