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Climbing The Mesa

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By David Chittenden

Some folks who haven’t lived in southern Wisconsin, and even some who have, don’t know about the mesas.   But in fact, there are mesas in southern Wisconsin rising up above the rolling plain.

Oh, they are not like the great stone mesas of Arizona.  They are only 50 or 100 feet high and a few square blocks on top.  Like the rest of the state, they are covered by grasses, bushes, and trees.  Geologists believe that when the glaciers of the last great ice age scoured away the face of Wisconsin 10,000 years ago, these mesas were unaccountably missed, and stand at their original height.

I arrived at the mesa one Sunday afternoon with a group of young people.  We parked at the southern end of the mesa, and it seemed like a smooth vertical wall.  As we walked closer, cracks and creases appeared.  Cracks in which one could climb.  It would be foolish to suppose that a young man of 22 could resist climbing the mesa.

And as luck would have it Maryann and I decided to climb in the same crease.  She would have to go first, of course.  She was such a lithe, sprite of a creature—if she were to fall, I would be able to break her fall.  But if clumsy old Dave fell on her, it would be over for us both.  So up she went—and so quickly , so easily.  She was like a pixy climbing a morning glory vine.  I labored along behind struggling for every handhold and toehold, huffing and puffing, and trying not to let Maryann know how hard it was for me.

Now when climbing in a crease there are three or four things that can go wrong.  First, the crease can get too narrow, so one is forced out on the cliff face.  Then, the crease can get too wide, so one can’t brace arms and legs from one side to the other.  Also with the rather unconsolidated sandstone of the mesas, a toe or handhold may crumble when pressure is applied to it.  Fortunately none of those things happened to us.

All too soon Maryann reached the top and popped out of sight.  Now I had to get there.  In five more minutes of sweat and struggle I was there, well almost there.  I could see over the top of the mesa.  I could see through the tall grasses Maryann down in the bushes like an elf-child, searching for wild blueberries — those tart messengers of God’s grace.

Now I really had to get there.  But the fourth thing had happened — I was stuck.  I couldn’t go up and I couldn’t go down, at least down slowly as one would choose.  There was a another thing I could not do – I could not ask Maryann for a hand up.  Finally in desperation, I flung my leg up as high as it would go, and caught the heel of my shoe on the top.  (My leg used to go up higher when I was young.)  Then I pulled myself up with handfuls of that tough Wisconsin grass, and slid over the top on my belly.  Maryann was looking the other way when I made my entrance, probably on purpose.

Soon Maryann and I were down on all fours scouting out the blueberries.  I don’t remember just what happened next.  Certainly there were many burrs and stickers in the bushes, and  we got covered with them. No doubt we stirred up the mosquitoes that hide in the tall grass, and were liberally bitten.  I’m sure there were several other people with us searching for those blueberries.   But all that I remember is Maryann.

It seemed like only a few minutes, but must have been two hours when I felt a change.  There was a breeze, a bit of a chill, a touch of dampness.  I looked up and saw that the sun was low in the sky.  Then the awful thought occurred to me: How are we going to get down from here?  I knew that coming down is a lot harder than going up.  I had a vision of helicopters coming from the Army base to pluck us off the top of the mesa.  In my mind I saw a team of climbers with ropes coming up the mesa, and bringing us down in baskets.  My face must have turned gray, and I turned away from Maryann, so she wouldn’t see my fear.

But she knew, somehow she knew.  Maryann stood up, and in a high lilting voice said, “Time to go home.”  Then she began skipping north toward the far end of the mesa.  I followed at a half gallop through the grassy meadow.  I would have followed her anywhere.

Now, the south face of the mesa was a vertical wall, and the top was rather flat, but much to my surprise the north end was a gentle incline that sloped down to the rolling plain.  Maryann danced lightly as a fairy down that slope.  She skipped out onto the plain and out of my life forever.  But she left me with something.  She left me with a beautiful memory that I can take with me wherever I may go.

But wait – for those who really must know the truth:  I have an ability, a special ability that has given me a lot of comfort through the years, an ability to remember things that never happened.  Oh, there really was a mesa there in southern Wisconsin, and I did really climb to the top of it, but there never was a Maryann.


Dave Chittenden was trained as a chemical engineer, but he enjoys telling stories more. He has been co-President of the South Coast Storytellers Guild.


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