Monday, October 23, 2006

Mishaps, Mountains, & Memories (Part II)

Now he walks in quiet solitude, the forest and the streams
Seeking grace in every step he takes
His sight has turned inside himself to try and understand
The serenity of a clear blue mountain lake

And the Colorado Rocky Mountain high
I've seen it rainin' fire in the sky
You can talk to God and listen to the casual reply
Rocky Mountain High, Colorado

Rocky Mountain High - Words by John Denver; Music by John Denver and Mike Taylor

To pick up where I left off last week, we finally made it back to our cabin – soaking wet from rain on the outside, and soaking wet from sweat on the inside. From there, we went directly to the natural hot springs located on the grounds of Mt. Princeton Hot Springs Resort. It was so refreshing to soak in a 95 degree pool when the outdoor temperatures were so cold. Keen even found some parts of Chalk Creek that were actually too hot. As a bonus, we met a delightful couple (George and Mary Beth) who shared a wealth of information about the area, including the proper (local) pronunciation of Buena Vista (like the name Beulah), and a more direct route from the airport.

After checking out of Mt. Princeton, we met with their event coordinator, Zelma, to work out the details for next year’s family reunion. As it turned out, Zelma has relatives from the Eskridge area as well as a good friend from Alma. It really is a small world.

Next we headed for Buena Vista for The Liar’s Lodge, a bed and breakfast where we made arrangements to stay for the remainder of the week. It’s a beautiful spot on the outskirts of town located right on the shores of the Arkansas River. A plaque on the wall explained the origin of the name: “Fisherman, hunters, and other liars gather here.”

We hit the sack early that night, and the next morning we were greeted by the breathtaking sight of an early snowfall.

So we bundled up and headed out on a pre-dawn walk. The two dogs, Stubbs (a lab), and Dakota (a Siberian Husky), followed us into town. On our way back we noticed that Dakota was lagging behind, so we had to keep stopping until he caught up. When we returned, the innkeeper, Mark, was anxiously waiting on the front porch. “Have you seen a white dog?” he asked, with a hint of panic in his voice. We explained that both dogs followed us into town and we didn’t know how to make them stay. Then we found out why Dakota was huffing and puffing so much on the way back – because he is 12 years old! Mark jokingly remarked, “You broke my dog!” Then he added, “Don’t worry – the exercise was good for him,” and Keen and I both breathed a huge sigh of relief.

Later that day, Keen decided he wanted to hike and bike on the Barbara Whipple Trail located directly behind the lodge.

Barbara Whipple (1920-1989), was an artist, hiker, skier, and lover of the outdoors who owned an art gallery on Main Street in Buena Vista. She was well known for her woodcuts and etchings.

I decided to stay back to catch up on some laundry (and rest). Keen ended up pushing his bicycle all the way up the trail, and he had a precarious ride back down. Needless to say, he was exhausted when he returned.

But that afternoon I was surprised when Keen suggested we go on another hike. He said, “I’m just giddy – I don’t want to waste a minute.” So we set out in search of a trail known as Agnes Vaille Falls. Agnes Vaille was born in 1890 to a prominent Denver family. She led an adventurous life, joining the American Red Cross in France during World War I. Upon her return, she became the Secretary of the Denver Chamber of Commerce. She had a true passion for hiking and mountain climbing, but sadly, this passion ultimately led to her death when she slipped on some ice and fell down Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park. It is told that she survived the fall but froze to death before help could arrive.

The trail was absolutely gorgeous, leading to a remarkable water fall. But it wasn’t enough for Keen to see part of the waterfall; he insisted that we continue our ascent until we found the origin of the waterfall.

I must admit, it was worth it, even though I almost slipped on some wet, moss-covered rocks in an attempt to capture that perfect picture with the waterfall in the background.


View of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains from Agnes Vaille Trail

It struck me that Agnes Vaille, as well as my sister Patricia and so many others such as Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter, have lost their lives while pursuing their passions. That seemed so tragic to me, but Keen felt differently. He said he couldn’t think of a better way to die than to be doing something you loved.

Afterwards, Keen and I both agreed that we had discovered the perfect spot for the 1st annual Patricia Van Kirk Memorial Hike – a tradition we plan to start and hope to continue each year as a way of remembering/honoring our late sister and her love of life and the great outdoors.

