Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Altitude Sickness

These are my mountains.  That's my city, in front of them.  The city in which I grew up, and to which I've returned after twenty-one years.

We left Utah in 1990, and moved to these mountains.

Those are the Olympic mountains, and I have wonderful news: All the vampires were eaten by the werewolves, who were then loaded onto a submarine and sunk to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.  Which means the infestation of bad acting on the Olympic peninsula has been eradicated.

Anyway, after seven years in that beautiful place, we moved to this beautiful place, and this became our mountain.

This is El Yunque in Puerto Rico, and it includes a real, live tropical rain forest that very courteously does all your sweating for you. 

And four years later, we moved to Vegas, just a few miles away from these mountains.

Las Vegans are very proud of Red Rock, because most of their mountains are brown and bare naked.  And not in a Coppertone way, either.

Once upon a time, I told you about visiting these mountains.

These are the Andes, in Cuzco, Peru. I'm married to that cute guy, but that's not really the point. You may recall that Cuzco is 10,000 feet above sea level, and the village where our humanitarian group was working was another 4,000 feet higher. That's nearly three miles up, you know.

Cuzco was the only place where I'd ever had trouble breathing because of the elevation. I joke about it in my 'Sheep' post (and essay in our book), but we really did have an oxygen tank in our hotel room, and every night Brett and I took turns re-inflating our lungs and trying to oxygenate our brains enough to remember how the shower worked.

It was interesting to see how our group handled the altitude thing. Most of us were from Las Vegas, which is about 2,000 feet up. A few were from Salt Lake, which is maybe 5,000 feet.

Some rolled with the elevation just fine. No problems adjusting.  Others were so sick they were vomiting and hyperventilating and swearing in Ketchua.

The thing is, there's almost nothing you can do for altitude sickness. Oh, there's this tea that some of us drank, and which I blame for much of the vomiting. And there are these pills you can take. But by and large, your body either handles the altitude or it doesn't.

Well, after twenty one years away, during which the highest elevation we ever lived at was 2,000 feet, we've returned home. Home to our mountains, our city. Home to those heights.

And I think I'm suffering from altitude sickness.

At this elevation, looking down is just so easy. It practically comes naturally. And from peak to peak, one can see just what everyone else is up to. My friend Deb would say I've moved from sea level to see level, because she's cute and smart and she's kind of feeling the same way. For those of us who have been living in the lowlands for a long time, it can be hard to breathe up here. My heart keeps pounding. I feel anxious, and I'm pretty sure my brain isn't working like it's supposed to. I say stupid things. I'm too casual about stuff that people around me take pretty seriously. I find things funny that probably aren't funny. But it's because the oxygen isn't making it all the way to my judgment center like it is for others.

Oh, how I love my mountains. How I love this place. And yet, some days I worry that I'll never catch my breath, that in this thin air I'm much too easy a target, my failings and shortcomings seen much too clearly. 

It wasn't until I was in Peru that I learned how differently people 'do' mountains, depending largely on how well they adapt to the altitude. And the remarkable thing was, despite the elevation, every single person in our group got up each morning, boarded the bus, and headed up those Andes to work as hard as they were able. Some felt pretty cruddy, and had to sit down a lot. Others could really go to town on a project for a couple of hours, only to suddenly run out of steam and collapse on the bus. Still others had stamina to burn long after the rest of us had curled up with the llamas to take a nice, woolly nap.

Yet no one complained that the others weren't doing their part. No one said they were doing it wrong. No one held anyone else to their own personal standard and found them lacking. We were just glad for the help, and proud of everyone who struggled and suffered and didn't let it get in the way of contributing whatever they could.

The view from the top can be spectacular. It can feel like the sun shines just a little brighter, just a little warmer, just for you. And gazing into the valley, it's easy to imagine that everyone down there is as tiny and insignificant as a bug.

They're not, of course. And you never know how hard it is for them to keep plugging along, doing their level best, making a sincere, honest effort to get things right.

Especially while they're struggling to breathe.


The Crash Test Dummy said...

I'm FIRST!!!!? That's a first. Two firsts.

