September 7, 2011
Ever since I was a Boy Scout, I've been fascinated by the effects of altitude on a place's climate, vegetation, and human life. When I reread volumes of my 1971 Encyclopedia Britannica, I appreciate that the standard Britannica format is to put the altitude of a place in the first paragraph.
Yet, altitude doesn't come up much in daily thinking, which can cause problems. For example, I knew a man who spent his prime building his retirement dream home at 9,000 feet, but then found that by the time it was finally finished, he was getting on in years and didn't thrive anymore in that thin atmosphere.
Elevation is an important element in the concept of "Whitopia," a term coined by a black journalist named Rich Benjamin in his genial book Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America. Benjamin drove around to various places white people are moving to in out of the way states like Utah and Idaho to discover what white people are up to. He discovered, among other things, that they are up to playing a lot of golf. To burrow deeper into his investigative journalism project, he took up golf. And discovered that golf is awesome. In fact, golfcentric whitopias are pretty cool overall, he found.
Whitopias tend to be located in the sunny, low humidity inland West.
I think you can divide whitopias into two class categories, by elevation. Elite whitopias like Aspen (7900 feet), Santa Fe (7200), and Telluride (8700) tend to be very high ski resorts. The homes in these elite whitopias tend to be second (or third) homes. For example, I stayed once at my boss's 17,000 square foot house in a highland suburb of Aspen at about 9,000 feet. Personally, I would be leery of buying a house at 9,000 feet, but the kind of people who buy giant homes in Aspen (e.g., my boss's neighbor Chris Evert) tend to have outstanding aerobic capacity.
Extreme altitude can cause massive health problems. For example, doctors in Leadville, Colorado (10,152 ft.) insist that all pregnant women go down to lower elevations. In Peru and Bolivia, white people have trouble carrying babies to term on the Altiplano relative to Amerindians.
More middle class whitopias like Bend, Oregon (3600 feet), Grand Junction, Colorado (4600), and St. George, Utah (2900) tend to be middling in height. They are often located in the high desert near the base of major mountain ranges, which provides easy access to the highlands for recreation without having to deal with massive snowfalls, and a lot of water for lawns and golf courses in the summer, when temperatures, while warm, are not as insufferable as in low deserts.
So, has anybody systematically looked at the effects of elevation on real estate?