Next we took a side trip through the historic Colorado Midland Railroad tunnels which were carved right out of the mountains near our lodge.

The Colorado Midland started in Colorado Springs and arrived in the Buena Vista area in 1887. Passengers were taken to the station by horse-drawn wagon.

On our way back we spotted about a dozen deer along the railroad tracks.

After a while, deer sightings almost became commonplace. One day we saw some deer cross the street right in the middle of town, and another time we spotted a family of three in someone’s front yard and we nearly mistook them for statues!

The next day we took a two-hour road trip to the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve near Mosca, Colorado.

I was able to capture a few pictures before we entered the park, but when I tried to take a picture of Keen standing on the sandy dunes, my digital camera flashed a message informing me that my card of pictures was full. I was so disappointed until I realized that the message was proof that my camera had indeed been working properly all that time, despite the fact that I had dropped it on the sidewalk on the first day of our vacation. After touring an alligator farm on our way home, we stopped at Wal-Mart and bought another card to store pictures from the remainder of our trip.

By the time we got back to the lodge, I was ready to call it a day, but Keen convinced me that we still had time to hike up the Barbara Whipple Trail before sundown. So off we went, and I’m so glad we did. The hike was exhilarating and the view was spectacular.

We finished up our hike just as the sun was setting behind the mountains, and Keen commented about how glad he was that we hadn’t wasted a minute of our day. “I guess it’s never too late to follow your heart,” I replied.

The next day we checked out of the Liar’s Lodge and returned to Mt. Princeton to meet with our event coordinator, Zelma. Zelma greeted us with a massive amount of information including price lists, brochures from area recreational spots, as well as an impressive type-written document containing answers to all of our many questions. As a result of all of Zelma’s hard work, I’m happy to report that the Van Kirk clan will indeed be invading Mt. Princeton Hot Springs Resort next summer. We are really looking forward to it.

After our meeting with Zelma, we drove to the old ghost town of St. Elmo, which was built in 1878 and is located about 10 miles up the road from Mt. Princeton. While we were there, we walked around the historic Iron City Cemetery. The sign posted at the entryway listed the names of many of the people buried there, along with information about how some of them met their untimely demise.

Entrance of Iron City Cemetery near St. Elmo

Sadly, many of the graves were for small children. One gravestone erected in 1891 was for two sisters named Sadie and Gertie. It read: “Born 2 year[s] apart; Died a day apart; Buried a hand apart.”

When it came time to make the long trek back to Kansas, Keen and I were both ready to leave Colorado behind for the time being. As reported in the Fall 2006 edition of the Kansas Traveler, the internet web site named the Kansas Flint Hills as No. 5 on their list of the top 10 travel destinations in the United States.

But then, we didn’t need them to tell us that there’s no place like home.

"People travel to wonder at the height of the mountains, at the huge waves of the seas, at the long course of the rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motion of the stars, and yet they pass by themselves without wondering." ~St. Augustine

Monday, October 16, 2006

Mishaps, Mountains, & Memories (Part I)

“Lord, You have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever You had formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God.”
~ Psalm 90:1,2 (NKJV)

Last week Keen and I took a road trip to Colorado to check out the area where we plan to host the Van Kirk Family Reunion next summer.
The month leading up to our vacation had been incredibly busy for Keen, so we were both looking forward to the well-timed trip. The day before we left, Keen sent me this note via email: (My response follows.)

Eileen: I left this morning without telling you that I love you. I think about you so much during the day. I am so happy, so satisfied, so glad that you love me. I am so excited about being with you for a whole week. I just couldn’t get started today without writing you a note this morning.

Have a great day!



Dear Keen,

You have no idea what your note meant to me this morning. I had a terrible dream; a frightening dream. So when I got up, I was hoping to find a note from you. I looked all over the house – in the bathroom and the kitchen. Then I turned on my computer and I could hardly believe my eyes. A note from the love of my life, my cherished husband of 28 years with the subject line: "I love you!" Has God blessed us with a wonderful union or what?

I love you, too, Keen, and I am pinching myself that we will be together - on a real vacation - for seven whole days. Rain or shine - I know it will be sublime, because I'll be with you and you'll be with me.

