Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Smoke

Arrived at our place in New Mexico yesterday afternoon.

You may have heard that the smoke from the Wallow fire on the Arizona/New Mexico border is being blown east and north by the wind. Yes, yes it is. I could see the bank of smoke on the eastern horizon all the way from Holbrook while I drove east on I-40. I stopped at the New Mexico welcome center just over the state line, and I could see tongues of smoke creeping over the fancy mesa against which the center is set. Driving on, the smoke became thicker and thicker until by Gallup, the smoke was heavy, acrid, and very close to the ground. And Gallup is some 150 miles north of the north edge of the fire.

The smoke was thick, almost like a heavy, yellowish fog, all the way to Grants/Milan. The worst was where it was mixed with blowing dust. Then it thinned and rose somewhat, such that in some areas it almost seemed like the air was clear -- except for the yellowish gunk on the horizon. So it was all the way to Albuquerque and beyond. In fact, going over the Tijeras Pass, the sky was clear blue, the first of that I had seen since entering New Mexico, but just over Sedillo Hill, once again you could see thin but obvious smoke relatively high in the air.

A couple of years ago, much of the forest cover on the east side of the Manzanos not far from our place burned, with much structural damage, evacuation of thousands, and ruined mountainsides for miles and miles. It was a terrible fire, but it was confined to the mountainsides, and the wind was not too bad, so the smoke rose relatively straight up in the air and dissipated.

Smoke bothers me. I think I mentioned in an earlier post that I used to smoke cigarettes; quit about 15 years ago. (Used the nicotine patch, worked like a charm, was smoke free within a week, and have never had any desire for a cigarette since. The relief was wonderful!)

But when first I came to New Mexico, I was a heavy smoker, and it didn't occur to me that the altitude here might have an effect on me -- and other smokers -- with predictable results.

Indeed. I've only been to Taos once, a very long time ago now. I used to hate going to Santa Fe, and I loudly despised the town, the people, the idiocy of it all. I was relatively OK in Albuquerque, but if I went up the Sandias too far, all that crabbiness I felt in Santa Fe would return. At the time, I didn't connect the nastiness of my mood swings in New Mexico -- or at high elevations anywhere else -- with smoking. I didn't occur to me.

But after I quit, we were having lunch at a cafe on the Albuquerque Plaza, sitting outside, it was a beautiful day. And the table next to us was occupied by a couple, both of whom were smokers. They hated everything. Just everything was wrong, and they were complaining constantly. I thought, "Hm, where have I seen this before?" Of course, I was like that at one time. And I'd seen the same effect among smokers up in Santa Fe. If anything, it was worse there.

The problem is simple: smokers from lower elevations (and our house in California is barely above sea level) can't breathe in the rarified air of the high desert, which means most of New Mexico. The higher the elevation, the worse it gets for smokers. Sometimes they try to "breathe" by smoking more -- which makes the condition worse.

And that physical phenomenon -- which smokers may not recognize at all -- has a profound effect on mood and attitude. Once you recognize what's going on, you may be able to compensate, either by laughing at yourself when you get all crabbified, or by cutting back on smoking while you're in the high desert. Or by quitting altogether.

I've become so sensitive to smoke since I quit smoking cigarettes that even a burning fireplace can cause a physical reaction in me similar to an allergy attack. So when there's smoke in the air like there is here -- even the small amount there is today (predictions are for it to get thicker later in the day due to wind changes) -- I tend to sneeze and cough and whatnot. I can deal with it, though, because I know what's going on.

But I've often thought that one of the things New Mexico should offer at its welcome centers and rest stops is counseling for smokers: let them know that they will be at a relatively high altitude in most of New Mexico, very high in some areas, and that high altitude has a stronger physical effect on smokers from lower altitudes than on non-smokers. Smokers may feel unaccountably moody, cranky, and even angry for no apparent reason. They may lash out or complain incessantly or feel very depressed. Sometimes, they can control their own moods by understanding that their moods are connected with breathing difficulties they're having -- but not necessarily recognizing -- at high altitudes. Recommendation is to take it very easily while at high altitudes, move slowly, cut back on or stop smoking, and to realize that your unaccountable crabbiness is due to your own breathing difficulties at high altitudes, not necessarily something intrinsically AWFUL about the people and places you are visiting.

Have a nice day! ☺

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