A 40th Anniversary Tribute
by Mike Bellah
This column first published in Plains Faith: The People, Issues and Beliefs Shaping the High Plains, South Plains and Surrounding Areas, Spring 2005.
This will be its 40th summer. I refer to Hidden Falls Ranch, a nondenominational Christian youth camp nestled on a bluff overlooking Palo Duro Canyon, just 50 miles southeast of Amarillo. And this will be my 39th summer as a believer in Jesus; the two anniversaries are not unrelated.
For it was in June, 1966, just a year after Uncle John and Aunt Betty Staat began their ministry at HFR, that a 17-year-old Canyon boy who had come to camp looking for good horses and pretty girls found Jesus while listening through the wall to a counselorís devotion on the other side of the cabin. The counselorís name was Gary Speckman, a recent Caprock High graduate whose dad was stationed at Amarillo Air Force Base. Gary had come to Christ the previous summer at the Ranch.
It had been a long day of hiking, swimming and horseback riding, and Iím sure Gary was tempted to cut his talk short as his preadolescent campers began to nod off, but he persisted with explaining the four spiritual laws, and when he finished law fouróYou must receive Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior by faithóhe asked if anyone wanted to ask Jesus into their lives.
They didnít, but I did, and so began a long, fruitful relationship with the Lord and with the summer camp where I came to know him.
During my first of many summers at Hidden Falls, I was a wrangler; I taught children to ride horses. That meant leading trail rides along the south rim of the Palo Duro at a spot rich in both history and scenery. To the west campers could just make out a stretch of red sand surrounded by a grove of tall cottonwoods, the place where Ceta Canyon merges with the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River. Here in September, 1874, Col. Ranald Mackenzie and his 4th U.S. Cavalry had defeated a band of Comanches, Kiowas and Cheyennes at the last major Indian battle in Texas.
A short horseback ride to the east of HFR and campers could look down at the site of the first structure built by a white man in the area, a dugout constructed in 1876 by legendary cattleman Charles Goodnight. In 1966 the original corrals still stood next to a dilapidated line shack built where the dugout had been.
Across the canyon to the north lay the 52-section Harrell Ranch, outlined by striated layers of purple, pink, red and yellow shale, vivid specimens of Palo Duroís famous Spanish skirt formation. It was a land of big ranches. The Harrellsí place joined the 100-section Hedgecoke ranch (thatís 100 square miles), which joined the JA, Goodnightís old spread that once covered 600,000 acres and still boasted well over 200 sections.
The grandeur of the scenery enhanced the evangelistic appeal of camp. God does indeed reveal himself in nature. The earth as well as the heavens tell of the glory of God, and wide open spaces still move me to worship their creator. Yet it was the people more than the place that led me to Christ.
At Hidden Falls Ranch I learned the value of friendship evangelism and the power of unspoken testimonies. Here were kids who simply loved Jesus, and, because of that, they loved life and they loved me. Their lives were compelling, drawing me to their Savior as irresistibly as the wild plum thickets of the Palo Duro draw honeybees in the spring.
Joy and happiness were palpable at the Ranch. Itís not that the work wasnít sometimes hardóit was (shoveling manure from the stalls, for instance), and itís not as if there werenít those inevitable personality clashes between coworkersóthere were (we were teenagers). Yet through it all, I remember smilesólots of smiles and lots of laughter, much of it revolving around stories that could only happen at camp.
Once we received a late-night thunderstorm that drenched the main campus at Hidden Falls. I immediately thought of a group of girls camping overnight in the pasture to the east of us. The girls were led by my sister DíLynne and her friend Meg. Meg Lowry had been DíLynneís spiritual mentor as Gary was mine.
I knew the group had taken no tents, so I ran through the downpour, fired up the campís renovated school bus and proceeded to circle that mile-square pasture for what seemed an hour, honking as I went, peering into the darkness for signs of life. I never saw any.
But the next morning at breakfast there the girls were, returned from the camping trip, dry and looking refreshedótwo things I was not. When I asked about the night, they told me it had not rained where they were. ďBut didnít you see me?Ē I asked.
Meg and DíLynne smiled sheepishly and admitted they had seen lights, but thought it was some drunk cowboy in a pickup truck out to get them, so they doused the campfires, turned off their flashlights and hid behind some mesquite trees. They had picked up broken limbs and were prepared to attack anyone who approached their camp.
ďYou mistook a school bus for a pickup truck?Ē I began. My anger melted in their laughter.
I wrote that I had come to camp seeking good horses and pretty girls and, indeed, there were plenty of each, especially the latter. One, a cute archery instructor from Claude named Charlotte Ransom became my bride in 1968, and Charlotte and I have stayed involved with the Ranch ever since.
Sometimes people minimize the decisions young people make at summer camp. After all itís an idealistic setting and the young are overly emotional. When they return to real life, they will revert to their previous beliefs and behaviors. So the thinking goes.
But I am living proof that what happens at summer camp can last a lifetime, and its influence can span generations. Iíve had three careers so far in my adult life. Iíve been a camp director (at Hidden Falls for four of those years), a pastor and a college English teacher. And any time Iíve been able to help someoneówhether a child to overcome the fear of horses or a student, the fear of writingóI believe Iím just passing on the hope and encouragement I received at camp.
My own kids worked at Hidden Falls during their younger years. Two of them met their spouses there. One is now on the HFR Board of Directors. In a year, my oldest granddaughter will be a camper at the Ranch.
Along with his wife, Jan, my friend Gary Speckman has spent 25 years serving as a missionary in Australia where he directs Campus Crusadeís Athletes in Action. Last year he was chaplain for the Australian national rugby team.
My sister DíLynne stayed in touch through the years with her friend Meg, and Meg kept up with her. Their lives were not always easy. DíLynne encouraged Meg when her first marriage ended in divorce and Meg comforted DíLynne when her firstborn ran away from home. Both women led lives of faith, DíLynne as a music ministerís wife and small group coordinator in her church, and Meg as a successful businesswoman and then freelance artist and stay-at-home mom.
When DíLynne was diagnosed with an advanced case of lung cancer in January of 2003, Meg repeatedly drove from her home in Austin to Houston to be with DíLynne during her treatments at MD Anderson Hospital. And Meg and I were at DíLynneís bedside in Arizona, when, surrounded by a loving husband and children, she left this world in September of the same year. Last spring in DíLynneís honor, the Hidden Falls Ranch alumni constructed a picnic area overlooking the camp she loved so much.
These are just some of my stories of camp; I have many, many more. And Iím just one counselor at Hidden Falls from one era. There are many counselors and campers and many stories, something Iím reminded of when I visit camp today. Byron and Pam Williamson are the modern version of Uncle John and Aunt Betty, and each summer they and their staff provide the same winsome atmosphere that changed this college professorís life nearly 40 years ago.
Iím looking forward to hearing from some of these modern day campers and staff as they join me and other Hidden Falls Ranch alumni for a 40th anniversary celebration over the labor day weekend this September. For more information those interested in attending this reunion can visit the camp website at www.hiddenfallsranch.com.
And if youíre reading this article thinking about sending a child or grandchild to a Christian camp this summer, do it. It may be the best investment you will ever make.
My Articles about Hidden Falls Ranch (and its people)
It's Her One Time Around
Happy 30th Anniversary
Lost in the Palo Duro
Memories of Summer Camp
My Sister, My Advocate
To Uncle John and Aunt Betty: A Tribute
Hidden Falls Ranch: A 40th Anniversary Tribute