California: This was my first destination on my round-the-world trip.  I came to see an old friend and to see someone else old or should I say something that was immensely old.

October 21-25
I was heading west.  Where I was off to and where I would end up in the long-term, I wasn’t entirely sure, but I was off.  I flew across the center of the U.S. and looked down on the thousands of pothole lakes, glittering in the sun.  Further west, the potholes turned to irrigated circles as the land became more arid and finally gave way to the vast deserts and canyons of the west.  I couldn’t see a town or a road in many places.  I wished I was down there, but I was off to other pastures.

The plane descended into Los Angeles and passed through the ugly smog cloud that is such a local fixture.  I rented a car and headed east to the town of Joshua Tree to see my friend John.  John had a stroke earlier in the year and was living with his mother.  She was happy that I was coming to see John.  Her partner, Al, wasn’t quite as enthusiastic, so I would only be there for one night and spent the time catching up with John.

Joshua TreesThe next morning we went to Joshua Tree National Park.  Joshua trees are a very strangely shaped desert tree, a striking and wildly random shape.  Most trees have a certain similarity to each other, but joshua trees vary greatly.  They do not really resemble a conventional tree at all.  Al took a drawing course and was told by the instructor, “You can never draw a joshua tree wrong.  Draw it as you like and just keep looking, you’ll eventually find one that looks like it.”

Mojave MountainsI would have liked to walk through the Mojave Desert for hours, but I was with two people in their 80’s and one person recovering from a stroke, so we would drive though and stop occasionally.  This is still ok considering how nice the deserts are.  We stopped where we overlooked a vast valley ringed with mountains.  We could see forever.  John got out and slowly walked up the hill.  He had to stop and rest, but it was good to see him walking on his own again.  I enjoyed our drive through the wide open spaces.  I like the deserts with their stark and arid landscape.  Yet despite all of this, they teem with life.  Everywhere you look are strange plants and animals which are perfectly adapted to their environment.  The plants of the northern forests have plenty of water at their disposal and grow soft, lush leaves.  Here the plants have tough, waxy leaves to conserve water.  In the desert, the air is clear and dry.  The breezes warm. The vistas endless.  I love the deserts.

Later in the day, John and I headed south to Palm Springs.  On the way there we went down a long steep hill named Radiator Hill.  It is so named since the area can reach 45C and in the old days, cars would overheat going up the hill and have to be fixed at a radiator shop at the top.  We stayed with Trish, a friend of John’s and spent the night hanging out around town.  Tomorrow I would be leaving Palm Springs and heading for the mountains.

In the morning, I headed north into the Mojave Desert.  Many people don’t realize that California has extensive stretches of unpopulated desert, actually most of southern California is desert.  It was nice to feel the emptiness and a few times I stopped just to sit in the hot sun, however this wasn’t my main destination of the day.  I headed to the Owens Valley near the Sierra Nevada mountains.  From there, it’s a steep, winding road to the White Mountains up to 3500 meters in elevation.  I was going there to see the bristlecone pines.

The bristlecone pines are the oldest living things on the Earth.  These trees grow all over the western United States.  They often live to 1000 years old, but in the White Mountains on the California/Nevada border, they can live exceptionally long—over 5000 years.  It gives me a sense of awe to think that something can live that long.

I first went into the Schulman Groves and walked the Methuselah Trail, which was named after a character in the Bible who lived to 968 years old.  The oldest living being on Earth is on this trail and has been named Methuselah.  The trail starts off at the bottom of a small valley and snakes around through the hills above it.  It’s striking how a small change in the environment can change the growth of the trees.  In one place trees grow old. Not far away, the trees grow very, very old because the snowmelt runs off differently due to where the sun shines.  Some trees can grow thousands of years older than others merely by growing 200 meters away on the opposite side of the valley

BristleconesI walked through the grove and marveled at the bristlecones.  It’s really something to sit next to a being older than the pyramids, yet alive.  The bristlecones aren’t really impressive in some ways.  Their trunks don’t get much thicker that 1 to 1 1/2 meters and not more than 10 meters tall.   They are twisted and gnarled.  Many twist and end in dead, jagged branches that spiral towards the sky.  Many have had most of their bark sandblasted away by the wind blowing the abrasive soil.  Some have only a single strip of bark 10 cm. wide that will wrap up the trunk of the tree and keep a single clump of needles at the top of the tree alive.  The rest of the tree has died, but there is that one clump that holds on to life.

