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Saturday, September 17, 2016

High in Colorado

If you think this is all about Colorado being the place to go because of the legality of small amounts of marijuana, I am sorry to disappoint you. Yes, marijuana is legal here. Instead of being sold on the streets or through friends-of-friends, it is sold in well-maintained shops by very educated staff. One can't even look at the sales floor, much less the merchandise, without proof of age and identification. It's taxed to raise money for schools and is even bringing in more than the expected revenue, resulting in tax refunds to Colorado residents. And if you're curious, for various reasons I was one of the people who voted to make it legal. 

As I said before, though, this isn't about marijuana. It's about the natural, non-drug high that is Colorado. Okay, it's about the elevation. I used to always say altitude, but I don't use that word all of the time now. When I was working at Denver International Airport, a pilot got testy with me about my Colorado Rockies t-shirt, which read, "Baseball with an altitude." I thought that it was a delightful play on words and terribly clever, but he had to get all cranky and smarter-than-thou and say that it was elevation, not altitude. Never mind that our region is commonly referred to as being at a higher altitude, or that recipes often have high-altitude adjustments. And what about High-Altitude Hungarian Flour, hmm?

Anyway, where was I? Oh, yes, the fact that Colorado is at a high elevation. It's not something that's not constantly in the front of my mind. When you have lived here for years, you get used to it. There's little adjustments that become natural to us since the high altitude changes the air pressure. For example, water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit at sea level, but only 202 degrees in Denver. So when I boil eggs, I give them a little extra time to compensate for the lower temperature. No big deal.

What we sometimes forget is that it can be a challenge for the people that my Gram called flatlanders to breathe here. An online conversation with my friend Paul, who lives in New York State, reminded me of how difficult it can be. You see, Paul had posted a photograph online of a dragon formed out of snow. This immediately reminded me of the annual international snow-sculpting championships held in late January in Breckenridge Colorado (elevation 9600 feet). I immediately told Paul that I thought he'd enjoy it immensely. 

Paul let me know that he would likely need a week or two to acclimate to the higher altitude (there, I said it!). He's been to Colorado once, and spent his time here headachey and otherwise not feeling so great. Not only is it really dry here, we also have less oxygen than you folks living at lower elevations. I actually did a bit of studying before writing this piece and found that at sea level, the air is almost 21% oxygen. When you get to Denver, it's a bit over 17% (I have rounded the numbers). By the time you get to Breckenridge, which isn't terribly high, there's about 14.5%, which is only about 70% of what's available at sea level.

I'm sorry if I've bored you to tears with these facts and figures, but it's just to show you that difficulty breathing here is no myth. And when we Colorado folk travel to lower elevations, our lungs barely have to work at all. The oxygen fairly rushes into our lungs, making them say, "Whoopie! I'm ready to go!" When I got back from a week-long business trip to Minnesota, I joked to Trent that I didn't know how people were able to breathe here. I was just teasing though, because I'm very used to it.

Sometimes we Coloradans have challenges when we go to higher altitudes, too, and so do our visitors. I am always thinking about that if there's someone visiting the area that is from a lower elevation and might have breathing problems. Altitude sickness is very real and can be dangerous, and you don't have to be on Mount Everest to experience it in its milder forms.

Several years ago, I worked with someone who had moved to Colorado from Delaware. After living here for about a year, he invited his sister to fly in for a visit. Before he left work, he told me that he was going straight to the airport to pick her up. The next day, he laughed as he told me about how the evening went. He picked her up and drove her straight to Pike's Peak (elevation 14,114 feet). Since she hadn't even acclimated to the mile-high conditions, the trip to a place with just a little over 12% oxygen was too much for her. He laughed to the point of tears over the fact that she was so oxygen-deprived that she felt sick and her lips turned blue. His behavior made me think of words like insensitive jerk and some others I shan't share in this post, but you get the picture.

This was in the back of my mind when I told my friend Paul that if he ever did decide to come back to Colorado, we could get in plenty of trouble have lots of fun while he got acclimated. I'm not the cruel type of person who finds entertainment in someone's pain or struggles. I'm more the empathetic, nurturing type. So come on over, Paul. Bring your lovely wife. We can sit around and talk or go to restaurants or any number of things. We could tour Celestial Seasonings or Coors or Budweiser. Or we could go even go into a pot shop...


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