Sunday, February 12, 2017

Altitude Adjustment

According to United States Geological Survey, our future home of Santa Fe, New Mexico sits at an altitude of 7,199 feet. The same source puts the elevation of Mars’ and my current hometown of Wethersfield, Connecticut at 45 feet.  It doesn’t say what parts of town the measurements were taken, but we already know that Santa Fe rises to an elevation of 10,350 ft. at its ski basin atop the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.   So our current house, which sits pretty much in the geographic center of Wethersfield, may actually be higher or lower than a mere 540 inches above sea level.  This could be important to us – more on that later.
Still 10K-feet or so is a huge difference as Mars and I found out on our first foray to “The Land of Enchantment” in 1992.  That lesson was principally provided to us by Chimney Rock in Abiquiu, NM, and by some Sangria at a restaurant just down the street from the motel at which we stayed in Santa Fe.
The El Rey Inn had been recommended to us by our Primary Care doctor, who had recently vacationed in that part of the southwest.  Among the amenities was a complimentary breakfast of warm, soft tacos and jam during which one morning we fell into conversation with another guest who it turned out was a frequent habitué of both Santa Fe and this motor lodge.            
I don’t remember the conversation exactly, but he probably asked why we decided to come to New Mexico.  We doubtless told him that it was to see the places, which inspired Georgia O’Keeffe to create her (what we thought were) abstract paintings.  (We had recently seen a retrospective of her work at MOMA in New York City.)  But I do recall that he said we should go to Ghost Ranch (“the ranch, not the nature center”) where O’Keeffe had lived and painted from the 1930s on.  It was once a dude ranch – the Billy Crystal movie “City Slickers” was filmed there – and was now a conference center run by the Presbyterian Church.           
Several hours later as we drove onto the property we got our first glimpse of what turned out to be “Chimney Rock” – a not uncommon epithet given to tall rock structures of a smokestack shape throughout the western past of this country.  I remember commenting, “it would be really neat if we could go up there”, with absolutely no thought that we would possibly be able to do such a thing. It turned out however that the hike to Chimney Rock is one of nine trails at the Education and Retreat Centerwhose website says  “This hike of 1 ½ – 2 hours has wonderful views as the trail climbs from 6,500 to 7,100 feet. (Round trip – 3 miles.)  From the top there is an excellent view of the Piedra Lumbre basin.”            
We had with us a couple bottles of apple juice and some rudimentary snacks, so we wouldn’t dehydrate or starve; it was a beautiful day; the person at the visitor desk was encouraging; we exercised regularly at home; our adrenaline was flowing – so why not?
Certainly not just because of the “Plague Warning” sign that greeted us as we walked through the gate that begins the trail.  Mars and I were too caught up in the idea of reaching the summit of the red rock stovepipe to be deterred by some unhealthy rodents. 
 Here’s why not – because we had not, in any way at all, acclimated to the loftiness.  Even though we were not doing “high-altitude” hiking (considered to be 8,000 feet or higher) – some people can be affected as low as 7000 feet, especially those who had just flown in from an elevation barely higher than what the average white basketball player can jump to.  Almost as soon as the terrain upon which we were treading tilted upwards we began breathing in what can most charitably be described as desperate gasps for air.  Fortunately we both were carrying cameras, and our surroundings were photogenic and new to us, so we ostensibly had a good reason to stop every 15 – 20 strides to ”take a picture”.  About 1-½ hours and 200 snapshots later we were reclining atop the Chimney, snacking and quaffing, and looking down in amazement at of the Piedra Lumbre basin.
Coming down was easier, but not easy.  Gravity does not provide any additional oxygen.  By the end of our second week after several similar hikes we were still panting but in a less desperate manner – and still taking too many pictures
Our second altitude wake-up call came from a small pitcher of Sangria, that Mars and I ordered to accompany our dinner at a local New Mexican eatery (fortunately) just up the street from our motel.  According to  “The effects of one drink are magnified 2 to 3 times over the effects the same drink would have at sea level."
Mars and I are normally one-glass-of-wine-with-dinner-once-a-week alcohol imbibers.  We each probably had 2 – 3 glasses that night.  You can do the math.  Fortunately we got back to our rooms and into our bed without a mishap.  Unlike hiking we did not attempt a repeat performance.  Nor have we replicated it back home at 45 feet above sea level.
So for the past twenty-five years we have returned pretty much annually to northern New Mexico to hike, dine, drink in moderation, and do other touristy things.  We were never there long enough to adapt to the altitude, but we adjusted our expectations and our pace to compensate.  Eleven years ago our son and daughter-in-law moved to Santa Fe.  Soon we also will be relocating to “The City Different”.
But now there is an elevation-related hitch back in the land of no-altitude.  Because of all the uninsured homes that were damaged by floods caused by hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was ordered to reassess the flood threat in localities across the United States with the goal of compelling homeowners in “flood zones” to purchase their own high water damage insurance rather than being bailed out by the Feds.          
Our neighborhood borders on an underground stream known as “Folly Brook”, created by a badly executed water-rerouting attempt in the 1700s.  Most people around here have never seen Folly Brook’s waters, but nonetheless our residence and several of our neighbors are now declared to be in imminent danger of inundation  – necessitating any mortgaged homeowners to acquire flood insurance.  This can be an impediment to selling.  However there is something called The FEMA Letter of Map Amendment (LOMA) that states the property or building is actually outside the “Special Flood Hazard Area”, and as a result, the mandatory flood insurance requirement does not apply.  For this we need a survey of our property, which hopefully will show that our height above sea level (or in this case brook level) is sufficient to keep us dry should Folly Brook swell up and swamp its surrounding areas.  We await the surveyor’s report.
This is not a problem we are expecting to have when we move to New Mexico where the Santa Fe River (defined as an “intermittent stream”) winds its way through the downtown area.  The entire waterway, which is a tributary of the Rio Grande, is 46 miles long and was dammed in 1881 to provide water for the city.  Water only flows through the main part of town when it is released from the barriers – something that Mars and I have never personally witnessed.

With time we will eventually become accustomed to the lower level of oxygen in northern New Mexico. Real Wethersfield-ites know the history of Folly Brook.  Real Santa Feans are able to hike heavenward without wheezing and pausing to ”take pictures”. 

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