Walking Along the River Road

With today’s forecast calling for a Siberian Express to flatten out all mercurial indicators across most of the continent, Randa and I decided to take advantage of yesterday’s lovely warmth and go hiking out at Camp Horizon. With the temperature pleasantly near seventy degrees and almost no breeze, we set out.

After cautiously working our way down the limestone bluffs below Inspiration Point, we walked along the lower logging road that runs along the Arkansas River. Hardwood trees spanned the steep bluff up to our left while cottonwood and other lowland varieties filled in whatever sections of the flood plain allowed. Dozens of deadfall trees blackened the spaces where water had stood for too long some decades before.

We followed the trail east until it came to the downward bend at its end and took the steps down the bank and crossed the small ditch. Walking out of the woods into the flat, we saw miles of sand lining the winding course of the Arkansas. We saw some “his and hers” footprints in the mud flats along the edge and wondered if they might belong to the fugitive pair that had eluded local law pursuers a few days earlier. “What’d they do?” Randa asked with a healthy dose of incredulity as we both stared at several hundred feet of flat sand and mud spanning the distance between us and the stream, “Walk across all that to get out to the river and then swim across?”

After a brief bit of speculation, we took a shortcut up the bank and into the flood flat bordering between the river and the logging road. Owing to the late season and a bit of a respite from the rains, the space was mostly weedless and dry. Dead leaves blanketed a flat bed about fifty feet wide and crunched beneath our feet as we walked along parallel to the steep bank leading up to the logging road.

As we walked, I began looking for a way up and out. A tangle of roots exposed by years of erosion stuck out from near the base of a tree. “What about that?” I asked Randa, and then answered myself, “Looks pretty steep.” It was one of those options where you figured you could manage to work your way through it but also knew it would likely take more work than the way seemed worth. We kept walking.

After a while, Randa pointed over, “Looks like we could climb out there.” The bank was still pretty steep but there were some exposed roots we could use to help pull ourselves out.

I paused and then saw another place just a little farther along the low bed. It wasn’t as obvious due to a brief tangle of overhanging branches but it had a lower slope and looked like we could just walk out. We ducked beneath the impeding branches and stepped around a few tiny saplings that had sprouted up from the flood bed. A few steps along a rising edge led us up and out, right onto a well-worn footpath running along the logging road. Less than a quarter mile later, the path led us up an easy slope onto the road.

Sometimes, the closer way off the present path may be too steep, too demanding, too fraught with obstacles even more unpleasant than the ones we already encounter. Keeping our eyes open as we continue may lead us to find an easier and better way to the road we want to travel. In all my walks, saunters, meanderings and wanderings, I have found that some ways are easier than others. But all ways that lead to a higher road have been worth walking.

H. Arnett
11/11/19

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In Memory of Jon Moore–1956-2019

When I first came to Cowley College in September of 2015, a team of maintenance workers showed up at my office the second day I was here. “Anything you need us to do?” Todd Ray asked. I looked around, took stock, and thought for a moment. The visiting area with its round table and chairs seemed a bit small.

“Could ya’ll take out that big credenza that sits behind the desk and then help me move the desk unit over?” The desk unit was a large L-shaped affair, complete with a pull-out keyboard tray and filing drawers. Probably weighed over three hundred pounds. Todd directed in a friendly tone, “We’ll take care of moving this stuff; you just go ahead with something else.”

Within a half-hour, the credenza was gone and the desk pulled back toward that wall. The move created another twenty square feet of space in the visiting area. Perfect.

Among the group of truly pleasant and helpful fellows that showed up to help was Jon Moore.

Jon looked to be about my age, maybe a few years younger. He was slightly taller and maybe twenty or thirty pounds heavier and definitely more solid. His forearms were thick, shoulders full. The way he moved, spoke, and looked at people showed a friendly confidence. A ready smile and eyes that focused on yours when he talked conveyed genuineness, honesty and sincerity. I also got the clear notion that in spite of his soft-spoken manner and kind expression, there was a depth of strength and resolve that you’d prefer be on your side if a situation ever called for such things.

None of the subsequent encounters I had with him failed to reinforce that original impression. After he shifted from the maintenance crew to campus security, he’d stop by my office on his evening rounds. “Hey, Doc, how are you doing? Working late?” We’d chat for a few minutes and then he’d say goodbye and move on and I’d get back to whatever I’d been doing.

No matter where or when I saw him, he was always the same: friendly, genuine, humble and confident. I always felt better after talking with him, even if we spoke for only a moment. I suspect it was largely due to that sense of genuine caring.

Just a couple of months after I resigned my job at the college in 2018, I saw Jon Moore on a backroad out near Camp Horizon.

Mark Flickinger and I were out hiking in the middle of October, training for an excursion to the Grand Canyon. We’d passed an empty pickup truck earlier and had reached our turnaround point and were headed back. As we approached the truck, we saw a man dressed in camos coming out of the field and headed to the truck. It was Jon.

