Santa Fe has so much to see: adobe houses, museums, galleries filled with fine art and museum-quality crafts, and irresistibly beautiful shops. But the city has one more attribute that visitors should take seriously: altitude.
The receptionists at the Sage Inn, where my husband and I stayed, advised us to drink a lot. Every day the cleaner put two new bottles of water in our room. But I was busy trying to see as much as I could for a story I was researching and was walking a lot in the midday heat. I did drink, but not enough.
By the fourth day—when my body should have been acclimatized to the altitude—I had a killer headache. By the fifth day the headache was accompanied by slight nausea.
There’s a good reason I didn’t realize what was happening. I had been at high altitudes many times, but the only other time I’d had altitude sickness was about 20 years earlier, when my husband and I and two friends tried to scale Mt. Kilimanjaro. At the end of the second day, at an elevation of about 7,500 feet, I was suddenly hit by overwhelming nausea and diarrhea. But there was no headache.
It was only after we left Santa Fe that I realized my symptoms were related to the altitude. Our plan was to go camping, but nearly all the campgrounds were at the same elevation as Santa Fe or higher. So we set up camp at Lake Abiquiu, a large reservoir more than 1,000 feet lower than Santa Fe.
The camp hosts repeated the advice given by the Sage Inn receptionists: Drink lots of water. This time I did, and I began to feel better, though the headache lingered.
The next day we continued north and west, and in the town of Chama a pharmacist recommended Pedialyte, oral rehydration solution for children. The more I drank of it the better I felt.
But two days later I again felt unwell: This time it was diarrhea, something like heartburn, a feeling of unease in my chest, and a tingling in my left arm. I kept drinking, but couldn’t eat.
The next day we were on I-70 heading west, and after we passed Grand Junction, Colorado, we faced the scary prospect of nothing ahead but desert for hundreds and hundreds of miles, with no medical services. I decided to head for the nearest ER, about 30 miles south of the highway: Allen Memorial Hospital, in Moab, Utah, a town of 5,000.
I had made the right decision. By the time I got to the hospital, after I’d drunk so much without eating, my blood sodium had dropped and my blood pressure had soared. After lowering my blood pressure and making sure my symptoms were not heart-related, Dr. Joseph Nelson diagnosed altitude sickness and acid reflux, gave me prescriptions and released me.
Even after I eventually reached sea level, shortness of breath dogged me on and off for days. It was a tough lesson, but next time I’m in high country I’ll be sure to drink and eat.
Text and photo copyright 2010 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text or photo may be used without written permission of the author.