I love you, Keen.


After packing our suitcases and tying up several loose ends, we loaded our bicycles on the back of the Durango and began our long trek to Colorado. Along the way we passed the time by listening to the Kansas State Wildcats 31-27 win over Oklahoma State. After eating dinner at a truck stop where the food didn’t look anything like the pictures on the menu, we decided to take a “shorter” route to our destination, which left us out in the middle of nowhere by nightfall. We kept driving and driving, thinking that we would come upon a town with a population greater than 25, but that didn’t happen for much longer than we anticipated. So then we just started acting goofy and laughing while we sang off-key to the music on the radio. But Keen got the biggest laugh of the night at my expense. We were holding hands and be-bopping to the music when, without thinking, I decided to lean over and give Keen a kiss on his hand while it was still “be-bopping." This resulted in one or both of us effectively punching me right in the nose!

We finally reached civilization in Colorado Springs and checked into a hotel. Our second mishap occurred the next morning when I stepped out of the passenger seat and my digital camera fell off my lap and crashed on the ground. After examining the damage, we discovered that the most important feature of the camera still seemed to be operational. However, I could no longer view the pictures after I took them to verify whether it was really working or not. So I just kept taking pictures like normal, hoping that the clicking sound I heard meant that the picture actually took.

Our next stop was the Royal Gorge Canyon and Bridge in CaƱon City, Colorado. The Royal Gorge Bridge is the highest suspension bridge in the world. Since Keen and I decided not to walk the quarter-mile bridge over the canyon, I just took some pictures of it from a distance.

Then we headed for our next destination – Mt. Princeton Hot Springs Resort in Nathrop, Colorado, which is where we plan to hold the family reunion. The resort is located halfway between Salida and Buena Vista, nestled in the majestic Sangre de Cristo Mountains near the San Isabel National Forest. Keen and I discovered Mt. Princeton last summer when we were on our way home from visiting my stepmom. That’s when Colorado became our second favorite state.

After checking into our cabin, we grabbed our walking sticks and set out to take our first hike in the mountains. We ended up on the Colorado Trail just up the road from Mt. Princeton and directly across from the beautiful Chalk Cliffs. There was a slight drizzle, but we didn’t let it stop us, although we did notice the difference in altitude as we both ran out of breath rather quickly. On the drive back we were excited to spot a large group of deer on the side of the road. They don’t dart away like they do in Kansas, so it was fun to be able to take lots of pictures from our vehicle.

Lastly, we stopped at the Chalk Creek falls and snapped a few more photos.

The next morning it was still raining, but Keen was merciless. “It’s no hill for a climber!” he said. So we bundled up and headed out for a bike ride in the rain. The ride downhill was a blast as we sailed like the wind, but the trip back up was sheer agony.

“Look at everything as though you were seeing it either for the first or last time. Then your time on earth will be filled with glory."

~ Betty Smith

To be continued . . .

Saturday, October 07, 2006

In Pursuit of Sleep

“In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for Thou alone, O Lord, makest me dwell in safety.” ~Psalms 4:8

A while back, the Prairie Post ran an article titled, “If quality sleep is a challenge … the Morris County Hospital may have a solution.” This article caught my eye because Keen went through the St. Francis Sleep Disorder Clinic about 15 years ago. Since Keen and I are on our way to Colorado for a week of hiking, biking and yes, some much needed rest, I thought I would share a copy of a speech I once gave about our experience titled, “Journey to a Good Night’s Sleep.”

“Laugh and the world laughs with you. Snore and you sleep alone.”
~Anthony Burgess

For the first 12 years of my married life I slept with a snorer – and a loud one at that. I didn’t like it much, but there wasn’t a whole lot I could do about it, so I learned to adjust. That is, until 1989.

1989 was the year our fourth child, Kirk was born. Kirk had digestive problems that went undiagnosed until he was 8 ½ months old when we finally learned that he was allergic to milk. But up until that point, he cried frequently during the day and didn’t sleep through the night. Plus, I had three other children to take care of.

“People who say they sleep like a baby usually don't have one.” ~Leo J. Burke

Between Kirk’s crying and Keen’s snoring, I was pretty much in a constant state of sleep deprivation. Eventually I became so desperate for some relief that I asked my dear husband if he would please sleep on the couch so I could try to get some rest.

