There has not been much opportunity yet for San Diego adventures since we began our latest camp hosting gig at San Elijo State Beach, so I thought I would bring back another “blast from the past”, albeit it recent.
Nestled in the White Mountains in the Eastern Sierras, a spectacular slice of nature in Northern California, lies the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest at elevations ranging from 9,800 – 11,000 feet. Our visit in mid-October was perfect timing, immediately after the first snowfall of the season high in these majestic mountains.
The Great Basin Bristlecone Pine survives here in the harshest of conditions (fire, excessive rainfall, frost, snowfall, little soil), a most amazing feat. These trees have proven to be some of the oldest in the world, many more than 1000 years older than any other species, their existence predating the birth of Christ. Methuselah, the oldest living organism on earth, a mind-blowing 4,843 years of age, stands in a grove of bristlecone pine aptly named after him.
We set out on the Methuselah Trail (a 4-mile loop) with friends Nina and Paul to soak up the beauty and speculate on which of these ancient wonders could be the granddaddy of them all. His exact location is carefully protected since 1964 when grad student Donald Currey and USFS personnel cut down the bristlecone pine named Prometheus (mythological figure who stole fire from the gods and gave it to man), possibly more than 5,000 years of age at the time. The story goes that these researchers did not know of Prometheus’ age before its felling and resorted to cutting down this ancient only after an attempt at a core sampling led to a special-order drill bit from Sweden breaking off in the tree. Rather than risk the halting of Currey’s research, the decision was made to cut down the tree to determine the ring count. It appears no one raised their hand to take responsibility for the cutting, which will most likely forever remain a mystery.
Given their age, you would think that these grand specimen would be of enormous height, like that of the redwood or sequoia, but you would be wrong. The bristlecone are not overly large, but rather medium in size, most ranging from 15-50 feet in height. Their reddish-brown bark with its deep fissures and gnarled, dwarfed growth pattern gives them a most distinctive appearance, unlike anything we had ever seen. As the tree ages, many of its layers begin to die off, leaving only a narrow band of living tissue that connects roots to a handful of branches. Its ability to survive in this state is just astounding.
Unlike the lodgepole pine or majestic sequoia, who both need intense heat (fire) to open their tough cones and spread their seeds, the bristlecone pine cones open when they mature, offering their seeds to the winds to continue their lineage. The Clark’s nutcracker happily assists in this endeavor, storing many seeds underground along the way for later consumption.
The Schulman Grove Visitor Center, named after Dr Edmund Schulman, who began studying this species back in the 1950’s, is a great place to visit before your hike, with informative Park Rangers eager to give information and maps of the trail. It is a new building, due to the work of an arsonist who set fire to the original structure in September 2008, destroying the building, all its exhibits and several bristlecone pines. Add this incident to the list of reasons to support the secrecy of Methuselah’s exact location.
While walking the Methuselah Trail, treading on this hallowed ground, we felt a connection to our ancestors who walked this same earth long before us. Listen to the winds and you may just hear their whispers but take note of the condition of the trail. You might find yourself on your backside as I did, thanks to a little vertigo and ice. Enough padding and my daypack made for a soft landing!
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