California: This was my first
destination on my round-the-world trip. I came to see an old
friend and to see
else old or should I say something that was immensely old.
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
the thousands of pothole lakes, glittering in the sun.
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
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
stroke earlier in the year and was living with his mother.
was happy that I was coming to see John. Her partner, Al,
quite as enthusiastic, so I would only be there for one night and spent
the time catching up with John.
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
just keep looking, you’ll eventually find one that looks like it.”
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
nice the deserts are. We stopped where we overlooked a vast
valley ringed with mountains. We could see forever.
got out and slowly walked up the hill. He had to stop and
but it was good to see him walking on his own again. I
our drive through the wide open spaces. I like the deserts
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
Later in the day, John and I headed south to Palm Springs. On
way there we went down a long steep hill named Radiator Hill.
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
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
These trees grow all over the western United States. They
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
been named Methuselah. The trail starts off at the bottom of
small valley and snakes around through the hills above it.
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
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
walked through the
grove and marveled at the bristlecones. It’s really something
sit next to a being older than the pyramids, yet alive. The
bristlecones aren’t really impressive in some ways. Their
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
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
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
to visit a sequoia grove and not be impressed. It’s possible
visit the bristlecones and say, “It’s just a tree.” However,
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
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
the head and grabs your attention. A bristlecone is like a
symphony, you need to quietly contemplate the details. Both
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
trees that were up to 1500 years old. He kept on looking and
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
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
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
one of the trees and took it all in. I looked at the tree
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
survive. I walked the Schulman trail twice and spent hours
time walking it, so pleasant was the day. The Methuselah
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
really didn’t matter if I saw Methuselah or not.
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
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
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.
interesting about the bristlecones is that the harsher the conditions,
the longer they live. Almost nothing else grows
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
no competition for those resources. I sat among the trees
the sun disappeared behind the hills. I drove further up into
mountains to the Patriarch Grove and went out among the
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
In the morning I watched sun rise over the mountains. The air
cool, crisp, and so clear. I took a long walk in the
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
It’s a cold, barren, and arid environment, but here they live.
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.
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
I spent many, many hours in the Patriarch grove. I looked at
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 an
abundance of needles, some were
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
that made me so happy there. It was very hard to leave, but I
wanted to spend some time with John before leaving
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?
bummed around the Owens Valley a bit before I
drove back to Palm Springs and spent the evening with John.
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
before leaving in the afternoon for the L.A. airport.
I went to the Air New Zealand gates. It brought back memories
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
least not yet), rather I was on my way to Hawaii.