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The Cliffs

 by Vern Zielke

It was always an exciting journey. From our farm, where the terrain was flat and the roads neatly marked the section lines, you could go just two miles south and two east, and enter an enchanted land. Here were steep hills, deep canyons, clear streams, and tall cottonwoods. And if you crossed the cattle gate and followed a winding pair of ruts, you could descend to a grove of trees near a placid little stream appropriately and prosaically named "Sand Creek."

Here, possibly at the turn of the century, someone had homesteaded, and built a house and a barn. The crumbling walls of each of these buildings remained, and offered wonderful exploration opportunities for small boys. Here, to this grove of cottonwoods, we would come for a variety of reasons. This is where we sometimes gathered for "Children's Day." This was a summer day when the church family put aside all farm work and gathered for a celebration especially planned for the children of the church. There were all kinds of games and usually a program where the children performed. The tables were laden with a country potluck such as only farm wives can provide. The roast beef, sausage, and fried chicken came not from the store, but directly from the farmyard. The bread, the pies and cakes had been freshly baked just for this day. Often there would be a plenteous supply of watermelons, which were floating in a tank of cold water. And sometime there would be tubs of ice laden with bottles of pop. For some this meal was the highlight of the day.

For the men and older boys, the highlight may have been the softball game. There was a flat area near the trees and bases were set up to designate a playing area. Sides were chosen, and a highly competitive contest ensued. The younger boys would watch the fun for a bit, but soon would look for even more excitement. Sand Creek beckoned and pulled at them like a magnet. Soon the shoes would come off and they would begin to follow the winding stream as it led them south of the cottonwoods. There were minnows, frogs and turtles to catch, rabbits to spot, and sometimes, snakes of different kinds to admire.

The stream curved gradually to the southeast, sometimes widening into larger pools. Eventually the creek made a rather sharp turn and ran almost due north. This spot was the destination, for here were the cliffs. There they stood, rising high above the creek, standing as sentinels, keeping eternal watch over the valley below. Standing by the creek you could look up and watch the swallows whose nests dotted the walls, and you could see small caves and burrows and wonder what animals inhabited them.

The more daring thing to do, however, was to find a place where you could get a hand and foothold, and begin an ascent. Soon there would be a line of boys following a leader, who would mark an upward path and all the rest would eagerly scramble up the almost sheer wall of the cliff. Within minutes they would emerge against the skyline, breathless, but victorious. When you got to the top, you could stand in wonderment as the panoramic view unfolded before your eyes. You could see the winding creek, the road in the distance, and of course, all of the people back at the gathering site. You could stand at the very edge of the cliff and imagine what it would be like to be an eagle and fly in graceful circles over the valley below.

 Too soon, the softball game in the distance came to an end, and people began to gather their things, and car horns began to honk, calling us all back. The magic of the cliffs remained, however, and we would find other times to come back.

It was not unusual for us to go to this area to pick sand plums. Sand plum thickets were prevalent here, and every summer we would seek out the best place to find the succulent fruit. A good sand plum year provided enough fruit for bountiful stores of plum jelly, and quart jars of canned plums for pies and saunt plumemoss. Small boys and girls did not stay with the pickers long. They stayed just long enough to eat their fill of sand plums. Soon they were off on their own, exploring the creek and climbing the cliffs.

As we got older we developed other interests, but it seemed that we never missed an opportunity to visit the cliffs. One such visit brought with it a great and wonderful surprise. It was springtime, and we had one of those Kansas storms that often come during that time of the year. As we explored the creek, we could see that the quiet little stream had recently been a torrent. Brush and debris marked the farthest boundaries where the turbulent waters had raged, and we were awed to think that this had happened on a dark night when no humans were present to witness natures power. As we rounded the bend where the stream flows under the cliffs, we stopped in disbelief and amazement. The area below the cliffs had been profoundly altered. Where there had always been a narrow stream there now was a rather large pool of clear water. Upon closer observation and measurement, we soon found that it was quite deep and the water was unusually clear because of the sandy bottom

The raging waters had created for us a beautiful pool, and our thoughts immediately turned to swimming. It did not take long for us to shed our clothes and explore this godsend. This became our swimming pool for the remainder of the summer, and we even constructed a sturdy diving board on its banks. This would have continued to be our summer swimming place, except that another frog-strangler came along sometime later, and we experienced a reverse surprise. We found, to our dismay, that the pool was gone, and the placid little stream ran again beneath the cliffs, and only the cliffs had been witnesses to the change. They, in characteristic fashion, refused to comment.

The cliffs remain for me a cherished memory of my childhood. The time came when I had sons of my own, and often when we visited Meade, we would go to the cliffs. Even then, exploration might yield new insights into the history of the area. Just to the north of the tall cliffs, as we followed the stream, we would come to some outcropping formations, where the soil and rock had been formed into what looked almost like a cave. Here we would often stop to have target practice with the single shot rifle we sometimes took on these trips.

On the walls, in the shelter of the roof above, we found, on one occasion, some hieroglyphics that were of great interest to us. These were not ancient carvings, the work of some Native American artisans, done thousands of years ago. These were carvings of rather recent origin, proof that others, from the generation before us had also enjoyed the cliffs. Here we could see in bold letters, carved with a sure hand, the declaration that George loves Marie. We all knew that George was Uncle George, who had lived just a few miles to the north, and had loved and married Aunt Marie, who had lived just a few miles to the west. It was not hard to calculate that it must have been about fifty years ago that Uncle George had visited this sheltered spot, and decided to leave a symbol of his undying love on these walls. When, someday, I go back to the cliffs, I want to go and see if time has been kind to the hieroglyphics on the little cliffs. Maybe, if I look carefully, I can find something that I myself carved there for another generation to find.


(copyright Vern Zielke)

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