I ride bicycles a lot. They have been a significant part of my life since I was in college, at first merely as a hobby but increasingly as an integrated part of my well-being. I raced bicycles for a while, I have worked at and managed a bicycle shop, I spent one winter as a bicycle messenger in downtown Chicago, I have ridden in hundreds of events and rides in my life, and at least twice I almost died in an accident on a bicycle.
In the last ten years my bicycle has become something more to me than athletic equipment. It now takes me places I want to go. Often those places include my workplace, the grocery store, church, the post office, and other regular parts of the fabric of my life. I try to ride it whenever I go anywhere in my small town because it is fun, efficient, and works just as well as my car for a two mile trip to do chores. Sometimes, though, I want to go someplace completely different, where I can detach from the regular routine and give myself some space and time to let my thoughts drift and land wherever they want to.
The most common place for me to do this is a bicycle ride north to the reservoir. On my way there the monotony of the pedaling motion and the sameness of the wheat fields provide a steady cadence that carries my attention away from any physical perceptions and into a more abstract world of ideas. Occasionally I process the events of the day, sometimes I think about the future, I often pray, and regularly I don’t think about anything at all. There are no distractions in this world of uninterrupted land and sky. It is a peaceful state for me, full of fluidity and rhythm.
After 10 miles I suddenly come to a completely different kind of place. I have arrived at my turnaround point on the shores of the reservoir and water dominates the scene. Birds are everywhere, swimming, flying, and walking. Instead of wide open spaces that stretch to the horizon there is now a thick outline of trees limiting the view to this island of water in the middle of vast farmland. The light is delicate, filtering through leaves and bouncing on the waves. The road itself is now bent out of shape by its new surroundings. At the same time the place is both lovely and intrusive. I have been lured out of my thought world by the abrupt transition from stark beauty to lush beauty, and I am again aware of my surroundings. I am grateful for a place like this so close to my home. It reminds me of other places where I have lived before I moved to Kansas. It is hard to leave this place so I always stop, look, and linger a while.
On the ride home I usually slip back into a pensive mood. My thoughts are no longer captured by what I see but are freed to float and wander again. The ride moves from grace to grace. I get home and plan to do it again tomorrow.
It stands at a distance, there on the hill in the corner at my mother’s family land, a blessing. The clump of trees was begun by my grandfather, but not the grandfather and mother to whom this home and land belonged. Grandpa “Russ” Claassen was from Gage County, Nebraska. The “r” of “Russ” was rolled, the “u” long as in “use,” and the whole name spoken with strength, identifying his country of origin. He planted the starter tree of the clump on the hill that was not and would never be his.
Hardship in Russia and then hardship and loss in Nebraska made this grandpa a rough character. But with all his brusqueness, this clump of trees is my reserve for courage, for I know that come what did, he choose again and again to act from larger principles. With a more generous spirit than his earthly days and human imagination around him had doled out, he dug and planted his “yes” to the future in this, his daughter-in-law’s family soil. It stands, now, for me — swallows and meadowlarks easily dipping between earth and sky around the trees there in the corner of the field.
Hard times root deep and shape a person. There is that which is rooted deeper still.
A sense of eternity permeates my soul in this place. There used to be an imposing structure here, but it is gone. Only a handful of markers and grassland remain, creating an altar to those who gave their lives in service to others, the orphans, the elderly, the needy, those without family or home, those on the edges, and a memorial to the value of those people who received this service. The nameless monument should be an epitaph to us all — “A friend of Jesus, a friend of the poor.”
As pastor of Ebenfeld I have enjoyed making the five-mile drive from Hillsboro to the Ebenfeld early Sunday mornings. The sun is rising as I drive and the fields are awash in sunlight. The most enjoyable part of the drive, however, is where the road rises up over two hills. Suddenly Ebenfeld church comes into view brightly standing in the sunshine on the now flat land—the “even field.” As I reach Ebenfeld I am reminded of Psalm 121:1: “I will lift up my eyes to the hills, where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord the maker of heaven and earth.”
The Lord our God is our creator. He created the heavens and the earth and created us in his own image. But the Lord is not only our creator he is also our redeemer. God sent his son Jesus Christ to die and rise again to redeem us and give us the gift of salvation by grace.
For me, arriving at the Ebenfeld church building is like entering a sanctuary where I meet with the Lord my God. The name “Ebenfeld” means, “even field” but there’s more to the name than just the physical even fields on which it stands. The name Ebenfeld means that all of us stand on an “even field” before the Lord our God. We all stand in need of grace. The small cross on top of the Ebenfeld church sign reminds that all of us stand at the foot of the cross where we receive God’s grace because of Jesus. The cross is our sanctuary where by grace we come into the presence of the Lord our God our creator and redeemer.
The Flint Hills prairie has always been an important landscape for me. But returning to central Kansas in 1985 from a more hemmed-in environment, fostered a deeper appreciation.
I have come to appreciate how little it has changed over thousands of years. Where the prairie has remained untilled, it is probably much like it was since the recession of the great inland sea. Human inhabitants are very recent.
The prairie is sustained by its deep roots. There is much more activity below the surface than above it. Left to its own resources and devices, the prairie endures.
