There’s a physicality to it. Being in Denver, I mean. My hotel was a mere four blocks from the convention center and the short walk inevitably found me huffing and puffing. My first night there it had me wondering if something was wrong—should I call a doctor? I jog on a regular basis and try to stay healthy and so I’m not used to being winded by an inconsequential walk. My second scheduled meeting saw me with a seasoned scholar. He pointed out as we slowly made our way to the seating area that the altitude was probably to blame. The mile-high city does lack the oxygen more abundant down where we lowlanders dwell. I often wonder if my first trip here was beset by altitude sickness. I met a colleague at the conference, on his first trip here, who had the same non-Covid symptoms I had all those years ago.
We’re used to our own air. The familiar atmosphere we breathe each day. Taken out of that context we’re not exactly fish out of water, but we’re not exactly not either. The combination of back-to-back meetings, the effort it takes to walk around city center, and the constant chill in the air during my time there dissuaded me from exploring. Or even finding places to eat. I started to worry that they’d recognize me at the Chipotle where I ordered carryout the first three nights in the city. I know there must be other places to get some good, vegan options, but it was always dark by the time I was done with work and I was still waking up on Eastern Time. On the positive side, I didn’t get sick this time. And I would really like to explore the place further.
Many years ago, on a family driving trip from Wisconsin to Idaho, we drove through Colorado on the way home. High above Denver, in the Rockies—driving through Rocky Mountain National Park—I told my wife I felt strangely elated. “It’s like a religious experience,” I said. Perhaps it was the physicality of that altitude, mountains spread out before us, that led to that brief moment of rapture. It’s so closely related to that acrophobia that whispers the warning not to fall off the edge of this globe when you’re so high in the air. Even now as I’m heading home from Denver when I’ll be even higher in the sky for a few hours, I reflect on what it means to be a physical being enveloped by the air. And I’ll appreciate with wonder the planet of mountains, endless plains, and eroding hills on which I live, and I’ll be thankful for every breath.