The village I am visiting in the Sierras sits in a bowl, at about 5000 ft., surrounded by 9000 ft. mountains. The mountains I was born in are the northern end of the Appalachians in Quebec, Canada. Mt. Hereford is less than 3000 ft. high, but down the way in the New Hampshire, White Mountains, Mt. Washington rises to over 6000. I went up it once with my young children and had to fight the urge to crawl. My additional 5 ft. 4 in. were just too much. I had the same impulse on Mer de Glace in the French alps.
One summer, I went camping in Yosemite with my daughter and her family and my French brother. He joked about being the only member of a film crew on a mountain shoot that had to go down to sleep. Poor thing, I thought. Then I lay down in my tent at 9000 ft.
Half an hour later, I woke up suffocating. I got out of bed, unzipped the tent flap and walked around in the pitch dark. That got tiring. I crawled back into my sleeping bag. Repeat and repeat and repeat. Around 1 a.m., I ran into my brother, who was even worse off than me. He was babbling. My daughter emerged from the tent where she, her son and husband had been sleeping soundly. Being a health care professional, she questioned us about our symptoms. Her most alarming question was, “Are you hallucinating?” She advised us to go down to sleep.”Don’t sleep in the car. The cops don’t like that,” her husband called out from inside their tent.
I’m not sure what happened next. Rob seems to have set out to walk to the car, some distance away. I must have gone back to my tent to get something. My next memory is of walking the long dark track wrapped in my sleeping bag. A figure up ahead suddenly came toward me.
“Joyce,” it cried out.”Is that you?” Rob walked up to me. His face in the moonlight was full of horror. “I thought you were a giant ninja turtle come to take my soul.”
This was hysterically funny to both of us. We staggered toward the car, laughing. We laughed and laughed until we started to cut down through Tioga Pass where a huge full moon hung in a velvet black sky. Then we both began to cry, convinced that no matter how difficult our lives had been and they certainly had, this moment made it all worthwhile.
It took some time to find a motel. Rob disappeared into reception and came out laughing and waving a key.
“I told her you were my sister,” he chortled. “And I think she believed me.”
There were five beds in the room. It took us an age to chose.
So I scratched vacation spots of 9000 ft. off my list. The town where I was able to sleep was 7000.
Peppermint Creek up the Kern River in Kern County qualified. We spent several vacations there camped under the redwoods beside the rock pools. No problem. Well, there was the time I was getting breakfast food out of the car trunk when something breathed down my neck. Something taller than me. I took a breath. I slowly turned to meet death by bear and found myself nose to nose with a cow.
Then came the year after I had had major surgery, a whole year after. Shouldn’t I be ready to camp up there?
Obviously not. This was my daughter’s dream vacation after a very hard year. Both sons-7 and 16-were there, the latter of whom lived with his father across the continent, her newish man, her best friend and me, old short-lunged me.
Suffice to say that I spent my nights sitting in a car seat, only slightly reclined, the only way I could breath. Well some of the night. The rest of it was devoted to taking the trenching tool and the flashlight and hying myself off into the bushes. This time, altitude sickness featured the runs. But rattle snakes hunt at night and we seemed to be camped in the middle of rattlesnake city. And the flashlight seemed to have a black spot in the middle of the beam. True I could see the bowl of heaven above me and it was absolutely dense with stars. I felt as if God were talking to me. During the day, I got more and more skittish. I was getting about 2 1/2 hours sleep a night. I didn’t want to spoil the holiday. Guess whether I did.
So now I am here at 5000, among pines and bird song. And sun. I’m Canadian, don’t forget, and we’ve had a cold, rainy spring. I have taken two walks. All roads are uphill! I stop frequently. I aim for benches. Getting showered and ready for the day makes me breathless. I sit gazing out windows at the pines. I sit on the deck gazing at the pines. I sit and read. Once in a while, when I get rested, I do tai chi. Down at sea level, I am full of energy, all those new red blood cells racing around.
I want to stay of course.