Fortunately, that arrangement didn’t last long because for Christmas that year my father gave us a video camera. That wonderful new gadget gave me the tool I needed to prove once and for all that my husband’s snoring really did sound like a chain saw! But as I was videotaping him one day during a nap, I observed something else. Keen didn’t just snore – he actually stopped breathing during his sleep – for what seemed like an eternity. This interruption in his breathing would be followed by a loud gasp for air before the snoring resumed and the cycle repeated itself.

I had always been concerned about the effect his snoring had on my life, but then I became worried about the effect it might be having on his life. So I contacted the Sleep Disorder Center at St. Francis and they recommended that we make an appointment with a specialist who could refer Keen to the clinic for a sleep study and evaluation.

The evaluation process involved Keen spending the night at the sleep clinic while being hooked up to all kinds of electrodes that monitored every facet of his sleep. It didn’t take very long at all for them to diagnosis Keen with an ailment known as obstructive sleep apnea, or OSA.

The Greek word “apnea” literally means “without breath.” This syndrome is caused by a blockage of the airway which occurs when the soft tissue in the rear of the throat collapses and closes during sleep. When we’re asleep, our muscles relax more than they do during waking hours and in some people, this relaxation lets the airway in the back of the throat become too narrow, thus interfering with breathing. Some other causes of sleep apnea are being overweight, having a smaller-than-normal jaw, an overbite or enlarged tonsils. The end result of obstructive sleep apnea is excessive daytime sleepiness which is caused by the fact that the individual is literally struggling to breathe all night long.

In Keen’s case, he stopped breathing up to 400 times a night for up to 60 seconds per episode. At that rate, he was actually not breathing more than he was breathing.

After observing Keen for a couple of hours, the technologist at the sleep center decided to equip him with a breathing machine known as a CPAP, which stands for continuous positive airway pressure. This device forces pressurized air back into the patient’s lungs through a mask that fits securely over the nose.

I would be remiss not to reiterate the significant and potentially life-threatening consequences of untreated OSA. In addition to the dangers associated with daytime sleepiness such as job impairment and motor vehicle crashes, sleep apnea can cause high blood pressure, memory problems and headaches. But the most dangerous aspect of sleep apnea is the increased risk of heart failure, heart attack or stroke.

According to David Miller of the St. Francis Sleep Disorder Center, at least 30% of all heart attacks are related to sleep apnea and not to heart disease. Put in simple terms, a heart attack is oxygen starvation of the heart muscles. During episodes of sleep apnea, the blood oxygen level drops dangerously low and over time, this oxygen deprivation takes a serious toll on the heart as well as other vital organs.

The good news is that the CPAP machine works! In our experience, it’s made all the difference in the world – not only for Keen’s quality of sleep, but also for mine. Now Keen wakes up feeling rejuvenated and ready to face the challenges of the day. As for me, I’ve grown accustomed to the soothing hum of the CPAP machine and no longer need to ask my husband to sleep on the couch so I can get a good night’s sleep.

The bottom line is this: snoring is no laughing matter. So if someone you love snores, please encourage them to see their health care professional. Not only could it improve your life – it could save theirs.

“A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor's book.”
~Irish Proverb

Monday, October 02, 2006

Twice as Nice

“Grandchildren are the crowning glory of the aged. . . .”
~ Proverbs 17:6a (NLT)

Now, I’m not ready to admit to being “aged” just yet, but I will gladly admit that having grandchildren is one of the most rewarding experiences of middle age.

After Katelyn was born, our grandson Asher astutely noted that our family was “equal” now, with two grandsons and two granddaughters. But the fact that Keen and I now have as many grandchildren as we have children was a little piece of trivia that hadn’t hit me until recently. It’s just amazing to think that we have doubled our numbers – and then some, if you include our two daughters-in-law!

The weekend before last I had the joy of flying to Mississippi to help Asher and Gabe celebrate their 7th and 4th birthdays. They are born exactly three years and four days apart, so Jared and Erin threw them a joint party at a local bowling alley – complete with pizza, cake and plenty of tokens for the adjacent arcade.

