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I am a sixty-something traveler with a heart condition, seeking respite, inspiration and the energy to move forward. In 2021 my heart went into atrial fibrillation, and I had cardioversion surgery. The operation worked, but I had an allergic reaction to the blood pressure medication prescribed. The pressure alternated between being too high or too low, and my heart beat was over 100 beats per minute. Then, a hospital staffing shortage prevented me from getting medication in a timely way and defeated the purpose of being monitored. After a week of misery, I checked myself out and worked with my doctor to find a solution. With trial and error, my blood pressure is now under control through diet, exercise, and medication. My heart rate has been normal and steady since then. Until this trip.
Trail Ridge Road runs through Rocky Mountain National Park between the town of Estes Park on the east and Grand Junction on the west. Because of a snow storm the week before, the road was closed about halfway. My spouse Judy and I decided to drive as far as we could, and then just turn around. About 30 minutes later, we came to the road’s end at Many Parks overlook. It was a steady climb to reach this spot, so I knew it was high, but didn’t know the exact elevation.
The large parking lot at the top of a steep curve in the road was almost full. We grabbed the last spot when someone pulled out. The mid-day sun directly overhead was hot, but we had plenty of water. Running parallel to the narrow two-lane road was a long, fenced overlook with a steep drop, providing sweeping panoramic views of the south and east parts of the park all the way back to Estes. Magnificent.
I started a slow walk downhill along the overlook, taking pictures. Suddenly I could feel my heart beating really fast. I sat on a nearby rock ledge, drank water, and realized I was sweating profusely. My pulse was very high. I looked around for Judy, and noticed a couple of buses unloading people near the lot. The road was backed up with cars trying to leave, as others waited for a parking spot. The overlook was filled with people. I started to panic. How could an ambulance get through this traffic if I needed one?
Just then Judy put her hand on my shoulder and said, “I’m going to get the car. Stay here, and when I pull up behind you, jump in.”
With the air conditioning on high, we began a rapid descent from the mountain onto a flat meadow close to the park entrance. We stopped at a shady roadside area with tables, and rested until my pulse was normal and I was well hydrated. After a short time, we ate our picnic lunch and I felt refreshed. Later I learned we had been at 12,183 feet.
I thought about the previous year when my heart had gone into atrial fibrillation. My father-in-law died only a few months before that, and we were about to get on a plane to join Judy’s family for the memorial service, when I ended up in the emergency room. She stayed home to take care of me, and we missed the chance to mourn and celebrate his life with her family. Once I felt stable, we planned this June 2022 trip to Colorado to visit my sister-in-law and her husband, who live in Cedaredge.
After purchasing our plane tickets, it occurred to me that traveling to higher elevations might be hard on my heart. Research in the Journal of the American Heart Association* confirmed that altitudes between 6,560 to 9,840 feet above sea level can stress the heart and blood levels, triggering sudden cardiac arrest. The article suggested a medication adjustment in the event of increased blood pressure. It also recommended sleeping at least one night at a lower elevation, around 3,381 feet, to give the body time to adjust before traveling to higher altitudes.
I didn’t want to cancel another trip, so I consulted my physician. She suggested medication for altitude sickness. But I was reluctant to add a new prescription that might trigger another allergic reaction. As an alternative she recommended monitoring my blood pressure and if it elevated too much, or I experienced heart pain, to double the dose of one of my pills. That sounded reasonable. I researched the nearest cardiac units for each town we planned to visit. Just in case. With that plan we got on a plane.
We flew into Denver, at an elevation of 5,279 feet, rented a car, and drove straight to Estes Park, where we would stay two nights, hoping my heart would adjust quickly. We had one full day in between to explore Rocky Mountain National Park before traveling to Frisco, our next destination. Estes Park is at 7,522 feet. When we arrived, just a short walk left me relatively winded. By mid-afternoon my blood pressure had elevated to a dangerous level. I took an extra dose of medication and went to bed early with my fingers crossed. During a sleepless night I monitored my blood pressure and pulse several times. Eventually the additional pill worked, but I felt very tired in the morning.
When we purchased our entry tickets to the park online a month in advance, I looked up hikes with the lowest rise in elevation. Arriving at the park entrance as soon as it opened, we found nearby Sprague Lake and walked a flat half-mile. It wasn’t crowded, and the weather was sunny but cool enough to wear a jacket. I felt pretty good, so we decided a drive to higher elevations should be manageable. But I had not thought to check the altitude of Many Parks Overlook ahead of time.
Sorrow aroused by circumstances beyond one’s control or power to repair.