Prairie plant life is a perfect match for its habitat. Dozens of native types of grass and flowering plants seem to get along and make space for each other without any one species dominating or taking over. They seem to care for and feed each other.
As I have become more appreciative of the prairie I have found myself more interested in the names of my new found friends and so deepen my relationship with them. So to identify some of the grasses – Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem, Indian Grass, Switch Grass and a few of the flowers seems like a small gesture of dignity and respect. Walking on the prairie and identifying its inhabitants by name feels like an act of friendship. The understated beauty of the prairie is invisible from the road at seventy miles per hour.
With the advent of humans, the original invasive species, other invasives now threaten the natural balance of the prairie. Hedge trees, cedar trees, musk thistle, sericea lespedeza threaten to reduce its natural bio-diversity. Should we try to control the invasives? Have there been other invasives in times past that were eventually tamed and brought into the prairie community?
Is it hubris to want to take care of the prairie, to preserve it? It did fine for thousands of years without us humans. But now that we have introduced our roads and fences and towers and turbines and oil wells and over-grazing and invasives, what is our responsibility?
The open horizon of the prairie landscape unimpeded by trees, mountains or tall buildings still nurtures new ideas and possibilities.
My place of solitude is going to a fishing hole or a calm river and sitting by the waters edge with a fishing rod in my hands enjoying God’s beautiful nature around me. I enjoy the nature because it is God made and not man made. God decorates the ground with the wild flowers and bushes and makes them blend in with the rolling hills. He then makes it become more illuminated as He highlights them with His sunrises and sunsets. I am so thankful for places of solitude, peace and comfort in the midst of a chaotic world. These places remind me of the Lord’s presence and His promise that He would never leave us or forsake us. What a wonderful God we serve.
The Cottonwood River Crossing on the Santa Fe Trail was known as one of the most difficult river crossings encountered by travelers on the Trail. It is identified in many journals as one of the last stops on the trail before indians might be encountered by the traders. The crossing was difficult due to the mud bottom and steepness of the banks of the river. After crossing the river, most wagon trains stopped for the night, turning stock loose to graze in a natural horseshoe corral formed by the river. There are numerous stories associated with troubles crossing the river. One concerns a military cannon that was lost trying to pull it up the steep banks. There are “old timers” who remember swimming in the river and jumping off the barrel which had been lodged in the ever changing river channel.
The Cottonwood Crossing Chapter of the Santa Fe Trail Association is a group of people dedicated to the preservation of the Trail and it’s remaining remnants. A “local driving tour” of the Marion county segment of the trail has been marked and can be roughly followed in dry weather. As a member of the group, I have enjoyed being involved. I have driven the entire 800+ mile trail distance. Doing so makes one appreciate the difficulty associated with making the trip. Many people died making the trip, both from natural causes and indian attacks from tribes who’s hunting grounds were being encroached upon, by the traders and, later, settlers. There are countless unmarked graves along the trail as also mentioned in journals. These people died trying to profit from their trading with the Mexicans in Santa Fe. In general, risk was much more tolerated by our fore fathers as they went about their daily lives. Long live the Santa Fe Trail!
My earliest recollection of Elm Springs is my dad bringing me there as a little girl on a Sabbath afternoon excursion. I remember going on many of these exploration trips with my family, and to other places such as Maxwell Game Preserve, the “sands” and Coronado Heights. But this place is different from the rest. It is remote. To the far corner of the county, where the road is nothing more than a dirt trail and it no longer goes North or West.
It’s not obvious. A hike and some searching is required. But seek and you will find: the simple beauty of clear water from the spring full of life flowing over falls into a ravine that cuts deep through the hills of rich unmolested prairie grasses. I’ve wondered historically about travelers going west who may have sought out this place or accidentally stumbled onto it in desperate need of water and shelter. Or maybe just to take a shower. But as unassuming as it is, it has had a moment of fame by being in the movies!
This place may not have the jaw-dropping features required to be on some top 10 list but, nevertheless, it is still most delightful. For me there are few rivals when climbing to the top of the hill next to the springs and in an opportune moment being witness to the most glorious sunset over the panoramic view extending well into the adjoining counties of Kansas beautiful.
As I look out my kitchen window east toward the lowland pasture across on the other side of 13 mile road I can see an old tree out in the middle of the pasture that stands out in a number of ways. It is the largest tree in the pasture and although it has been evidently scarred and tousled over the course of time with Kansas thunderstorms and other natural phenomenon, it continues to stand straight and stately with its branches arranged evenly on all sides in almost perfect symmetry.
That tree has represented a sort of constant, unchanging, even stoic presence for me in the nearly 14 years we have lived at this location. It certainly provides a visual testimony to the changing of the seasons and seems to bear up well under the ice of winter when all around it the frozen tundra provides no hint of a new spring to come.
Being located on the very edge of town with nothing to compete with the early morning sunrise except this tree from my vantage point, its branches form an enchanting silhouette.
I have experienced recent, significant loss in my life. As I seek to understand how my life is to go on without my dear wife, “my” tree has borne testimony to the inevitability that time and life around me do continue in a predictable, even unrelenting manner.