I got to meet the oldest living things on Earth the other day. It exceeded my expectations.
Of all the millions of species on land and sea, the very oldest among them are a type of bristlecone pine known as Pinus longaeva. These trees live in a couple of places in the West, including one cluster in the White Mountains about 45 minutes east of Big Pine, California. Traveling up and down Highway 395 over the years, Steve and I have passed through Big Pine many times. But it was only late in 2018 that we driving through, once again too short of time to stop, that we resolved to make time to see these amazing plants as soon as possible.
That took us to this past May, when we were planning our itinerary for the road trip we started on last Friday. We figured we’d make a day trip to the bristlecones from the condo in Mammoth Lakes where we’d be staying for the first five nights (a trade for our house in San Diego). But once we settled into the condo, I began to harbor doubts about the side trip. We would have to backtrack down 395 to get to Big Pine from Mammoth. The condo turned out to be idyllic, overlooking a stream that adjoins a beautiful meadow and rugged, tree-dense mountains.
The weather was sublime, nippy in the morning but warming to the mid-70s in the afternoons. I began to dread the thought of leaving this paradise for a multi-hour drive that might end in some blistering hell-hole where we wouldn’t feel like leaving our air-conditioned van. Probably all the visitor’s centers would be closed, due to Covid-19. Maybe we should defer the outing yet again, I suggested.
But Steve’s heart was set on the adventure, so we set off a little after 9 Monday. Ominously, both the visitor’s centers that we stopped at in Bishop were shuttered. We continued south to Big Pine, where some informational posters suggested we would find a dedicated bristlecone pine visitor’s center at the Schulman Grove, about 24 miles off the highway. So we pressed on, driving along a two-lane road so empty it reinforced the fact we were entering a true wilderness. We climbed higher and higher, eventually passing a sign announcing the elevation to be 10,000 feet. As we ascended, the air grew cooler, and by the time we reached the large, well-maintained parking lot at the Schulman Grove, the weather was as pleasant as it had been in Mammoth.
A dozen or so cars were in the parking lot, and at the far end of it, the visitor’s center promised to be impressive. But sadly, it too was closed for the pandemic. Still a host of clear, informative outdoor signs told us a lot about the amazing trees. Some of the tall, straight ones near the visitor’s center looked not so different from ordinary pines, albeit ones with distinctive thick needles and resinous little cones that felt like pin-cushions.
From the signs, however, we learned that these particular specimens, living in relatively nutrient-rich soil, were markedly weaker and shorter-lived than their cousins just up the hill, rooted in a barren, inhospitable soil known as dolomite. Those were the ancient bristlecones; we wanted to get closer to those. Three hiking trails start near the visitor’s center. We chose the mile-long Discovery Trail. It led us to the section where in 1953 a dendrochronologist named Avery Schulman learned one night that he had just cut a core out of a tree whose rings indicated it was more than 4000 years old.
The wood of these ancient trees is incredibly dense and resinous — qualities that protect it from insects, fire, and other tree hazards. Over the millennia the bristlecone pine wood twists into weird sinuous forms, many of which are bare of vegetation. But green branches cluster low to the ground. They make it clear that, though the trees may look half dead, they’re still very much alive. When Nero was burning Rome, some of these very specimens were already more than two thousand years old.
We took our time, ogling and admiring them, though I forgot to wrap my arms around a section of one, something I now regret. The trail was only a mile long, but it took us up through a couple hundred more feet of altitude gain, so by the time we completed the loop, it was almost 2, too late to head down one of the other trails.
One of them is a four-mile loop that leads to the Methuselah Tree, the very oldest bristlecone known to exist. It’s thought to be more than 5000 years old. I’d like to return some day to visit it. It takes two to four hours to hike that loop. Maybe we’d come in a vehicle that could also safely take us the 12 miles further down a twisty dirt road to reach the Patriarch Grove, home to largest bristlecone pine on earth. I’m not sure I ever will make it back. But if I do, I won’t forget that tree hug.