Nor was I prepared for the decreased amount of oxygen available at 6000 ft above sea level. However, I survived the altitude sickness with nothing worse than a slight head ache. Not bad for my first time at that altitude outside of an airplane.
We’re surrounded by mountains that soar into the 14,000 ft range round here, so it’s easy to forget we actually live closer to sea level. Where I live in the Seattle metro area, for instance, doesn’t get much above 300 ft. But I’m surrounded by hills, so it feels higher.
I grew up at high altitude. The lowest elevation I saw in my young years was 4,000 ft, and I didn’t live below 1200 until I moved from Arizona. I still have trouble remembering I don’t need to follow the high altitude directions when cooking. My mind will always be somewhere up there.
And when I think of high altitude, one memory comes to mind.
So this one time, at fall camp, we were kicking it at 9,000 ft, right there on the San Francisco Peaks. Hated it. I’m not good at being away from home now, and I was worse then. I’m stuffed in a cabin with girls I despise, and the food sucks, and it’s fucking cold at night, and if I could’ve turned around and gone home, I would have. But partway through the week, they took us out on an all-day hike. It’s when I discovered I didn’t actually hate the Jehovah’s Witness kid in class. One of the girls had gotten a little sick, y’see, and a small group of us along with one of the adults got separated from the main group while we were clustered around waiting for her to feel well enough to continue on. We’d planned to meet up at the pre-arranged lunch spot. But we got a little bit lost. So no shit, there we were, a handful of kids and a young adult, trying to find our way, traipsing through the trees, knowing we were lost but never worrying much about it. We kept going up and up and up, and suddenly, the trees were gone. We’d hit the treeline. We were right there where we could see and very nearly touch the Arctic part of the Peaks, the elevation where in Arizona (yes, Arizona) you get permafrost and once had glaciers. We weren’t supposed to be anywhere near there.
We lingered for a bit while the guide got her bearings. The whole thing had that magical sense of being somewhat forbidden, and unique to us. The other group wouldn’t get to see this. And it was thrilling. So stark, so wild, so high in the sky.
We weren’t even very late for lunch, actually. We hooked up with the rest of the group shortly afterward, and me and the Jehovah’s Witness kid hung out on a rock together, finding out that we did have things to talk about even though he was a little different. Well, so was I. And both of us were kind of on the sidelines for all the crazy camp antics, watching the other kids act like idiots and shaking our heads. What I’d mistaken for a religious superiority complex was actually just high intelligence, and once I’d found that out, we got on great.
That was also the camping trip where one of the camp guides stopped us in the middle of a beautiful bowl-shaped valley and, just about the time I was admiring the lovely scenery and thinking how very serene it all was, announced we were standing in the center of a caldera. I. Freaked. Out. I knew caldera meant something like crater (which is what it actually was – she wasn’t hip to the distinctions). I had a mild volcano phobia. And all I could do was look around for steam vents and pray the damned volcano would stay dormant until after we’d gotten out of the crater.
Fun times, fun times.
Things improved as the week went along. They moved my best friend into our cabin to ease my homesickness, and so the other girls had to have their best friends move in, and with double the number of kids packed in there, cold was no longer a problem. We slept all sandwiched in, piled atop each other like puppies, and after that, the mean girl and I had a certain accord.
We dragged an enormous puffball mushroom back to camp and one of the guides (the really cute one with the earring, which was terribly risque for a man back in the 80s and so awesome to us) bashed it open so we could see the spores blow out in a cloud.
The bad boys found a family of garter snakes one day. They made the mistake of thrusting them in my face first. I’ve never had a fear of reptiles, and rather pissed them off when I squealed, “How cute!” and asked to hold one. They moved on to another group of girls, which elicited the proper screams.
We learned square dancing. We dug in to some of the very few wild plants around Flagstaff that put out berries that won’t kill you (small, waxy, and nothing to write home about, but exciting because they were wild food). We built a shelter, and sent up smoke signals, and would’ve built an igloo if there’d been enough snow on the ground. We watched an educational film about surviving in the wilderness that we all loved because it had a guy dying of a really gruesome sunburn. We had archery, and I hit the bull’s eye. We scared away all the local wildlife. And by the end of the week, I was willing to stay up there the rest of my life.
When the buses disgorged us at the school, my mother was waiting there, holding my much-missed dog, who got so excited when she saw me that she peed down my poor mom’s leg.
Later, my mom and I took a walk in the woods behind our house, where we found an animal skull and a shed snake skin, and I realized I’d just forged a much deeper connection to the natural world. Not that I hadn’t grown up in it, but I knew things about it now that I’d never known before.
But the one thing out of all that experience that comes back to me over and over again is that glorious moment when we stepped from the tree line and saw tundra, a sight few Arizonans ever see.
No wonder I’ve got a high-altitude attitude.