Rant 52 July 2009: Mistress goes to the mountain

July 4th, 2009  |  Published in 2009 rants, Stumpblog  |  19 Comments

Things I learned on my summer vacation: Oxygen is important.

Most of the time I live close to sea level, swathed in a comfy blanket of lakeborne humidity and smog. It’s like being snuggled by a slightly smelly, just-out-of-the-water, gaseous walrus. But for my vacation I opted to leave behind creature comforts such as vaporized particulates and 21% oxygen to visit the Colorado mountains that South Park made famous.

As someone with lifelong allergies and a former asthmatic (yes, I truly was that kid with Coke-bottle glasses, braces, and asthma), breathing has rarely felt 100%. Although a Paleo-style diet that eliminates dairy and grains manages the sniffles nicely, I still travel with a tissue shoved in my pockets — as my long-suffering, wet-shredded-lint-accumulating washer can attest. Hayrides and cleaning dusty attics are not on my priority list. My fondness for spicy Korean and Szechuan cuisine generally results in some kind of inopportune sinus-clearing during the hot and sour soup course. I still avoid cats as if they were truly the demons our medieval forebears so feared. (Of course, the horrid beasts invariably target allergy sufferers, and make a point of spitefully coating us in fur and dander under the pretense of affection, leaving us watery-eyed and hivey.)

Nevertheless, I’ll run intervals or hit the boxing gym on a humid day like a champ. (A whiney champ, but a champ.) My lungs are like a beloved old Datsun: sure, they might need a kick-start or sound like a herd of cows being slowly sucked into a vacuum cleaner, but they work pretty well anyway.

Things change real fast when you stuff yourself into an aluminum tube, redolent with the combined musk of coffee, diesel, and farts, and spend a few hours at 30,000 feet. Things change even more when you land in the so-called Mile-High City, then proceed to the 8150 foot hamlet, before traipsing up the 10,350 mountain.

There is nary a drop of moisture to be found in this air. The mountains slice with surgical intensity into the brilliant blue sky. This is not the fuzzy, hazy, foggy, slightly sulfur-tinged land of my home, where visibility in July is commonly described in metres rather than miles — and not just because we’re metric Canadians.

Suddenly there is a rhino on my chest, stuffing hairballs into my trachea. My hands immediately turn into aged tissue paper. My nails crumble like yesterday’s sand castle. I run for the heavy-duty moisturizer, slathering myself with oily, gobby handfuls. I chug water like a frat boy guzzles beer from a plastic tube. I curse forgetting my bottle of fish oil.

Fun discovery! Did you know that small capillaries can pop at high altitudes like wee blood-filled balloons? And that those capillaries can be in in cool places like your eyeball? And then you can walk around looking like a stoned zombie? I bet you didn’t! 82% of Everest climbers experience eyeball explosions, aka high-altitude retinal hemorrhage, so I’m in good company. Lookit me, I’m cool like those crazy people who can’t leave a perfectly good death trap alone!

Wherever the so-called obesity epidemic is, I can tell you where it ain’t: Colorado. In fact, this state is so poor in adipose resources that it must import fat from elsewhere. (Luckily there is no shortage of lipid-blessed tourists from other, more sedentary and sugar-laced states selflessly helping to rectify this imbalance.)

Huffing up a mountain with my tiny, spoiled lungs on day 2, I was passed by a couple of upward-jogging grannies in sports bras, tan and lean as whippets, cheerfully toting water bottles. Then a woman on a bike. Then a few more bikes. Thankfully, after three hours of continuous gasping like a beached whale, I made it to the top before a small Colorado child humiliated me.

By day 5 I was feeling cocky, and tackled a steep trail down the mountain. About 100 steps into my descent, I was passed, again, by an outdoorsily beautiful woman running UP the trail like a Swedish milkmaid in an Adidas commercial. Which meant she had been running UP the trail for about 2100 feet of altitude and 5 k of distance already. She said “Hi,” pleasantly, as she passed. Yes, she had enough lung capacity to singsong a happy greeting rather than a sullen wheeze.

The shaming! It is abundant!

In the past I’ve been taken to task by aggrieved Yanks who claim I’m unfairly stereotyping their country’s atrocious grocery offerings. Well, 90% of food available in US grocery stores is still garbage that should not be consumed by anyone except perhaps an alien life form that lives on petroleum derivatives. But hats off to at least one US state — Colorado — for showing us all how to live.

Hi there! Here are your trails! Watch your step! Can I get you anything else? Would you like a hot towel?

Hi there! Here are your trails, sorted alphabetically and by difficulty! Watch your step! Can I get you anything else? Would you like a hot towel?

