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?

Try it.


(With help from Sally Bolger, Jean Hohl, and Michelle Cohen.)


(Guest entry written by Charlie Lenk.)

It’s not only the altitude, the high desert we camp in.  (High: June Lake is 7600 feet above sea level.) It’s not only the relative starkness of the surroundings, the pine needles covering the bare ground and the scattered small boulders and the coarse granite sand underfoot.  Nor the sky, bluer by day and more star-drenched by night than a city-dweller ever remembers exists, nor the deep chill of the lake water on the toes and whatever other part of the body you’re brave enough to thrust in, nor the looming bulk of the peaks above taunting We’re between you and home – deal with it.  It is instead all of these things together that makes going into the mountains to write such a fruitful experience.

Or maybe not even any of them.  Like most adventurers, you’re only as good as the purpose you head with into an unfamiliar land.  If your purpose is to write: well then, you’ve come to the right place.  You’ve certainly gone far away enough to do it.

My own 395 experience, in 2009 and again in 2010, was that the combination of these three factors – setting, distance and purpose – made me unstoppable as a writer.  The first year I picked up the thread of a story I had been too afraid to continue for eight years, and the next year I spun that thread into the beginnings of the novel I just now finished drafting.  I wasn’t sure I had it in me, so my purpose in attending Clive’s 395 workshop was to find out.  The setting and distance conspired to show me I did.  I haven’t looked back since.

I haven’t been back to June Lake either, something I very much regret.  I miss the eastern Sierra so much it’s almost physical: the openness of the highways and the tufa and volcanic ash lining them, the way the conifer bark in places smells faintly of vanilla, the crackle and eager conflagration of the stiff dry pine cones as they’re thrown on the campfire.  The ground-squirrels looting lunch off the picnic table and darting into their holes when you yell to stop them.  The snap of the high, dry air in your nostrils as you stir early-morning to an unclouded sky and wonder: What story am I going to tell today?  Because being there makes the stories spin out, often so fast they trip over themselves and each other as they come.  It just happens, and everything makes it.

Including the writer.  While the writer can pin it to his/her heart’s content on the exotic locale – the setting, the distance – that doesn’t obscure the fact that it takes purpose for the locale to mean anything.  Come if you’re brave.  Come if you’re ready.  Come prepared for a small miracle, that of your own heightened creativity pouring from you almost like a nosebleed.  (Those happen sometimes too.  Make sure you bring plenty of tissues, and all the other gear the outfitters recommend.)

A small miracle, and then maybe another.  And another.  And…?  It’s a full week.  Be there, be open, and most of all – be purposeful.

“A good poem is the beginning of the world,” said Lonner Holden. We were talking about Writing Highway 395 and the compelling beauty of the trees and lakes and mountains and glacial moraines and the air. “There are no rules, as long as the poem awakens the essence of your own experience. It is the emergence of language.”

I’m utterly caught, when I write, in keeping up with the flow of cliches and half-thoughts and odd images surging through me. “Chasing,” as Stan Rice put it, “a rabbit running through the woods,” probably barefoot. If I thought about “the essence of my own experience” I’d stop in my tracks. Nevertheless, that ideal and “the beginning of the world” must fuel the engine that spews forth those words. As fast as a wild rabbit runs.

Do prose writers have this same insight? Their sense might be different, since a poet may aim directly at the experience and a prose writer might bring us there by outlining the territory. But the answer is still “Yes.” And while the magic, for instance,  in Costa Rica comes parading out of the jungle, at June Lake the world seems bigger, less obvious, and at the same time more intricate. Probably because the geology is uncovered and the dimensions are huge. We have to search out and integrate what’s happening. We have to read nature as if it’s a screen that has many dimensions, and we don’t know which one we’re in.

For one thing, the ground is not level. Not asphalt, not cement, not wood, not tile. It’s dirt and pine cones and loam and rock, ridge angles and ravines and talus slopes and alluvial fans and glacial fill, all expressions of recent and ancient history. And yes, an occasional path following, or cutting across, the contours. We become aware, in less than the space of one step, that we need to look before putting our foot on the earth.

For another, it’s three dimensions. We discover, when we look up at the trees and then at mountains much higher, in another world with its feet at our feet,  that we live in three dimensions. The world is three dimensions everywhere, of course, but mostly we live in the fiction of two. Our length and breadth contains itself within a narrow vertical layer, from head-high to the bottoms of our feet.

In the Sierra you have to read nature. Nature doesn’t let you not read it.

Do we go for a hike? Do these boulders mark the edge of a glacier? Are those bear hairs stuck in the bark of a Jeffrey pine? That bird call, is that a scrub jay or a wandering itinerant? Bird calls abound. The birds are in the trees and in the brush, with no jungle to conceal them, but they’re no easier to see for that. They’re hidden in plain sight.

I treasure the moment our cliches get busted. Writing “the beginning of the world” doesn’t let us listen inside, lazily, to the Crazy Child and then write great stuff. Oh, if things could be so simple! We have to read the air, read the landscape, read the animals, read the plants, and read the rocks to be present. Then we may feel something arise.

“This pocked, and smooth, and studded amber landscape waiting to be explored. Her terrain, enduring yet delicate, ancient yet infantile, to be tread lightly and earnestly upon with great trepidation, wonder, and gratitude.” Lonner extends his metaphor and it fits, to a “T,” the eastern Sierra. “The risking of one’s familiar ground is one’s ticket to enter such a wild and unbridled land.”

Ah, that’s key. Our familiar ground, probably our comfortable ground, is what we give up at the gate. The gate to the mountains and to the source of our writing.

Lest we inflate the journey, remember John Wieners, when his admirers marveled how smoothly he descended into the depths. He replied, yes, he was able to go there “and come up with what, answers? No. Poems.”

Good enough.