To Lake Tahoe (Day 32)

6.05.2013

Fifty years ago, a promising graduate student studying climate science at the University of North Carolina, Don Currey, traveled west to a particularly remote grove of strange-looking and very old trees in eastern Nevada. His purpose there was to collect a number of core samples from those contorted trunks, to extract small rods of wood that would allow the researcher and his colleagues to learn more about Earth's climate and significant weather events of the past. He brought with him a special drill for just that purpose, an expensive piece of machinery that could bore into the oldest-looking tree he could find without causing it too much permanent damage.

And so he went to work, identifying his subject and drilling into it slowly, very slowly, through and through the tree rings of the ages, until ... snap. The drill broke, lodged in the misshapen wood of that misshapen trunk. Currey panicked. That high-precision drill had cost him the majority of his research grant, and without it, his study, and possibly his career, was finished. He needed that drill back.

Flagging down a ranger from the US Forest Service, Currey explained his predicament and asked if there was something, anything, they could do to get his drill back. The ranger smiled. "Yeah, no problem," he said, "we can just cut it down for you."

"Cut down ... the whole tree?" Currey asked, surprised.

"Yeah, sure thing," the ranger replied, waving his arm off into the distance, "we have dozens of these trees here."

Out came the chainsaws, and minutes later, down came the tree, and Currey's drill was saved. And fortunately for the graduate student, though not his subject, a small bore sample was no longer needed, for he had the entire cross-section to work with. Thanking the ranger, Currey took off with his slab of trunk, back east, back to his research lab at the University of North Carolina. There, magnifying glass in hand, he began counting. Counting tree rings, each ring signifying one year of growth, one year of life, one year of history.

One. Two. Three ...
Three hundred. Three hundred one. Three hundred two ...
Two thousand one. Two thousand two. Two thousand three ...

For days, Currey traveled backwards through time. That tree, he learned, was old. Born before the United States, settled in the New World before Columbus, older than the Dark Ages, older than Jesus, standing proudly, even, before the Great Pyramid of Giza. His counting continued.

Four thousand seven hundred. Four thousand seven hundred one. Four thousand seven hundred two ...

As he approached his five thousandth tree ring, Currey began to sweat. "This tree," he thought, "is nearly as old as civilization. This tree, this tree is the oldest one, the oldest living thing, in the world." And then the realization: "... And I just killed it."

The Prometheus Tree, as it came to be known, was indeed the oldest living thing on Earth, an ancient bristlecone, and unable to cope with what he had done, and with the public outcry that followed, Currey vowed never to study them again, devoting his career instead to lake basins, inanimate bodies not capable of death or damage. But the damage in this case had already been done: Prometheus was no more.

***

Captivated by the story of Donald Currey and the bristlecone, and intrigued by the ancient species in any event, the next stop on my journey was the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest of the eastern Sierra, not the grove Currey had studied in Nevada, but its California counterpart, now home, after the fall of Prometheus, to the world's next oldest living thing, Methuselah, about four thousand and seven hundred years old. And so, waking from my motel in Bishop, I headed southeast, climbing the mountains to about ten thousand feet in elevation, chilly and dry, just the way the bristlecones like it.

The previous day, leaving Yosemite and turning right, I had second-guessed my plan to visit the Pine Forest. It was, after all, more than an hour out of the way, a two-hour out-and-back round trip. I am eternally grateful that my better senses got the best of me, for accidentally veering into a ravine would have been less of a mistake than skipping over Ancient Bristlecone. For they are, in the literal sense of both words, awesome and incredible.

The bristlecones do not look like trees, but like sculptures, petrified flame or frozen electricity, gnarled branches twisting and curling about viciously. Their thick roots, emerging from the rocky earth, jut out at odd angles and arches, some not even anchored to the ground, but splayed superfluously and dramatically in the air. Their trunks are not unitary, but a tangle of various stems, pythons wrapping about each other as they climb and then darting out at angry configurations toward the bristlecones' tops, between ten and thirty feet from the ground. They are not massive, not even very large. And no two are the same, most lack any discernible trunk altogether, many the appearance of amorphous blobs set in place only momentarily.

The colors are equally impressive and equally haunting. Orange and brown and crimson converge in brilliant striations, and everywhere are the scars of ancient wildfires, blackened wood running the length and height of nearly every tree. There are cadavers, fallen and slowly rotting, all around, and even the live trees, bare branches in a barren landscape, give the appearance of death. The ancient bristlecones are otherworldly.

I experienced them over the course of a five-mile hike through their mountainous groves, each step, each view, each tree more impressive than the last. Halfway into my trek, I came upon the Methuselah Grove, home to Methuselah and his younger brothers, the most ancient place on Earth. I knew not which tree was Methuselah, as very few do, for humans are an untrustworthy bunch and the Forest Service smartly guards that senior tree's identity to protect him from the enterprising vandal or arsonist, desperately eager to place his stain on history.

I had a good guess, a particularly proud and particularly contorted bristlecone at the center of the grove, though it didn't matter to me whether I was correct. I was in the presence of the ages, and for me that was enough. I walked to the tree, marveling at its eerie beauty, and I placed my hand against its weathered trunk, pressed my skin against its ridged contours. I closed my eyes.