In my travels through the northwest of CO, I discovered:

  • a broadly based environmental consciousness, which included not only the obligatory recycling and often green binning/composting (!) but also biodegradable bags and plastic dinnerware, even in many fast food places, plus state and county tax credits for installing solar panels!
  • an extensive bus network, and subsidized bus passes for many workers
  • an even more extensive cycling network, even in remote areas — it’s like the friggin Tour de France here no matter how far up into God’s armpit geographically you go
  • astoundingly well maintained and marked hiking trails
  • each small town appeared to have a farmer’s market
  • locally sourced whole foods including humanely raised and appropriately fed meat and in season produce
  • a vast infrastructure and community mindset that supported walking, cycling, and general outdoor pursuits: people are physical for fun and function, and have a big toolbox of strategies and opportunities to do it

And guess what: everyone looks great. Most natives are a normal, healthy weight and appear capable of tackling a few flights of stairs, or even the occasional mountain. People are outside doing stuff, being active in their daily lives. Bike trailers are parked in front of the grocery store along with the cars, and then loaded with the products of regular errands.

In fact, at times I felt actively wussified in comparison, which is saying a lot.

But on the plus side, I imagined how much worse I’d have felt if I weren’t in shape.

And it struck me, about 2 hours in to my epic initial crawl up the mountain, during which my tummy growled and I briefly worried about not bringing anything to eat: This is what millions of years of evolution have prepared me for. Not to sit on my ass in front of a screen 10 inches from my eyes. Not to be stressed out constantly about stupid shit.

But rather, to live on nature’s scale of generational time and geologic time. Do the striated rocks give a rat’s ass if that deadline is met? No — they just keep layering their layers, one grain at a time. The seasons come and go. Wildflowers bloom and die. Fires go through and then things regrow. My body doesn’t need to be obsessively stuffed with food minute by minute; it could easily make it through a week of climbing with only a few gathered leaves in my belly. (Unpleasantly, but it could.) So it goes.

Nature’s visual scale is in miles. I should not be living my life close up. My poor aggrieved retina was meant to look into the far-off distance, and then slowly, consciously, approach my destination.

Tangential anecdote, which I think illustrates this divide: At the top of the mountain, like the Holy Grail, there is a BBQ restaurant. Brothers and sisters, I testify unto you: there is no more ecstatic discovery than fresh corn on the cob and smoked pork after 3 hours of vertical toil. As I sat gratefully gnawing on my cavewoman’s bounty* after my morning’s trudge, I overheard a conversation thus:

“Wow, you finished up that sandwich really fast!”

“That’s because I’m not checking my email, Dad.”

I turned to look in my polite, carefully discreet Canadian way. A father sat with his three teenaged boys. He was hunched over his iPhone, fixated on the tiny screen, fingers obsessively scrolling, tapping, poking at the electronic device, oblivious to the jaw-dropping natural beauty that surrounded us. E-Addict Dad continued:

“Didja know I get five bars up here? I checked it over there too. [here, he gestured to the scenic outlook deck perched atop the cliff with a stunning, existence-rattling view of nature’s geologic theatre] Five bars. Amazing.”

Yes, dear readers. This man was CHECKING HIS FUCKING EMAIL ON TOP OF A MOUNTAIN. Surrounded by the very best show that nature had to offer, along with his loving family and rapidly growing children who no doubt would have loved to feel some shred of affection from their emotionally distant parental unit, this asshat was reading his sports scores or checking his stocks or whatever pointless bullshit five bars afforded him.

"You know what would really improve this? Being able to check my email. And maybe print a report. Yeah."

"You know what would really improve this? Being able to check my email. And maybe print a Q3 report. Yeah."

I digress. Return to my realization of approximately 1 hour prior to the encounter with Fucked-Up Priorities Man.

My body was handling its bidness perfectly well, despite the occasional eyeball detonation. At that very moment, my body was happily mobilizing stored fat to fuel me. My type I muscle fibres were managing the climb with ease, grateful for the opportunity to strut their stuff (literally).

See, here’s one of my definitions of fitness:

Fitness makes your body work better.

Plain and simple.

Being fit makes your body use nutrients better. It makes it adapt more quickly to changing conditions. It makes your body do what it was designed to do better.

This is the point that is entirely lost on the modern fitness-industrial complex. Fitness has nothing to do with seeing your abs. It has nothing to do with stuffing yourself into a bikini. These types of things are decorative hobbies along the lines of building a ship in a bottle: amusing pastimes for those so inclined, but ultimately pointless.