Merriam Webster Dictionary
I didn’t regret for a minute the chance I had taken. Perhaps I would have felt differently if my worst fear at the top of Many Parks over-look had come true. But I don’t think so. I had done my best to manage things within my control on this trip. If regret was a driving force in my life, I wouldn’t travel. This adventure is what I call living life fully. I love mountains, and if this was my last opportunity to see them, I felt grateful it was in Colorado.
I am in the last leg of my life, rounding toward the finish line. Everything is limited – time, health, finances, the planet’s resources. More of my friends are showing up in the obituaries. Sometimes I take precautions to extend my life, like wearing a face mask in public and getting the vaccine against Covid. Other times, I release caution to the wind, especially if I think there might not be another opportunity to experience something amazing.
Having survived the height of Many Parks overlook, we felt more confident my heart could withstand the mountain passes between Estes Park and Cedaredge, our ultimate destination. We drove the Peak-to-Peak highway to I-70, and then encountered Loveland Pass and Vail Pass, ranging from 9300 to 11,922 feet. In Vail we took a short walk break at the Betty Ford alpine gardens. Again, the combination of a steep walk down to the gardens and back up to the parking lot in midday heat was quite difficult. I had to stop and rest at every bench along the path. Ultimately, we drove over the Grand Mesa to stay at a guest house we rented.
On this roller coaster up and down ride, I felt pressure in my chest, mild heart pain, my pulse quickened, and my face flushed. While I knew this was not good for my heart, I avoided a more serious incident with an air-conditioned car, plenty of water, and my spouse driving most of the time. She said nothing about it, but I knew Judy was worried too. We both felt tremendous relief to arrive safely and settle at 6,230 feet for a week in a bright yellow ranch house located about a mile from our in-laws.
The friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers.
Oxford Languages Dictionary
We arrived at the Cedaredge guest house a day ago. It is early morning and I am still in bed with eyelids closed, barely awake. The higher elevations stressed my weak heart and the worry wore me out. Here I feel relaxed and at peace. I want to bottle this feeling. It occurs to me I can create a guided meditation by re-visualing each moment of our first day. I take my mind back, and guide myself through it.
A herb garden just outside the front door flourishes with tarragon, chives, lovage, and parsley. Thyme spreads fresh tendrils between the entryway rocks. A canvas overhang on the front porch shades two angled Adirondack chairs inviting rest and conversation. Sit a while before you unload the car. Iridescent hummingbirds buzz and flutter at a bright red feeder strategically placed in view of your chair.
A note taped to the unlocked door says, “Make yourself at home and explore.”
Step inside the entryway of a large white-washed ranch kitchen, and enjoy fresh cut iris in a vase on the table. Open the refrigerator door to discover a dozen fresh eggs in various shades of white and brown from the nearby farm, with a note, “just picked Friday” stuck on the carton. A pound of butter, quart of low-fat milk, loaf of bread, fresh peaches. A small homemade lemon-ricotta cake with raspberries on top as a welcome gift. Both decaf and regular coffee beans are supplied as requested.
Stand at the window over the sink and notice the feeder again, aligned with the view when you will wash dishes. An orange and black Bullock’s oriole is quenching his thirst there now.
Classical music plays softly in the background, as wide-open windows in every room spread the scent of sagebrush on cool breezes from the nearby Grand Mesa. Informative picture books fill the living room coffee table. A three-ring binder stuffed with local brochures about fishing, hiking, petroglyphs, wineries, distilleries, history museums, a scenic byway, national monuments and parks, music, restaurants, galleries, and the history of this 1907 house, built the year the town was established. Framed art from Africa suggests the owners have traveled widely.
Bookshelves in every room. Included are popular mysteries, field guides, romance novels, American short stories, and collected works of the world’s great authors in worn antique covers. A Dick Francis mystery you haven’t read before.
Unpack and shower. Clean towels are arranged in the bathroom, folded stiff and warm, fresh from drying in the heat on the clothesline. A basket of extra toiletries in case you forgot something. Ironed cotton sheets on the beds. Now for an afternoon nap. The constant sound of rushing water from the nearby irrigation ditch lulls you to sleep.
Wake to the cooing of mourning doves. Step outside on the back deck. A nearby patio wall is hung with a basket of lemon yellow and bright red flowers tumbling over its edges. Their nectar entices the bees. Magpies above flutter their white lace-tipped wings and squawk noisily. Walk around the side of the house to gaze at the blossoms of an apricot tree bearing tiny brown fruit. Consider the thoroughly cleaned charcoal grill with smoker tube in the yard, and imagine a sizzling yak burger for supper. Reach down, pluck fresh sage from the herb garden, and rub it between your fingers. Some of these herbs will find their way into your breakfast omelet tomorrow morning.