I have a feeling that some people will visit the redwoods and nearby sequoia trees, which can grow 11 meters thick and 110 meters tall, and will then visit the bristlecones and not be impressed.  The bristlecones aren’t that overwhelming visually.  It’s impossible to visit a sequoia grove and not be impressed.  It’s possible to visit the bristlecones and say, “It’s just a tree.”  However, you need to think that this is something that is over 100 times as old as I, yet alive.  I’ve told people that I can point to a young tree that is less than 3 cm. thick and half a meter tall and say, “That little sprig of a tree is older than you and you and I, all combined.”  A sequoia tree is like a rock band; it hits you over the head and grabs your attention.  A bristlecone is like a symphony, you need to quietly contemplate the details.  Both are different, but just as impressive in their own ways. 

In 1953 a dendrochronologist (a scientist who studies tree rings), Edmund Schulman, was studying trees in the American west.  He heard rumors of very old trees in the White Mountains.  He found trees that were up to 1500 years old.  He kept on looking and went to the more arid, higher altitudes and was stunned when he found trees that were over 3000 years old, then over 4000 years old.  In one tree, he counted nearly 5000 growth rings and then reached a bit of rot in the center which concealed an estimated 75-150 rings.  It was the oldest known living thing in the universe…and it had just been cut down.  What were they thinking?

The trail meandered along and it was a beautiful fall day with a clear blue sky above without even a hint of a breeze and the most perfect silence imaginable.  I often sat on the trail next to one of the trees and took it all in.  I looked at the tree next to me and thought, “This tree was already ancient when the Romans were building the Appian Way.”  The bristlecones are so beautiful.  They are so gnarled and weather-beaten, but still they survive.  I walked the Schulman trail twice and spent hours each time walking it, so pleasant was the day.  The Methuselah tree, which is currently the oldest at around 4800 years, is on the trail, but I didn’t see it or at least I’m not sure if I saw it.  The tree is not marked to protect it.  Whether it is from people loving it to death by compacting the soil by walking near it or from some nut who wants to destroy something beautiful, but it’s not marked.  You know what? It was a special walk either way.  It really didn’t matter if I saw Methuselah or not.

Twisting To The SkyLater in the day I walked the nearby 1.5 km. Discovery trail.  It’s named that because this is where the first ancient trees were found.  I also walked this trail twice and took a long, long time to do so.  There were almost no people whatsoever the whole day and peaceful doesn’t even begin to describe the setting.  I can’t tell you how pleasant the day was.  Silent and gentle.  As I walked on the trail I went out to a single tree that was out in the middle of nowhere, all by itself.  I stood by it and laughed.  What’s interesting about the bristlecones is that the harsher the conditions, the longer they live.  Almost nothing else grows there.  There is the occasional limber pine and a few widely spaced clumps of grass growing here and there, but basically nothing else grows there.  The environment has meager resources, but the trees have no competition for those resources.  I sat among the trees until the sun disappeared behind the hills.  I drove further up into the mountains to the Patriarch Grove and went out among the trees.  I walked among them and sat down and watched the moon rise over the bristlecones.  Magic.  Absolute magic.  I spent a long time thinking about whatever there was to think about and eventually fell asleep.

In the morning I watched sun rise over the mountains.  The air was cool, crisp, and so clear.  I took a long walk in the grove.  The trees are quite far apart with nothing in between them and the soil, if you can call it that, looks like a gravel parking lot.  It’s a cold, barren, and arid environment, but here they live.

A MoonscapeThere is a nearby hill, which has some very old dead trees and younger trees at the bottom of the hill with middle aged trees up near the top.  It’s an indicator of how the climate has changed over the centuries.  As the weather warms and cools, the altitudes where the young trees can grow marches up and down the hillsides.  The trees can stay standing up to 3000 years after they die and can remain lying on the ground for 3000 years after they fall.  The trees are that rot-resistant, which is part of why they can live so long in the first place.

I spent many, many hours in the Patriarch grove.  I looked at the twisted, sculpted forms of the branches, their shapes highlighted by the clear skies with the massive Sierra Nevada mountains just to the west.  Some trees had anGrrrrrr!! abundance of needles, some were almost bare, but both are alive and don’t have to do anything to prove their value to us.  They exist and that’s enough.

I look back on those days now and smile.  I don’t know what it was that made me so happy there.  It was very hard to leave, but I wanted to spend some time with John before leaving California.  I guess if I never left the places that I love, I’d only see one place.  Maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing, huh?

I bummed around the Owens Valley a bit before I drove back to Palm Springs and spent the evening with John.  We didn’t really do much, but I did notice that when we went out to eat, John only ate half his meal and brought the rest home.  Not something I’ve ever seen him do before, so he must be serious about his health after his stroke.  The next day we just whiled away the day before leaving in the afternoon for the L.A. airport.

I went to the Air New Zealand gates.  It brought back memories as it was the same gate that used a few years ago departing for New Zealand.  However, this time I wasn’t on my way to New Zealand (at least not yet), rather I was on my way to Hawaii.