Something happens at high altitude. “Writing Highway 395,” our excursion in the Sierra, takes place at June Lake at 7,600 feet, almost a mile and a half up. We ascend gradually, so the change comes on bit by bit. After we go over Tioga pass, though, and arrive at our alpine lake, the effect is obvious.
We’re light-headed. Breathing feels tenuous and precious. Walking for a few steps seems effortless, like floating, and then a terrible, ghostly fatigue sets in. We might start moving very carefully. But the main thing for me is a tingling, a faint sizzle in body and in mind. It extends into the landscape: pines and sage and mountains seem perfectly in focus, then jiggle eerily out of focus, then back again.
Are these effects universal, and do they influence our work? We challenged our writers to observe.
Sally Bolger found herself exulting “in the colors of the trees, the water, the sky, the meadow” because physical sensations are sharpened. We attain a “sudden ability to appreciate the texture of the warm boulder upon which you sit, to smell a change in the weather, to hear rustling in the bracken.”
Jean Hohl suggests the effects are due only to nature.
“We would all go crazy if it weren’t for nature. Nature brings us back from inside, from whatever strange place we go to. What’s outside is just there. It doesn’t resist, you simply bump up against it.”
We do “bump up against” nature at altitude. Could she have made this unique observation, I wonder, at sea-level? Her mini-essay might itself be evidence of altitude.
More sensory evidence is the clean air. You feel a pure, refreshing difference in every breath. The air has travelled 200 miles over farmland and foothills and mountains to arrive at June Lake, and over that distance there’s plenty of vegetation to absorb toxins and carbon dioxide and give off oxygen. At altitude, too, the air might be beyond reach of much contamination.
I’m sitting in a camping chair on a steep slope of decomposed granite, my feet braced against a Jeffrey pine, a computer in my lap. And I’m watching my thoughts. My mind’s not running in familiar grooves. I get to the end of a sentence and it’s like I’m on a brief trek through the manzanita, rounding a boulder and about to face something I’ve never seen before. I don’t know where the trek will end. Or what I’ll write at the end of this sentence.
“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware,” writes Martin Buber.
Altitude alters our physiology. The conscious mind, a leaf twisting in the breeze at 7,600 feet, can’t have more than an inkling what’s going on in the body. Thinner air means everything needs to work harder. The brain is busily sucking sufficient oxygen from the blood, and its increased activity could cause the heightened sensations. Or, since there’s less oxygen, perhaps each word rising into the mind presents itself as precious, and elicits more respect. It’s floating on a raft of fewer-than-usual bubbles.
“Is it the lessening of atmospheric pressure on your shoulders, your bones, your heart?” adds Sally, and she goes on to liken altitude to a drug. “What is it that flows heady into your bloodstream? I can’t answer that. You don’t need to know the composition of a drug to experience its transformation.”
The common element here may be our sense that, at altitude, awareness opens up. Sally uses the phrase “Consciousness expansion,” and this saying from the 1960s fits pretty well, though it suggests pumping your mind up with air — or something else — like a balloon. At altitude, this could be less like the wow of a substance in your body and more like a meditation.
It might mean simply listening into the unknown. Listening to possibilities that hover at the end of each word and at the end of each sentence, listening with an ear you’re not sure you have. And noticing what it hears.
That’s an art. It could be more perceptible, and easier to do, at altitude.
Does it seem, after all this ratiocination, like a small gain?
(With help from Sally Bolger, Jean Hohl, and Michelle Cohen.)