I almost died last week.
I wish this were a joke. It’s taken almost a week for the shock to wear off before I could write about it. But, I almost couldn’t be sitting here today sharing the story with all of you. Though, I can muster a little laugh about it now.
Many of you have told me how strong, brave and courageous I am to have packed up my life and embarked on this solo journey. I have appreciated every bit of encouragement. Though, for me, I never felt like I was being brave or courageous.
On the contrary, I just felt normal.
Like it’s no-big-deal that I have set off on my own again. It is in my DNA, I realize. My grandmother Amelia was also just like me. My father recently revealed that she, like me, often traveled alone. At 18, she left Texas and hopped on a train to Mexico City by herself-–this was 1928!
She, like me, also spent the majority of her 20s single and without children.
I never realized how independent she was. I never met her, but this trip has made me feel closer to her and understand her more as a person—understand myself more as a person, as well.
I feel most comfortable in constant change—always on the move. In big open spaces. And alone with my thoughts and writing.
I also have a great respect for mother nature and my human body. And I respect the limits of both—though, I do push them.
What sort of adventurer would I be, if I didn’t?
Yet, never have I ever have I come this close to death in all my travels ,in quite the way I did last Thursday.
I crossed into Colorado from New Mexico last Tuesday afternoon, spent the day in Pagosa Springs, drove through Salida, and made my way to Colorado Springs.
Along the way, I decided to climb Pike’s Peak, one of the tallest mountains in the U.S., towering at a mere 14,110 ft. (4,302 m) above sea level.
I had heard of altitude sickness, and a friend of mine, who recently visited Colorado, asked me if I had ever experienced it before. I told her no. After all, I’ve flown so many times! I’ve lived in the mountains of Costa Rica! Stood atop volcanoes and continental divides. How bad could Colorado be?
She told me her story and how scary sick she had gotten. And I remember bookmarking her words in my mind.
They say when visiting Colorado for the first time, lowlanders should spend a few days in Denver first to acclimate before moving up into the mountains. And most importantly, to always stay hydrated.
But, I had already been on the road for so long, the idea of altitude sickness wasn’t even on my mind. I had forgotten my friend’s story. And I never once paused to think that climbing Pike’s Peak would be a problem.
I hadn’t eaten lunch yet, and as I approached the entrance, my hunger was replaced with feelings of excitement and happiness. I should have recognized this as a tiny red flag, but I did not. After all, I was planning to eat at the top! Surely, it was normal that my hunger subsided to make room for the awe and wonder of the moment?
I paid the entrance fee.
Happy to talk to the ranger and have him explain how to use my lower gears to drive up the highway. I thanked him and began my ascent. Slowly, I began to feel blissful and euphoric.
The world was taking on an alien beauty. The trees began to play colors like fingering different keys on a piano or like the glimmering facets of a colored wind chime. I felt like I was entering another planet. The sky a shade of cerulean I never felt before. The sun so crisp and cool, layering me in an airy picnic blanket. I could taste colors and feel their texture.
Synesthesia, I realize now.
Never once did I pause to think something was wrong. I was in euphoria! Nothing can be wrong in euphoria.
It also just happens to be an early symptom of altitude sickness.
Many people also experience depression, hallucinations, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, headaches, black outs and can even experience permanent or fatal consequences if not brought to a lower elevation immediately.
Sure enough, the higher I climbed, the more beautiful my mental poetry became—and the more I realized I was no longer in control of my motor functions. My mind and my body were splinched from each other. My body was in control of the car—my spirit lifting away as if I were being silently ejected in some menacing magician’s trick.
I began to feel sleepy and began to dream and drift away from the present moment. I lost concept of time and thought I was living 15 minutes to an hour in the past—and at the same time, in an indiscernible amount of time in the future.
Suddenly, fear took over and I was losing control of the car and my mind. Somehow something within me finally screamed: stop the car. Find a spot and stop the car. The road to the top was two-laned and windy and full of switchbacks. Where would I possibly stop? How could I possibly stop? And if I could stop, could I even turn myself around?
