Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Hugging a Bristlecone Pine

Hyperbole often sneaks into my posts, I confess, but today I'm not going to restrain it.  Today I am going to gush.  Our four-mile hike through an ancient grove of bristlecone pines was the BEST HIKE I'VE EVER BEEN ON.  Our trailguide said the Methuselah Walk would take 2-3 hours; it took us 6!  We could not get over the age of these trees, their sculptural beauty and the remote, yet harsh grandeur of the White Mountains where these ancients have lived since the reign of King Tut.  We stopped at every bench to take in the views.  We picnicked.  We hugged several trees (and each other) and took more than 200 photographs.
Getting to this oldest known living forest IN THE WORLD takes a singular commitment.  It is why it took so long for us to finally make the trip.  We took US Hwy 395 which parallels the Eastern Sierras in California, to Big Pine (where we stayed the night).   The next morning we got up bright and early and went east on Hwy 168 to White Mountain Road.  This road leads up to the Schulman Grove Visitor Center where the trailhead begins.  You climb to higher elevations very quickly so can get rather light headed--that's another reason we took the hike slowly.
That many of these trees are nearing 5,000 years of age is truly a miracle of nature.  These trees have been around as long as civilization.  They took root when agrarian societies started to colonize and form settlements.  Architecture, sculpture and metal-working started to reach new levels of mastery.  The Egyptians built the pyramids.  The Hanging Gardens of Babylon astonished the Mesopotamian world.  Closer to home, the populations of Mesoamerica and the Andes exploded.  Commerce and government enabled people to explore astronomy and math.  And all the while, these bristlecone pines just kept growing and growing.   Slowly, ever slowly.  Soaking it all in.
I am standing next to a bristlecone pine that is 200 years old.  A mere babe in the woods, but as old as our country.  These trees are evolutionary wonders.  They have survived so long because they have adapted to their environment in a truly admirable way.  If only we humans could do that!

They conserve energy by keeping their needles for 40 years before replacing them.  The brochure we read as we hiked, pointed out there are no needles on the ground from these trees.  Their wood is very dense and almost feels like stone.  Therefore, it is resistant to mold, fungus and bugs.  Even though the bark may eventually peel off, as long as there is a single narrow strip, the tree can survive.  It is why so many of these trees look like driftwood.  They need little water and little nutrients from the soil--a good thing because both are nearly nonexistent here anyway.  The White Mountains get their name from the white alkaline dolomite and sandstone which is mostly rock and rubble.  No other plants have been able to survive here so there is no competition for water.  The roots of the trees are shallow and far spreading.  They will find that rare pool of water from melting snow.

Because they grow so slowly, the trees have been sculpted by wind, ice and exposure during their thousand plus life span.  Once you enter the Methuselah Grove, where the oldest trees are located, there are hundreds of wooden sculptures everywhere.  Their unusual, contorted shapes are as beautifully wrought as any sculpture made by man.

The actual location of the Methuselah Tree remains a secret.  The tree was named by Dr. Edmund Schulman in 1957 because it was dated to be over 4,600 years old.  It was named Methuselah in honor of the longest living man, according to the Hebrew Bible anyway.  Methuselah, the grandfather of Noah, was 969 years old.  But ha!  That's nothing compared to the ages of these trees!

It didn't matter to us that we didn't know which one was Methuselah.  Last year, they discovered an even older tree so he's lost his title as "World's Oldest" anyway.  To me, they were all spectacular.
As we walked through this grove of ancients, we realized we were treading on sacred ground.  My travel buddy and I are not religious people, but we definitely felt a sense of spirituality here.  I felt so alive and so thankful to be a part of this amazing world.  The Methuselah Walk allows the traveler to communicate with the oldest living trees on earth, to marvel at history and nature and to enjoy the isolation of this unique landscape.   This feeling, this magic, this euphoria, is the reason I am addicted to travel!  And I don't apologize for the hyperbole.

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