History rushed through me. I had an experience there not unlike the one I had in Joshua Tree, but different, less about my own workings and more about the magic of Mother Earth. Through that ancient relic, she whispered secrets to me, secrets I lack the lexicon to ever communicate, the code of nature and history and time coursing through my veins, from the capillaries at the tips of my fingers to my heart and back again, a stunning and unexpected communion I found it difficult to break free from, if not largely because I simply did not want to.

But the wind howled, and eventually I did, saying goodbye to those wondrous bristlecones again and again as I made my way out of the sparse forest. As the trees shrunk in size and contortion, in age, I felt myself rocketing through time, through the centuries to present day, and then I was back, back in the parking lot, back on Rousseau, back down the mountain and back into Bishop and past Bishop, back to where I had turned out from Yosemite, and this time I kept going, north, from natural relic to manmade one, Bristlecone to Bodie.

Bodie, an old nineteenth century mining town in northeastern California, was abandoned in the early twentieth and now sits, relatively undisturbed, as perhaps the nation's best preserved ghost town. Many of America's best ghost towns, I've gathered, have been stripped of their soul in recent decades, bought up by entrepreneurs with money in their pockets and dollar signs in their eyes, eager to turn a chunk of history into a profit, a ghost town into a tourist trap. I found no interest in these places, ghost towns with gift shops and historical actors, ghost towns with photo booths and a payroll of dozens, for a ghost town with residents is no ghost town at all.

Bodie, I'd heard, was the real thing, and so to Bodie I went that late afternoon, my guidebook informing me that access was allowed until 7PM, and here it was only five and I was just rounding the turnoff, and then, just then, a sign stating that Bodie, still ten miles away with another three miles of unpaved road, was only open until six! I was flabbergasted. With camping strictly prohibited and the cold mountain air chilling my bones, I knew I'd have to keep moving north that night, and thus my only chance at seeing America's most authentic ghost town was then, right then. I pulled on my throttle, hurtling forward.

Access to Bodie was only possible via those winding, climbing roads, and with time against me, I whipped around each corner and sped down each straightaway, watching time tick by, 5:08, 5:14, 5:19. Ten miles in, a sign warned of "Unpaved" and "Rough Road" ahead, and I found this to be a gross understatement, for those last three miles to Bodie were the toughest I'd ever driven, ribbed road and craters deep enough for a bomb shelter and everywhere rocks jutting about, ramps that would shoot Rousseau into the air and slam her against the hard ground only to do it all again seconds later. Rousseau, I was pleased to see, handled the rough terrain like a trusty steed, taking it all in stride, much unlike my spine, which twisted and bent and shrieked in pain, vicious vibrations seeming to break it into pieces.

Needless to say, this bumpy ride slowed my pace down considerably, and it wasn't until nearly 5:35 I made it to the front gate of Bodie, where a friendly gatekeeper informed me that I only had about twenty minutes until Bodie closed for the night, and that I should hurry, but she then took a strong interest in Rousseau, and fired away all kinds of questions such as how fast she went and how much mileage she ran and how much she cost, and watching the minutes whittle away at the hands of politeness, I finally had to ask her forgiveness for cutting our conversation short and rushed into Bodie with too little time to spare.

Experiencing Bodie in that short time was the only time during my trip when I felt rushed, for I could have spent hours in that delightful little town. I should mention that though the town is is, indeed, controlled by a state park, it is the very best kind of state park: unobtrusive, nonexploitative, there merely to ensure that the site is protected for future generations to enjoy. Beyond the gatekeeper at the front, the padlocks on doors, and an old general store converted into a museum, Bodie was an absolutely authentic ghost town, untouched since its abandonment around the time of World War II. Its shacks and edifices in various states of arrested decay, it was a pleasure to walk through those quiet dirt streets, albeit hurriedly, peeking into the windows of forgotten classrooms and neglected churches, dusty mills and hazy saloons. Rusted cars and dried wells, rickety outhouses and homes leaning on the verge of collapse, to walk through Bodie was to experience the world without us, the gentle serenity of a landscape with nothing more than our futile attempts at some sort of permanence. I wish I had more time to relish that little treasure, but my time there was up, and I was kindly ushered back to my vehicle, and so I regretfully left, grateful though I was to have the opportunity to experience it at all.

Back in Colorado, when I had told a man I was traveling the country, he told me that if I didn't visit Lake Tahoe there was something wrong with me, and hoping that wasn't the case, I committed to visiting that lake, some seventy miles north of Bodie, and I made it there by sundown under an orange sky, perhaps the most gorgeous sunset I'd seen to that point, purple and pink over the Sierras and the reflections of that and more in each creek, pond, and lake I passed. Arriving at the lake's shore, I settled into a quiet campground, quiet in terms of its occupants but not the noisy road nearby, made a simple fire of dried pine needles, for I lacked firewood but found needles abound on the ground, and when I grew tired of continuously feeding the fickle fire, I climbed into my tent and slept.

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