Fitness makes your body do its job. And with some help from enlightened social infrastructure, we could all be those uber-woman grannies bouncing up the mountain.

My Rocky pose after (barely) kicking that mountain's ass

My Rocky pose after (barely) kicking that mountain's ass

*Yes, I know corn is technically a domesticated Neolithic byproduct. Don’t be a jagoff and mention it.


  1. Heather says:

    July 4th, 2009at 6:21 pm(#)

    Great rant!

    What’s more, as I’ve realised even being a *little* bit fitter can make your body work a moderate amount better.
    After a couple of years of motherhood-induced self-neglect, I decided, two months ago, on my 42nd birthday to give myself a present of 20 mins exercise a day, every day . Which may sound a bit pathetic as a goal, but with two small kids and a job and a hectic life, I figured it was better to be achievably realistic. So I’ve been making an effort to shoehorn a brisk walk, or some yoga, or even, occasionally, a weights session at my work gym, into my day, and after two months, even my modest efforts are adding up. I am more flexible, my knees hurt less, I puff less walking up hills. I’m not significantly slimmer or more muscular. But I find rolling around with/chasing after my kids easier. Even twisting around to reverse the car is smoother. I don’t get stuck on the floor with my sore knees. I’m more conscious of how my body works doing what I need it to do – lifting, twisting, sprinting, schlepping, retrieving toddlers from difficult hiding places – it *just works better*!

  2. Trishy says:

    July 4th, 2009at 8:47 pm(#)

    Excellent points. Whenever I am struck with a bout of bronchitis and walking up hills suddenly makes me huff and puff, I wonder if that’s what out of shape people feel like, and I wonder if they realize that they do not have to live like that.

    But if I may digress a little as well, I think you were a little too hard on fucked-up priorities man. He may have been checking stocks or sports scores, but he also may have been doing something genuinely important. I personally would have been in awe at the scenery, but I know my boyfriend wouldn’t care much and would not think twice about taking a phone call on the top of a mountain. That doesn’t necessarily make him emotionally distant or an asshat, he’s simply not wowed by many things. Even if the vast majority of Americans have a screwed up work-life balance, it is never wise to assume those things about a person, especially a complete stranger. It’s not enlightened, it’s judgmental.

  3. Katja says:

    July 5th, 2009at 11:47 am(#)

    Welcome to Colorado! Glad to hear you found some things to approve of.

  4. erin o. says:

    July 6th, 2009at 1:14 pm(#)

    I am so glad you enjoyed our beautiful Colorado!

  5. cadi says:

    July 8th, 2009at 3:48 pm(#)

    Thankfully, I missed out on the retinal hemorage deal… but geez, I sure was whacked with wonderfully geeky nose bleeds from the super dry air on my last trip.

    We went hiking and fly fishing in Estes Park in summer….and it snowed. Aside from a wee bit of hypothermia and the afore mentioned issues with my nose, it was awesome! Can’t wait to do it again.

  6. julie says:

    July 8th, 2009at 10:49 pm(#)

    My parents live in CO, and I go for a few days here and there, never long enough to get used to altitude. I can hike okay, though huffing and puffing on ascent, same as with bicycle. This last time, I went to the gym, was going to do two classes, but was nauseous by the time the first one ended. This has never happened to me before, and I blame the altitude, rational or not. I find the sun too close, the air too dry, the people too homogeneous, but otherwise, it’s a great place. I live in a part of CA with very few obese people, and really good food (as well as the standard crap) so I don’t notice that.

  7. Christine says:

    July 14th, 2009at 7:32 am(#)

    This is great, I love it!

  8. Andrea says:

    July 14th, 2009at 2:38 pm(#)

    You shall be lured to the west…. mwahahahaha!

    (btw, either I’m too dense to see the sarcasm, or I’ll be the first to point out that your “color-coded trails with difficulty ratings” are… ski slopes. But you knew that, right?)

    I just returned from this juggernaut (http://tinyurl.com/n8vgp2) and got my AWE-meter renewed right on schedule as I do every summer in those lovely rocky bumps.

  9. Mistress Krista says:

    July 15th, 2009at 5:02 am(#)

    The photo shows the ski trails, yeah. But they do also mark the hiking/biking trails the same way. They even have fun little signs for the biking trails that tell you when to slow down. They say chatty things like “WHOA!!!” (yes, three exclamation marks) or “Don’t be fooled! Trail drops off!”

  10. Laura says:

    July 20th, 2009at 7:04 am(#)

    Cool – a zombie eyeball! Great rant – but no suprise there, your rants are usually good reading.

