I meant to have an adventure or two in Colorado and so I did; I had little idea what was ahead.
I am chock-full of images absorbed, moments shared. The first motivation was a desire to visit my oldest daughter and her partner– in his element, a place she has been visiting awhile (she lives in S. Carolina). But close behind that was a fascination with one of our Rocky Mountains states. I hadn’t traveled there in decades and not to the same area. I always have loved mountains–anywhere, any sort–as they draw me with their magisterial presence carved from fierce wildness. Intrigued by geological history and flora and fauna that have claimed mountains as home, I am also just a sucker for beauty in its plethora of origins and designs.
I will let my photos show the way I first saw Colorado Springs, the Rockies surrounding it. I knew they would be there–I just didn’t know they would be that up close and personal. I was forever craning my neck, tilting my head to see even better, farther. And I adapted to the 6000+ ft. altitude in a couple of days–a small ache in my head, a little breathlessness at first. (I felt fairly confident since I have been to Banff in the Canadian Rockies, visiting Lake Louise at 5249 ft., as well as Crater Lake in OR. at over 6000 ft.) Fun to experience were the different architectural style of older neighborhoods and good downtown shopping, an impressive art museum and delicious meals– and a sweet evening visit to the famous Broadmoor Hotel. Artist Naomi also taught me a bit about Shibori indigo dying and we created squares of cotton prints together, a satisfying and fun afternoon.
But all that can wait for later posts. Instead, we will go on the short trip I felt quite ready to undertake by my 5th day. I was excited about it: an off-road trail exploration of mountains in a refurbished older Jeep with Naomi, with Adam at the wheel. He has lived in Colorado for over 25 years so knows all about the terrain and adventuring. This is a man who has climbed 14 of 52 mountain peaks 14,000 ft. or so–not just famous Pike’s Peak that can be seen in some of the photos below. A person of many enthusiasms, as is Naomi.
Come follow along to see what I saw and learn what I experienced that was entirely new in my 68 years of living, thus far… The highest peak seen in the last 4 photos is Pike’s Peak. (Sorry, these are not the best clarity, taken late afternoon/evening with rain clouds gathering and some smokiness. One of many Western summer forest fires was burning not far away; wind carried the smoke in a bit the week I was there.) Naomi and Adam goofed off and posed here when I asked for a picture with mountains behind them downtown.
I’m going to skip a few days to move on to the Pike National Forest off-road trail trip. Smoke wafted about as we drove through groups of people exploring a famous city park close by, Garden of the Gods with unusual sandstone formations. These are only a few views of the place as we didn’t stop; it was quite congested. People come from all over to hike, horseback ride, cycle and climb. As we left the worthy attraction and climbed up, the air cleared.
A slide show reveals gradual changes in terrain as we drive higher and higher in the Rockies toward our destination. Upon arrival at Pike National Forest, amid lots of exclamations of astonishment at the mind-boggling panoramas, I noted a slight headache and the sun was searing in the sparkling air. But not to worry, I thought, we had plenty of water and I was ready to move on and embrace whatever was next!
We continued on, looking for the off-road trails Adam had mapped. The air fairly crackled with dryness; it struck me how easily a devastating wilderness fire could flare and take immediate hold of the quite arid landscape. We passed also through private ranching country at times, yet for miles and miles there seemed to be nothing but mountains, scrubby plant life, scatterings of tree groupings. It is solitary land, and feels like verging on a great emptiness but for the immensity of sky and grandeur of the mountain range. I was aware of being separated from common civilization, felt the immediacy of the environment scoured by heat and clarity of air, and not uncomfortably jostled by the Jeep navigating rougher dirt roads. Elemental, intense, this territory is transfixing. And I felt a bit off-kilter from what I knew was decreased oxygen. It was a sudden sort of “high” not experienced before, a light-headedness not quite unpleasant as we bounced along. I snapped my pictures of this great American West, was made smaller, more humble by such immensity.