I was terrified.
Finally, I found a turn-out spot and parked, hallucinating that I was rolling back down the mountain, that I hadn’t parked the car at all. I forced myself to look at the dashboard and comprehend that yes, the car was turned off and, yes, that the emergency brake was on. The world spun around me. All I wanted to do was sleep. To let it pass. If I just sat there, I thought, I would start to feel better.
The only cure for altitude sickness is to descend immediately. It only gets worse if you stay.
Like I said, I was losing control of my motor skills. I knew I had to flag someone down and ask them to help me, but I was paralyzed. I watched people drive by, a few even looking my way and I could not summon the strength to reach my arm out of the car to stop anyone.
My hallucinations grew stronger.
I felt that I was actually opening the door to run out and jump off the side. But I wasn’t. Remember: I was losing concept of time—and with that logic and reason. It felt like an alternate reality was being folded on top of mine, drowning me in a nightmare bowl of cake batter. It really felt like I had gotten out of the car to run and plunge to my death.
I was petrified and I grabbed my seat.
No, I was still in the car. The door was still closed. I reached for the keys in the ignition and threw them across the car. I was terrified I would try to turn it on and attempt to drive again.
I sat with myself, unable to take deep breaths—feeling like my circulatory system had become a roller coaster scraping over my bones and inside flesh.
I need to stop someone, I repeated.
Finally, my mind stopped swimming enough for me to spot two men on motorcycles riding down the mountain.
I willed myself to stretch my arm out of the window and started moving it up and down like one of those tollbooth wooden arm things. One of the men slowed to a stop and asked if everything was okay.
I had no idea what I was saying. I felt like I had a stroke and lost the ability to speak. I could hear myself say, “help, mountain, my car, down, someone, drive, please.” He seemed to understand and told me he would be back. They left.
I have no idea how long they were gone before they returned on a single motorcycle. The man who had stopped was named Bruce and he was a pilot. He helped me out of the car and around to the other side. I began belligerently apologizing for the mess inside, explaining my journey. He just listened and told me everything was okay. He closed the door for me and went around to the driver side and squeezed himself in.
I was growing dizzier and less coherent, but a wave of relief and safety wash over me, grateful that this stranger had stopped to help me and was actually driving me and my car back down the mountain!
There was no way I would have made it out on my own.
As we were driving down, I marveled at how much I had driven, barely recognizing my surroundings. He explained to me that I had “hypoxia,” otherwise known as altitude sickness, and as a pilot, they are trained to recognize their symptoms as they ascend in elevation.
Everyone can experience it differently—some may feel only euphoria before they pass out. Which is extremely dangerous as a pilot or anyone operating any kind of machinery.
He told me his wife was also a pilot and they both can withstand up to 25,000 feet before they feel any symptoms. I couldn’t help but marvel at the Universe and the fact that out of everyone I could have flagged down—my rescuer was a pilot.
He shared with me that the other man was his cousin (or brother or brother-in-law, I can’t remember) and they drove in from Cañon City to check out the Peak. I made a small joke and said I was glad I caught him coming down. I would have hated to ruin his trip.
He just laughed.
He told me that I had climbed within 15-16 miles of the 19-mile trek to the top, and it was good that I asked for help when I did. With a lot of water and recovering at lower elevation, I would be just fine.
I can’t believe I drove that far. I still don’t know how I did it.
Bruce bought me the “Got Oxygen?” bracelet in the picture (also featuring Pike’s Peak in the lower right).
He gave it to me as a memento and wished me well on the rest of my journey. I am ever so grateful to him, the rangers at the bottom and everyone else I reached out to for help. My grandmother and the Universe were certainly smiling upon me that day.
I’m not going to lie—I certainly do not feel brave or courageous any more. But, I can recognize the strength it takes to continue this journey and not give up—albeit with a healthy dose of stupidity thrown in.
Thank you for reading and for loving and supporting me. Never underestimate a new environment. And never underestimate the power of human kindness.
Author: Amelia Isabel
Editor: Ashleigh Hitchcock
Photo: courtesy of the author