The Birthday Buddies

The trip also gave me a chance to get my hands on my precious little namesake, Emma Eileen. (Her first name came from Erin’s maternal great-grandmother.) Emma looked like a living doll in her frilly party dress, headband, and pink shoes.

Emma in her party dress

She is growing like a weed and has a great disposition. Jared said Emma thinks her name is “beautiful” because he tells her that all the time, and she just grins from ear to ear. Jared’s favorite outfit to put her in is one that bears the words, “Daddy’s little princess.” But Erin has filled Emma’s closet with many more outfits declaring that her heart belongs to Mommy. Of course, Emma is adored by both of her parents and two big brothers – as well as her grandparents and lots of aunts and uncles from both sides.

Jared, Erin and "Sleeping Beauty"

During my last visit with the grandkids back in May, I wrote down a few funny things that happened. (Have you noticed that things always seem funnier to the grandparents?) One time Gabe was all upset because the clothes I picked out for him “didn’t match.” Another time he was in tears because Rocky the Labrador was eating his toy penguin. So I bravely rescued the penguin from certain demise, only to have Gabe lose the little creature in the toilet a few minutes later. Another time Asher and Gabe were playing on the couch when they suffered a brutal head on collision – with each other – and they both blamed the other one while they held their foreheads and cried.

One day Gabe came into the room asking me to help him with an unusual problem. For some unknown reason, he had taped one of his eyelids shut with a Spiderman Band-Aid. When I asked him why he did that, he replied, “Because I say so.” So I extricated the Band-Aid from his eye ever so delicately, trying to preserve as many eyelashes as possible in the process. A short time later, I noticed that Gabriel had transferred the Spiderman Bandaid to his nose. And I don’t mean over the bridge of his nose. No, he placed it directly across his two nostrils, causing him to have a nasal-sounding voice. It cracked me up so much that I decided to take some video of him. As I started taping, I couldn’t keep from laughing. “That’s not punny, Gramma,” he said, with a hint of indignation. “What’s not funny?” I asked. “It’s not punny in my unner-wear.” Now I was really having a hard time holding back. “Oh, I’m not laughing at your underwear, Gabe, I’m laughing at the Band-aid on your nose.” “That’s not punny.” (In other words, “refer to my previous answer, Gramma!”) On the contrary, it was very funny! We’ve had more laughs over that. Keen even has an 8x10 picture of Gabe in his law office with the Band-aid on his nose. (It looks like a mug shot.)

As you can see, Gabriel makes the “p” sound in place of an “f.” So while I was there I would try to correct him. One time he told me that some jean shorts didn’t “pit” him. So I said, “fit, fit.” And he promptly repeated, “pit, pit.”

Asher is the more laid back of the two, and he has a very analytical mind. He actually understands the complicated strategies involved in playing his two favorite games, Pokeman and Yugioh. He also loves playing video games. Erin said that they were at the park recently when Asher met a little girl who had some Pokeman cards. “You know,” he proudly announced, “I’m the King of Games.” We laughed so hard over that. “Your search is over, young lady. I am he.”

One day Asher said: “Grandma, I can spell ‘see.’ S-e-e.” Then he added, “It’s also a letter of the alphabet – “C” – and it’s also a word in Spanish that means yes. Am I right?” He has such a sharp little mind. He’s always saying things like, “I go to school for five days and then I’m home for two days.” Speaking of school, he’s getting all A’s and he almost always has “green days” for good behavior.

Gabe is a lot more rambunctious and aggressive. One time when he and I were shopping I made a comment that he disapproved of and he replied: “Daddy said to stop saying that.” Later, when we were at Target I saw a shirt that I thought would be perfect for him because it said, “I’m the boss.” So I showed it to Erin and hung it on the cart. Can you guess why I didn’t end up buying it? Because Gabe said he didn’t like it! (Case in point.) But that was back in May, and I must say that he’s mellowed out a lot just since then. In fact, when I arrived at the bowling alley a couple of weeks ago, Gabe was the first one to run up to me and give me a big hug. I thought he was never going to let go, which of course melted my heart and made me feel so loved.

Being grandparents is truly one of God’s greatest gifts and life’s greatest joys. It’s like the saying goes: “If we knew how much fun grandchildren were, we would have had them first!”

Gramma Eileen with Jared, Erin & Family