I LOVE THIS POST! Amen, sistah! Amen.

Momza said...

Love your thoughts, DeNae! Just perfect.

Garden of Egan said...

Love it!!!
I'm short of breath all the time.

rachel said...

Long-time reader; first- (or second-?) time commenter. This post is ridiculously astute. Maybe even ridiculously astute. Wait, do people even say that any more?

Leaving my mountain home 11 years ago wasn't too difficult, since it meant moving on to bigger and better things (like PhDs and other fun crap). For a long time the thought stayed in the back of our minds that we might return, at least to be nearer our families. We haven't yet, and with each year that seems less likely. I'm not disappointed, though, because I'm afraid my evolved self wouldn't be able to withstand the altitude.

You are a stronger woman than I. Thanks for your astuteness. Come on, it is TOO a word.

rachel said...

My phone corrected me! Smart-aleck. The second one was supposed to say ridonkulously astute. There. I showed you, phone.

charrette said...

FanTASTtic post! I LOVE your insights! And I love you!!


Lora said...

I love this post. LOVE. I'm sharing it with friends who need it, in the sorry you're having trouble breathing way and in the please stop stomping on my lungs way. :)

Lora said...

And another thing... so sorry that you are experiencing this. No fun. It kind of makes me sad all over that it has to be dealt with at all. Especially when you are surrounded by those you should be able to feel safe around. Just sayin.

Stacy said...

Loving this today, thank you.

And do you want your random trivia for the day? Of course you do, c'mon. That medicine they use for altitude sickness? I was on it for years for a totally unrelated condition. It's nasty stuff for many reasons, but it renders you completely unable to drink any kind of carbonation because it literally burns your mouth. Weirdest side effect ever and it left me completely unable to have Diet Coke for years. Sad.

I'm done derailing your comments now. Sorry.

Becca said...

Amen. Sometimes you can hear people hyperventilating right beside you, and sometimes you don't notice anything until they keel over.
Please keep breathing.

L.T. Elliot said...

Oh, dearest. And you say I'm good at shrouding messages to let the heart discover? I bow to your betterness with words. (And I totally made that word up--but meant it sincerely.)

This? I understand. There's never enough air around here and I can't understand it at all. Why? What is it about this place that believes the elevation elevates one person over another? Because those kinds of heights are really just a greater peak to fall from, really. We are all of us nothing. And all of us *everything* to Him who matters most.

And you know what? You're an everything to me too. Knowing that you're you? Knowing that you speak from the heart and shoot from the hip? It just means I can always, always trust you. And that gives you an elevation in my eyes where I can always find breath. Love you.

Scooby and Jon said...

Beautiful post, and I'm sorry that you're living at see level. I hope things get better for you.

Andrea said...

Very well said. I'm feeling the same way. It's hard. So.. what's the cure?

Kazzy said...

I love this post, and I love you and your sometimes-struggling lungs.

This is the only place I have ever ever lived that has not been a coastal state. I was born about 2 miles from the ocean, grew up in a coastal area, and then even lived right near the ocean for our 5 years of grad school. It took me a loooong time to get used to the fencing in here. It is beautiful, but there is a definite psychology that comes with a place that was settled in order to be apart.

You are where you need to be. Maybe these mountains will adjust. Just for you.

Donna said...

I remember having altitude sickness once in was dreadful. I think we might have been on the verge of death from a faulty heater too.
Come by today....bleachervision.blogspot...I have had a catharsis

wendy said...

Oh my...I LIKED, LIKED, LIKED this.
You certainly have lived in a variety of "mountains"
Now that I am close to the "Rockies" here in Alberta, they are , well rockier (duh) then my mountains of Utah (which I dearly miss)
But I love everything else you said.

I seem to have been suffering from "air to the brain" for nigh on 60 years now.

InkMom said...

Mountains? We've got mountains. Not so much the altitude sickness, though. Any time you need a hit you know where to find us.

AS Amber said...

I think you're great. I know I've said it a thousand times, but I'm so so so happy you're here!

This was a great post. Love you!