Ten minutes after we began the ascent into the mountains of Colorado, I started getting a wicked altitude headache: a strong, sharp pain that felt like a bad hangover. Jordy – who was tall and handsome and athletic and had never had a headache in his life - felt fine.
It took me two days to get comfortable enough to sleep, but on the second night, after only a few good hours, I woke to the very close and very clumsy sounds of something outside our tent.
“Dude!” I said, flopping over on my side. “Do you hear that?”
Jordy didn’t say anything, but I could tell he was awake, his eyes wide and unblinking.
“What the hell is that?” I laughed.
He answered through gritted teeth. “Shut up and stop moving.”
Jordy’s fear of bears had been the fatal flaw in our plan to camp across America. Well, to be fair, it was his fear of bears (which ruled out some of the more remote and wooded campgrounds) combined with my fear of truck-stop rapists and small-town serial murders (which ruled out sites located just off the highway). Of the eleven days we’d bee on the road, six of them had been spent at dingy motels.
In Colorado Springs we found a friendly little campground laid out a little like summer camp, with group showers and a mess hall. It seemed downright sweet and suburban — so much so that we had left our cooler, zipped, but made of soft nylon, on the picnic table outside our tent.
“There’s no way that’s a bear,” I told him. “It’s too small. Listen. You can tell it’s too small. It’s probably a raccoon. Plus, we’re in this big campsite that’s pretty commercial and not –“
Without moving his head, he shot me a death stare from the corner of his eyes. “Please. Shut. Up,” he said. Recently, I had been trying to find something that fired Jordy up, that put focus in his eyes and broke through that sweet, aloof surfer style. Apparently, “impending death by mauling” was it.
I was exhausted, unconvinced, and soon fast asleep. When the first streaks of grey light came into the tent, I stirred a little, then snuggled deeper into my sleeping bag.
“Good, you’re awake!” said Jordy, sounding extra chipper.
It was 5.30 in the morning. Jordy had not slept, keeping vigilant watch in case bears, unsatisfied with our selection of snacks, decided to tear through our tent (zippered, but made of soft nylon) the same way they ripped through the cooler.
Something had torn through the cooler. Upon further inspection I was convinced it was a raccoon, because why support your boyfriend when you can be a contrarian ass? “Look at the bite marks,” I said, like I was some sort of forensic expert in animal teeth.
We cleaned up as much as we could, packed up our tent, showered, and ate free pancakes in the mess hall. We booked tickets for a 1 pm train to the top of Pike’s Peak. We visited a cliff-dwelling museum, got coffee and hit up some yard sales, all by 9.30 am. It was Sunday. Not much was open. Jordy was keyed up from what he truly believed was a bear attack, I was exhausted from two days of fitful sleep, and we both were at the inevitable point on a road trip where you run out of conversation and patience for your traveling companion.
That’s when we started drinking.
We found an open restaurant near the train station and ordered pitcher after pitcher of beer. After three hours had passed, we stumbled over to the train station, pleasantly buzzed and ready for a rapid ascent to one of the highest peaks in the continental US.
The higher we got, the worse we felt. The apex, if you will, came when we realized that the weather at the top of Pike’s Peak (snowy, cold and wet) didn’t quite match what we had dressed for at the bottom (warm and sunny). I stepped out of the train in my flip-flops and almost twisted an ankle on the ice. Jordy, possessing both sneakers and natural grace, fared better. He loped around the vistas and lookout points while I sat, shivering in my cutoffs, in the poorly insulated café.
On the way down, the train car—which had seemed so quaint and elegant on the way up, filled with excited children whose enthusiasm matched our own—was tracked with slimy grey-black bootprints and packed with screaming, sniveling hellspawn. My headache was back, this time amplified with the reverb turned up to 11, broadcast in surround sound. I was nauseous and exhausted.
We were a half hour out of town when a grey-faced Jordy finally spoke. I had been trying to soothe him since we left the train station – have some crackers, I can drive, let’s stay here another night – but it seemed that my silence was what helped him the most.
“I think something is really wrong with me,” he said.
“What’s wrong? How do you feel?”
He grimaced. “It’s like, my brain.”
“Your brain?” I pulled out my AAA guide and looked for the nearest hospital.
“It’s like, too big for my skull. It’s like, my brain is swelling. I can sort of feel my heart beating, but in my head. And it hurts my eyes.”
I slumped back into the passenger seat, exhaling slowly.
“That’s a headache, darling,” I told him.
“You’re kidding,” he said. “Wow. Wow. It sucks.”
There would be no camping that night. Instead, we stayed in our dingiest hotel yet, doing what we could to help the one another ride out our alcohol-induced altitude sickness. We were 2/3 of the way through our trip and 9/10 of the way through our romantic relationship, doing the best to stretch both our remaining cash and lingering affection. It was close to the end, and we could both feel it – but we still had a few more adventures to go. —Kate Dailey is a writer living in New York City, elevation 33 feet. She will be appearing on March 25th in the Moth Grandslam Storytelling Competition at the Highline Ballroom.