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By Judy Dean

Some places have the power to change the way we look at and live in the world. This is the first in a series I’m calling “Places that Shaped Me.”


Part I: The Valley

Big Rapids MI  1961-1966


The Valley, as we called it, belonged to us kids. One of its best qualities was that grown-ups rarely ventured there. We, on the other hand, knew its paths, hiding places, and hangouts intimately. Six years of exploration, beginning at age six, created a mental map I can recall with clarity to this day. From early spring through late fall it was our playground. In 1966 my family moved from Big Rapids to Ann Arbor and I started junior high: two events that marked the end of my Valley forays and childhood forever. I have no idea if this place, or even part of it, still exists. I dare not look.


As an adult, I’d describe the Valley as a large undeveloped tract of land adjacent to the backyards of several families in our neighborhood. I can’t say how big it was but I’m guessing it might take 20 minutes to walk from end to end. Did it cover 40 acres, maybe more? I don’t know because I was just a kid, and what do kids know about acres or even time? I do know that we thought of it as big—and wild. It thrills me to think that kids alone created its labyrinth of paths and shortcuts, reflecting our intentions and destinations. Do such places even exist anymore?


The Valley wasn’t long and narrow like it sounds. The floor, with its meandering stream, made a sweeping C-shaped curve around a tall hill with an open field on top. A variety of topographical features were packed into the space: the long streambed with its pebbly banks, mature oaks on the hillsides, meadow on the high plateau, brushy areas, swampy areas, sandy areas, and more.


One feature in particular that attracted us kids (because it was deemed dangerous, of course) was a place called Clay Cliffs. The top section was a gently sloped sandy bowl but the lower section featured a sheer drop and was hard as a rock. Once, when I was around ten, I slipped over the edge and landed hard on my back. The fall completely knocked the wind out of me. My friend Cindy scrambled down the side and poked at my chest and back, gingerly checking for broken ribs. She pronounced me unhurt and ordered me to stand up and resume breathing. As the daughter of our town’s doctor she spoke with authority so I did as I was told. It turned out to be good advice. The upside was that I’d inadvertently earned bragging rights for surviving a fall off Clay Cliffs, making the whole mishap totally worthwhile.


If you followed the creek (we said “crick”) you’d eventually come to the place where it emptied into the Muskegon River. This is where the Valley morphed into an area we called Heaven. Heaven was a wild but park-like area that was especially beautiful in spring when its old apple trees and wildflowers came into bloom. There was a steep wooden staircase connecting it to a church parking lot above, making it accessible to college students seeking an idyllic make-out spot in warm weather. We spent many happy hours spying on “neckers” (as we liked to call them) sprawled about on blankets along the riverbank. Yes, we were sworn at and occasionally chased, but that was just part of the thrill. Spying was one of our favorite pastimes.


What else did we find to do down there? Build forts, of course. I’m not sure how many I’m guessing a new one each summer. One time my sister, her friend Debbie, and I built a fine shelter we believed to be sleepover-worthy. Incredibly, our parents said yes, with the caveat that Laddie, our collie, accompany us for protection. So off we went with sleeping bags and the dog to hunker down for the night. At some point (very late, and in the rain) our parents showed up, flashlights blazing. It turned out that a tornado warning had been issued so they felt it necessary to retrieve us. We were surprised and impressed that they found us (not being well acquainted with the terrain) but the midnight “rescue” made the adventure even more memorable.


The Valley was no utopia: it was home to mosquitoes, poison ivy, sticky burrs, thorny brambles, and lots of mud, especially in spring. All good reasons for adults to steer clear. Only we knew where the King Snake lived, and where to find frogs, bird nests, and wild blackberries. There was even a “fairy spring” we believed held mystical powers. Bright green mossy banks encircled a nearly black grotto with cold clear water. In our minds, this water was potable (possibly magic) but who knows? The main thing was that the Valley was ours, all ours.


The thing we kids feared most were “developers.” We didn’t know any developers personally, but we’d heard them described as men in boots with clipboards and were told to be on the lookout for them. I’m happy to report I moved away before I saw a single man with a clipboard. I’m sure if I had it would have broken my heart.

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