But in the back of my mind I wondered: how much higher. By the time we got a couple of miles down the rougher trails, I was burning up. My daughter switched seats with me so I had more shade and thoroughly wet a bandanna for my face and neck which cooled me nicely. I kept drinking water often as instructed. But I knew it was something else that underlay my body’s discomfort; I suspected it was the elevation and we had quite a way to go. I asked Adam if we were going to descend any time soon and he assured me we would. (I’m not sure how high we were then; I never asked.) I watched the land go by in a daze and finally we started to wind down the mountainous trails and then onto a road. We passed several others having fun on their ATVs. At Wilkerson Pass, amid miles of wide openness at 9504 feet, we got out to eat (I nibbled at half a sandwich) and stretch a bit. I took a “selfie” there, but can you tell I’m feeling a bit out-of-body and thinking: Hold on, Cynthia, you will be alright one way or the other…?
But I really wasn’t. I got blasted with altitude sickness in a couple of hours. Oxygen deprivation. I felt poorly enough that when we got into the city and stopped at a bookstore I had so wanted to visit, I just wanted to lie down. The headache had begun in earnest and I felt queasy. And then the headache got far worse and the nausea did not abate all day and night. It was as if my body had been hijacked; there was nothing to do but surrender to it. “Drink more,” I was urged. How on earth to drink on a bad stomach…but it was constant sips, all night long. I was lost in limbo, caught between the worst full body pain I had felt in a long while coupled with a peculiar disoriented state of mind. I moved awkwardly, feet and legs not working well, to bathroom and back from a living room couch–I never got to my bedroom– body resisting. No pain or stomach pills helped. Symptoms got worse, not better, as hours passed. In a distant way I heard Naomi ask if I needed more medical intervention, and once or twice considered the emergency room. But it seemed too hard to do. My heart felt, miraculously, as if it was beating decently. I could breathe well enough. I simply hung on in the faith it would only more time. A long time…but the damaging night passed into a hallelujah day.
My daughter said I didn’t sleep until around 6 a.m (neither did she)–well over 15 hours since the beast got hold of me. Naomi was a Godsend watching over me; calm, efficient, kind, I would have been lost without her aid. When I awakened around noon the next day, the pain was receding and my stomach had settled. Not yet up to dancing speed, but I felt more safe and sane. My body felt wrung out as if it had been boondoggled, but there was gratitude that it had about run its course. Hunger was aroused. Not thirst; my very cells felt waterlogged from the constant imbibing of fluids. It seemed as if my flesh and bones had run a marathon through a bad alternate reality, a sort of trial by fire. But I have had those trials before–different but also challenging.
The important thing was, all was ending up alright; there was a quiet giddiness underlying that. The human body vigorously fights for a renewed homeostasis so it can heal so I’d held on for the ride. Truth is, altitude sickness can strike anyone when above 8000 feet, no matter their fitness, health, age or expectations. Adam and Naomi felt badly it happened but so it goes, I pulled the short straw that time. Until I got up around 9000 ft., I had felt hearty and ready for anything. Honestly, it was at first more aggravating that I was waylaid: my first off-road Jeep trip in the Rockies at age 68–well, I wanted more!
I had to cancel that evening’s flight at a cost, but the next day I felt much more able to return home. I took a last congenial stroll in the lovely neighborhood with Naomi, then packed my bags. I was not glad to leave, only relieved to be recovering. Sad no time was left, to share laughter, conversation, jaunts and good meals with two lively, bright, caring people. I’d discovered joyous experiences plus instructive ones. I would sure go again. Just not likely above 8000 ft.
As my plane descended to Portland International Airport I was delighted to gaze upon our own mountains, the Cascades, as they showed off in a sunset. Mountains, the geography I always will love! Wild, breathtaking (in a true dual sense), daunting and mesmerizing, oddly elegant in their rough-hewn complexity. I am ever confounded by ancient beauties on/within our earth. Count me lucky to be alive another year, another day. The earth has many golden passages that open us to greater illuminations.
(As soon as I disembarked that last trace of headache vanished…at 30 ft. elevation.)