We stopped and shook hands, visited, laughed together in the manner of men who like each other and are truly glad to see each other. There was a hint of rain and the skies to the west were darkening. Mark and I still had about three or four miles to go and so we said goodbye and watched Jon drive away.

“He’s a good guy, isn’t he?” I said. “He sure is,” Mark quickly agreed. A few sprinkles fell on us as we walked toward the overhanging trees and walked beneath them, grateful for the shelter in our passing.

I had no idea that was the last time I’d ever see or speak with Jon. Almost exactly a year later, cancer killed him. I didn’t even know he was sick until another friend told me he’d passed away.

There was so much about Jon I didn’t know. I didn’t know he’d been born in England. I didn’t know he’d worked as a police officer for years before working at Cowley College. I didn’t know where he’d gone to school.

I guess much of what I didn’t know was because I didn’t ask. And I think part of it was because Jon always seemed more interested in other people and in other things than in talking about himself. I know that even though I didn’t know him any better than I did, there is still a hole in my heart today and I wish there was some way that I could tell him how much I respected him and appreciated him.

It is not an easy thing to lose such folks as Jon Moore. The closer they are, the bigger the hole they leave behind. But the good that they bring to the world, the good that they bring to our lives, and the good that they leave behind them in our hearts and memories will eventually help soften the pain of losing them.

H. Arnett
10/30/19

Posted in Death & Dying, Family, Relationships, Spiritual Contemplation | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Alive in the Desert

Our guide says that the north rim of the canyon
is a thousand feet higher than here—
though here seems quite high enough to me.
Eighteen miles wide and a mile deep.

Steep walls rise and fall in more colors than I can count.
The horizontal fountain of the Colorado River
reflects a brilliant blue sky as it surges by
and through the rapids—bright ripples of white
voicing thunder that fades
within the deepest folds of aged stone.

I turn away from that to study
tiny yellow flowers flaring in the midst
of stubby branches and rubber leaves,
rings of lichen in a dozen colors on a smooth boulder,
mushroom-like sprouts of sporing moss
stemming their caps up from the browning sponge.

Among a small group of strangers,
I stand at the edge of a ledge
shaped by eons of wind and water.

I marvel at a million minute things,
the vastness and the nearness of all that has been made,
shaped by forces and ways beyond our comprehension,
and know that regardless of size or texture,
no matter how tiny or soft or smooth,
nothing that survives here
is delicate.

H. Arnett
10/28/19

Posted in Christian Devotions, Metaphysical Reflection, Nature, Poetic Contemplations, Poetry, Spiritual Contemplation | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Gathering from an Old Orchard

On a crisp second-Saturday morning in October,
Neil has agreed to help me pick up apples.
Though I am nearly fifteen years older,
his hair shows even more gray than mine.
That difference in years has not kept us
from becoming good friends
and I am grateful for good help
and even better company.

Through a few miles
of the curves and hills of northeast Kansas,
we drive my small truck over to the orchard
and down the slight slope to my favorite trees.
Even though the branches are bare
I hope that there are still apples.

Thick fescue sagged by last night’s heavy frost
tangles beneath the hanging branches
of apple trees nearly the age of old men.

This year’s bounty lies hidden beneath the blades:
some already rotted,
some halfway there,
some matted into the soft dirt,
and yet some that are fit for table display.

For cider, it doesn’t much matter, anyway.
Apples that most people wouldn’t even touch
will yield juice that is golden and sweet
and so I tell Neil,
“Unless it’s got mold on it
or is so soft your finger goes through it
when you try to pick it up,
it’s good enough.”

In spite of the stinging nettle
and the stick-tights that make the back
of our gloved hands look like a porcupine’s topside,
we find plenty that are good enough for cider
and some I will save for pies and drying.

We fill our buckets, carry them to the truck,
and dump the apples into the bed.
In forty-five minutes,
we’ve gathered over five hundred pounds.

“Let’s do one more bucket and call that good enough.”

Carrying on the conversation that men carry on
when they think they are done with work,
we walk around the orchard and find one more tree
that has several apples still hanging on its branches.
We pick for a few minutes and I tell Neil we have enough
but he keeps picking for another bit.
He reaches for one last apple and says,
“This might be the one that makes a difference.”

I grin at that and think to myself,
“That’s a mighty good thing to hear
from a man who makes his living
teaching high school kids.”

It will take three hours for the washing,
disinfecting and rinsing,
and then several hours more
for the grinding and pressing
in a hundred-year-old hand-cranked mill.

It takes a lot of work
to turn what was left to rot
into something good and pleasant and sweet.
God’s own work reflected in the labor of our hands.

H. Arnett
10/15/19

Posted in Christian Devotions, Metaphysical Reflection, Nature, Poetic Contemplations, Poetry, Relationships, Spiritual Contemplation | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Running through the Mud

To run or ride through plowed ground
is not a thing done easily.
Most would say
that after three inches of rain
it is not a thing to be done at all.