    I’ve been passed by fit older folks twice in recent years – once while biking up a big hill (d’oh) and once in Scotland while hiking. A group of grey-haired Scots and their dog (!) blew past us on a ridge walk. Awesome!

    I’ve yet to see Colorado in the summer – we’ve only been in the winter to ski…

  11. Mistress Krista says:

    July 20th, 2009at 7:47 am(#)

    Those old Brits/Scots/Irish folks are indestructible. It’s like gangs of Queen Liz in cardigans and wellies, stomping around cheerfully in the rain while nattering about how they survived the Depression then the blitz.

  12. Nicole says:

    July 21st, 2009at 3:36 pm(#)

    Yep the altitude will make you tough. You can amaze your friends when visiting a sea-level destination by jogging for miles without getting winded, then pounding 12 beers without even catching a buzz! :P

  13. madge says:

    August 9th, 2009at 8:03 am(#)

    Since the beginning of the year, I’ve been exercising 5 days a week religiously. I’ve lost a bit of weight, still have a bit to lose, but I’m much more fit, a fact I appreciated when I took a month-long road trip out west this summer.

    Colorado was amazing — the hiking in Utah was incredible — went down into the Grand Canyon and out again, up a mountain to a dome in Yosemite, up and down hills covered in wildflowers at Big Sur, 12 miles through the redwoods, and all over Glacier National Park. Every hike I felt like you did, Krista. All the hours in the gym paid off! I was able to do all these things and enjoy them rather than wishing they’d be over (my reaction to hiking in the past).

    It really is a beautiful thing to hone and use your body. By the end of the trip I was running trails and fighting bears bare-handed! And exaggerating about fighting bears! It was awesome.

  14. Lisa says:

    August 17th, 2009at 1:00 pm(#)

    Congratulations of the mountain ascent!

    To this day, one of my proudest moments is the memory of standing on the summit of Mt. Elbert, the tallest peak in my beautiful state of Colorado. Without some degree of “fitness,” it never would have been possible.

    Mountain climbing is great. It simultaneously humbles us, broadens our horizons, and makes us reach for the sky.

    Happy climbing.

  15. Kym says:

    August 21st, 2009at 6:08 pm(#)

    Wow! You make me want to get out and see my country. The closest I’ve come to seeing those mountains is a 45-minute layover in Denver. Clearly, I need to make Colorado a destination and not a pit-stop.

  16. Marliss says:

    August 26th, 2009at 12:03 pm(#)

    I just recently discovered your website, and am delighted with my find. I live in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, which has little humidity despite all the rain. Having lived in high humidity climates most of my life, I love it.

    I agree completely with your rant about the e-addicted father. I would add that I fail to understand how people can ride bikes in the majestic beauty and the sunshine, with the air like wine, each breath like honey, when just being alive makes one happy and at peace, and smoke cigarettes.

  17. lara says:

    August 27th, 2009at 3:01 pm(#)

    Yay! I love the mountains. The only time I’ve ever been to Colorado was in the winter, to go skiing, and I remember how beautiful the mountains were out there. Looks like they’re gorgeous in the summer as well.

  18. Liz H says:

    October 31st, 2010at 10:05 am(#)

    I have bookmarked this post and will return to it every time I need a reminder that the reason I’m exercising is to feel better, and looking better is just a possible side effect. It’s difficult to remember that when changing in the University gym before a swim, surrounded by shiny-haired, permatanned 18 year olds who are probably not all that healthy, but still make me feel old and unfit!

    I have spent a long time being ill and too knackered to do much for the past few years, and my gift to myself on returning to health and to uni for postgrad was gym membership. I swim twice a week, following the swimfit programme, and I want to start lifting too. You are a wonderful source of inspiration – I used to read this site when I was too ill to really do anything, but the thought of all the stuff I could do when I got better helped to keep me going. Thank you Krista!

    Also, I have frequently reached the summit of a mountain in the Lake District or Scotland, puffing and totally exhausted by the climb, to be greeted by small children RUNNING to the top like mountain goats. Shameful!

  19. Autumn says:

    November 4th, 2010at 1:52 pm(#)

    You’re right about fitness. After two years of physical therapy for an injured back, I picked up lifting. In two months, the pain was gone. Two years later, I’m still hitting it and feel better at 41 than I ever did at 20–even though I have never been overweight. I’m currently renovating my house and feel proud about having the strength to haul drywall and hold kitchen cabinets over my head while my husband screws them into place. Life is good! As always, thanks for the great inspiration. I have recommended this site to my trainer and fellow female lifters.

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