Life is Different Up Here

For some it's that first view of the mountains that grow larger and larger in the windshield, or play peak-a-boo in the airplane window. The views are indeed breathtaking, and when you reach the summit, breathing itself can be a challenge. Mountains provide a feeling of isolation. People who pursue snow sports in the mountains often feel they are in some sort of secret place standing in the middle of a white wonderland with few other people visible. It's drier, stormier and sunnier, but the mountain environment is normally a land of extremes, including extreme differences from one mountain location to another...oh, and extreme beauty.

The mountains have some of the most spectacular scenery in North America. But some features of high country living give reason for a little precaution for maximum enjoyment. As you travel from sea level and elevation increases, the air gets thinner and there's less oxygen. Humidity levels decrease, the air gets colder and the sun's ultraviolet rays are more penetrating.

For example, in Colorado, the highest elevation is a lofty 14,433 feet, and no point in the state is below 4,000 feet. For those unaccustomed to altitude, some preparation is a must. Visitors are often out of breath and their breathing is faster and deeper. Some people develop more uncomfortable flu-like symptoms of headache, upset stomach, poor appetite, problems sleeping and feeling tired. A bloody nose is a common for people who are sensitive to dry air.

To make your adjustment to the higher altitudes of The West easier, stay at 5,000 feet for a day to two before traveling higher; get a little extra rest and less physical activity in the first few days; drink more water and do not consume alcoholic beverages, caffeine or salty foods. Salt causes your body to retain fluid which will increase the effects of altitude sickness. Eat low-fat meals and enjoy higher carbohydrate foods. Most of all, listen to your body! Take it easy, enjoy, and don't push yourself. Should your condition be extreme, seek medical assistance.

Use sunscreen to prevent sunburn and don't forget your shades! You may need to protect your lips, skin and the inside of your nose from the dry air. Don't drink the water in mountain streams and do carry plenty of water along, you may need a gallon or more per day. Mountain weather changes rapidly. Dress in layers, avoid all-cotton clothes which can become very cold when wet, and take rain gear even on a sunny day. Always travel in the backcountry with a companion and tell others where you are going and when to expect your return. Don't expect cell phones to work everywhere in the mountains, but take one, anyway.

While some of this may sound scary, some people acclimate quite easily. If you choose to live up here, you could actually live longer! A Harvard study in 2006 showed that the top seven counties for life expectancy are along the Continental Divide in Colorado, all well above 6,000 feet. Is it the skiing? Lifestyle? the altitude gets your heart more exercize? The relaxed, low-stress life? Sure! Other mountain counties in Utah, Idaho and some additional high, but not mountainous, counties in Colorado are included among the long-life Top 40. There are many factors at work here, but at an average expectancy of 81.3 years in these areas compared to a US national average of 75.5 years, I'd consider upping my altitude.

Moving to the mountains often means living a more rural lifestyle. Here are some cautionary pointers to consider before committing to a move to the Mountains:

1) Don’t try to make the Mountains like the place you just left. Most mountain residents like the Mountains just the way they are. They don’t all want paved roads, curb-and-gutter, local tax-supported “amenities,” oversize resorts, fancy golf courses, strip malls, or big-box stores. If you move to an isolated cabin, don't expect the fire department, sheriff or the snow plow to reach you as quickly as you'd hope. You may need to be very self-reliant.

2) Learn to like brown. People who visit the Mountains in the height of summer or the ski season tend to think that the mountains are either green or white. The truth is that the Mountain landscape is brown most of the time. The longest growing season is six months, but not every year, and most are much shorter. In some areas, even the trees are brown from insect infestation.

3) Learn to understand water rights. US history includes homicides committed over water disputes. In rural areas, water rights are deadly serious business. The old ranchers’ saying that, “You can mess with my wife, but don’t mess with my water” is not a just a trite joke. As population growth continues to stretch water resources, expect the fight over water to become more heated. Don't move to a piece of land without knowing the water source.

4) Don’t expect to be greeted with open arms by the natives. Thousands of people are moving to the Mountains. They are causing the real estate market to inflate and are demanding more and more governmental services. That will translate into higher taxes. Your very presence is reducing the amount of open space and agricultural land, and in some cases, hurting the very environment you came to enjoy.

5) Don’t expect to make a good living in the local economy unless you happen to be in one of the limited professions in high demand in the Mountains. You will also find that, most day-to-day living expenses in the Mountains will cost more than the area you left. Because of the Mountains' relative isolation from manufacturing and distribution sources, the costs of those goods are likely to rise faster than other better-located areas as fuel costs increase.

Understanding and living with these considerations will make you a welcome member of the community. Some people embrace these limitations. This list was reportedly provided to newcomers in rural Larimer County, Colorado.