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Seeking the mystical experience of the Arikaree Breaks

Lu Anne Stephens

Visit the rugged landscape of northwest Kansas.

ARIKAREE BREAKS — In the far northwest corner of Kansas, Brent Rueb is using his hands and mouth to practice a forgotten skill.

He's attempting to re-create the sounds of a wounded rabbit and a howling coyote.

There is drama in the sounds — heartache on the wounded cries; euphoria on the jubilant coyote whoops.

The calls come at sunset on one of those autumn evenings where sounds bounce in the wind. And the cacophony is highlighted by the Arikaree Breaks — known for its rugged landscape of canyons, caves, valleys, creeks and mesas.

Rueb is a lifelong resident of Cheyenne County, which is home to 90 percent of the Arikaree Breaks. He admits he's in love with this land.

"Farmer most of my life, hunted this area all my life and have come to love the Arikaree Breaks for its natural beauty and its awesomeness – how big it is," he said.

The Breaks are only two to three miles wide but stretch miles from Rawlins County into Cheyenne County and into Colorado and Nebraska — all created by wind, water and loess soil deposits thousands of years ago.

And although the Breaks are located on private land, visitors can travel the backroads to experience the unique and rugged beauty without trespassing. Some have compared it to a mini-Grand Canyon.

"It's like the moon in reverse," Rueb said. "Instead of humps and stuff above the surface of the ground, this is all negative stuff below the surface of the ground. As you come up to the Breaks, you're on flat farm ground – and then, you see all these vast crevices, creeks and draws.

"Most of them you can't even walk up. They are so steep and everything, and I still know that there's places out there that man's never even walked on yet. It's so big."

Lu Anne Stephens

An appreciation of the region

The area in and around the Breaks is rich with history.

The stories include Cheyenne Indians gathering there in 1864, shortly after the massacre at Sand Creek, to heal and mark the site of their prayer grounds. And of the Pike's Peak Express stagecoach line bringing more than 100,000 people through the area on the way to the Colorado gold fields.

Pastures are filled with yucca or soapweed. Sage grows abundantly, as do native grasses.

It is rugged country and the country, in turn, makes the people who grow up here rugged.

Janet Carman of St. Francis is one of those people.

"Awesome is such an overused word," Carman said. "But they are mysterious — in a way.

"My brother and I have taken long walks through them. And there's something mystical about the breaks. I just love being out there and walking, and you never know what you are going to see.

"A rattlesnake might crawl in front of you. The other day we were walking and a coyote jumped out in front of us … It's just that when you are really out there by yourself, you feel pretty small."

Which brings us back to coyote calling. Rueb is somewhat of an expert. For 20 years, he helped organize the Midwest Coyote Calling Contest in the Breaks beginning in 1997.

He has a great deal of respect for the coyote.

"They are just like the Breaks: They will appear out of nowhere," he said.

"You've looked at an area and you turn your head — there he stands. I call them the Ghosts of the Prairie.

"Coyotes can be very elusive. They use every piece of terrain — foliage, yucca plants, soapweeds — everything to hide.

"The coyote has my respect."

Every once in a while, Rueb likes to go out to the Breaks and try calling a coyote — just because he can.

"You don't have to take an animal to enjoy them," he said. "You can call them in to see them, fool them a little bit and take pictures.

"It is actually something that you can do for fun and entertainment, and it doesn't hurt the animal one bit."

None came the night we watched the sun go down on the Breaks.

But it was still exhilarating to hear a forgotten skill carried by the wind, echoing across the Breaks.