Smell the scents of Colorado. Follow the sandy driveway to worn and tilting wood outbuildings freshly painted in barn red, with white trimmed windows. They used to shelter grain, chickens, and milk cows, but are now repurposed as an office and equipment shed. On a side wall, old fence wires are wound in circles and hung neatly on nails, creating a pattern that reminds you of an art installation.
A quonset hut with curved metal roof, rear wall partially underground and front wall of smooth round rocks laid by hand, is used for a wine cellar. A few steps from the door is a picnic table that brings visions of outdoor tastings in your future. Nearby is a metal fire ring, filled with dried sticks. In the fall an evening fire with a glass of wine would make the chill vanish.
Continue to the vineyards beyond. The vines are dried yellow by a recent two-year drought. But the legacy is not completely lost. A few green shoots foretell rebirth.
Look up to the mesa and mountains beyond. Appreciate the varied shades of blue and purple, capped by occasional dabs of white. Have no fear. Stop to rest, breathe deeply and listen to your heart slow down. Four beats of breath in, hold, four beats of breath out.
Notice the low sun in the sky. Time to head back. Follow the circle of the drive round to the main highway. Brown and black cows graze in a distant field. They turn to stare, keeping an eye on you, and when you get too close, they stampede away bawling loudly. The aftermath is a dust trail, grit in your eyes and a dry throat.
A prairie dog darts quickly from his hole and crosses the highway to meet his death, colliding with a passing car. Another endangered species gone too soon. As light fades, close the metal gate at the end of the driveway to keep unwanted or curious visitors from intruding, and head gratefully to bed. Slumber is deep and uninterrupted until sunlight filters through the curtains.
I open my eyes. With a sigh of deep relaxation, I get up and dress. Then I step outside to pick some herbs for our eggs.
A person who receives or entertains other people as guests.
Oxford Languages Dictionary
After breakfast, the host stops by to share her newspaper with us. I remark, “Thank you. The first thing I look for when I travel is the local paper.”
She replies, “People around here don’t read much. They are surprised by how many papers we subscribe to.”
We two are almost an extinct generation. She, the slightly older-than-me gracious host, to whom hospitality comes naturally. Her storytelling conveys wit and generosity of spirit. But taking care of two homes – the one she lives in, and the other she rents out – is becoming too much work. Her husband takes care of the vineyards, yard work and repairs. His face is weathered from working outdoors. She cleans and manages the rental home. A bundle of energy. They seem to have grown up in this wild country, yet I discover they are transplants. They met in Washington D.C. and worked as diplomats.
She points to a recently built house on the same property. “Feel free to stop by and visit us any time.”
Her house seems more exposed to the harsh elements. There are no big trees around it to provide shade. I can’t help but ask, “How could you give up living in this one?”
“We love this house. But it was just too cold in the winter. We did everything we could with new insulation and a better furnace, but we couldn’t get it warm enough. It gets really cold here.” Her loss is my gain.
A person who can deal with people in a sensitive and effective way.
Oxford Languages Dictionary
Before long the too short week was over, and I felt gratitude toward my host for creating this welcome sanctuary. Her thoughtful attention to small details brought me a multitude of sensory pleasures. While staying in her house as a guest, I felt the comfort and relaxation of being at home. She seemed to read my mind about how to make my temporary stay memorable. Judy and I had plenty of time with family nearby, which was good for both of our hearts.
Because of the consideration our host showed, we trusted her. At a time when there is so much violence, anger, focus on self or demonization of others, her kindness and tact were extraordinary skills to possess. She was the very definition of a diplomat.
The quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.
Oxford Languages Dictionary
Before I became a writer, I was a plein-air landscape painter. One of my earliest experiences of the mountains was when I was awarded an artist’s residency at Yellowstone National Park in my thirties. I didn’t have a heart condition then, and I didn’t get altitude sickness. Experiencing the mountains with a weak heart is quite different.
The challenge for my younger self in Wyoming was to paint a mountain landscape dramatically different from my home state of Minnesota. Capturing the essence of a place resided in the details. A very specific colour, or recognizable shape of a particular mountain. A successful painting was one where, looking at it would bring a memory-flashback of sensations and experiences for the viewer.
I find the writing process remarkably similar to painting. The precise use of words instead of paint. Before we left, I wanted to tell our host I noticed all the details she paid attention to. It meant I saw those inspiring mountains with joy, rather than trepidation. I painted a small watercolor of the vistas from her house, and gave it to her with a note of our appreciation.
In response she said, “Come back any time.”
On our drive back to Denver Airport, as we crossed over another mountain pass, I closed my eyes and revisited my meditation. She and her ranch house are now part of my heart.
*“Travel to high altitudes could be dangerous for people with heart conditions,” American Heart Association News, September 9, 2021.