Feet sink below the surface,
each step a measure of determination
and conditioning.
Mud sucking at the shoes,
thighs and calves confused by the notion.
Each wrenching loose and subsequent re-setting
becomes some sort of existential argument:
“If we are working this hard to move from here
shouldn’t we be seeking some place
more suited to what we are doing?”

And yet on two Sunday afternoons
exactly two weeks apart,
I push myself to do this 5K course
though mud and pond, woods and wetland,
feeling in shins, thighs and hips,
the pulling strain, the draining force.

Given enough of making ourselves do
what is not easy,
we will find ourselves finishing the course
a bit quicker than we did before

and learn again that it is the training
that makes body, mind, heart and soul
able to carry a heavier load,
endure a greater testing,
achieve the harder goals of believing.

And—along the way—be reminded
that those who long for a higher place
will usually find the pace of discipline
something other than easy.

And look forward with greater hope
to the incredible blessing of rest.

H. Arnett
10/7/19

Posted in Christian Devotions, Christian Living, Exercise, Metaphysical Reflection, Nature, Poetic Contemplations, Poetry, Spiritual Contemplation, Sports | Tagged , , , , , , ,

A Few Miles West of Medicine Lodge

A few miles west of Medicine Lodge,
an odd rising of red dirt looms up,
a showing of ancient waters carving the soft earth of gypsum.

A few miles south of One-Sixty and a quick look
might have some travelers
thinking they saw something like Arizona or Utah:
small buttes and little mesas trapping early shadows
and a lonesome black cow bellowing from the ledge
just below an old pickup truck strangely abandoned
high above the red grit road.

We park for a little while
and walk to the line of a barbed wire fence
staked to the edge of the universe.

Just beyond, heavy sod gives way to the bluff
that falls away for a couple hundred feet,
a sudden and unexpected transition
into miles and miles of open range,
a valley that runs to the horizon.

A strange year of heavy rains
running all the way from spring into fall
has stained the hills and slopes—
all other than rock and bare ground—
with an unseasonable green.

Except for these heavy cedars,
barkless and gray,
windward side charred with grim testimony
of drier times and darker days,
when wildfires swept their way,
driven by fifty-mile-an-hour winds,
fueled by three years of drought
and poured from the very spout of hell.

Given enough time, enough rain, enough seasons,
and even these monuments of pain
will ease into the long slope of vanishing memory.
Scars become nothing more than barely remembered blots of time.

Other shapings will move across the face of sod and stone,
each covering become part of history and home,
until we have gained some place
beyond the forming of fire and rain,
the whisperings of the wind.

H. Arnett
9/30/19

Posted in Metaphysical Reflection, Nature, Poetic Contemplations, Poetry, Spiritual Contemplation | Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Sharpening the Axe

Ever since reading Thoreau’s Life on Walden Pond when I was in high school, I have made a deliberate effort to return anything I’ve borrowed in better shape than it was when I got it. In Henry’s case, all he had to do was sharpen a neighbor’s axe. I needed to wash a friend’s ATV.

I’d used it to pick up the trail arrows and marking flags from our annual 5K mud run for South Central Kansas Medical Center. A mile of freshly plowed field just after two inches of rain left a very heavy coating of mud on the Polaris Ranger.

Happily, the hospital has a few strategically placed faucets around the outside of the buildings, including the maintenance shop. Unhappily, all of them require a special handle that I didn’t have. “Ah, well,” I mulled, “I can sneak a couple of miles down the back road and use the car wash at the Casey’s store at Skyline and Summit.”

The possibility of getting ticketed for illegal operation of an off-road vehicle in an on-road situation didn’t really appeal to me. Could easily turn into a very expensive car wash. “Well,” I thought, “there are several houses between here and there; I’ll just stop and ask if some generous soul will let me use their outdoor laundry facilities to give this here mud buggy a good washing.”

Less than fifty feet after I’d pulled out of the hospital’s service and delivery entrance and headed south on 61st Road, I saw a white SUV turning into the driveway of the next house. By the time the couple got out of the car, the Ranger was sitting in their driveway.

I explained the situation to Garrett and he acted like helping me return a clean ATV was the very reason he’d gotten out of bed that morning. He unrolled the hose, brought me out a bucket, two cleaning cloths and a bottle of dishwashing soap.

Three things amazed me in the next hour: 1) how many places there are on, in and around a Polaris Ranger that can hold bits of mud and matted grass; 2) how accessible most of those places are, thanks to some excellent engineering work; 3) how delightful it is when strangers show us generosity and consideration.

I’m a bit suspicious that the Good Lord laughs out loud when we discover how cleverly he uses us to help take care of one another—even in a situation as mundane as a vehicle needing a bath. I’m quite sure Jesus loves making us cleaner than he found us!

H. Arnett
9/25/19

Posted in Christian Devotions, Relationships, Spiritual Contemplation | Tagged , , , , ,