The story of a 30-day winter exploration through California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range

Day 23: Bristlecone Pine — Stumbling towards the world’s oldest tree

benje williams
12 min readDec 1, 2022

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I’m driving north on 395. Lake Isabella is behind me. Red structures of the volcanic Coso Ridge are to my right. And to my left, jutting out of the brown grass fields along Owen’s Valley, is the towering granite of the Sierra, climbing higher than any other mountain range in contiguous America, peaking somewhere near 14,494 feet into the cloudy heavens, stretching for over 400 miles up and down the state of California.

Perhaps one of the reasons why I never felt the mountains growing up is because I never saw them in the full glory that I’m seeing them now. From the west side of the Sierra, from Auburn and even beyond, the range is subtle, the elevation rises gradually, the peaks are in the distance and only seven or eight thousand feet tall. It is easy, in a way, to forget about the very mountains you stand on. But here, on the east side, they are omnipresent. In the rear view and in the side mirror. In the front window and in the sunroof.

I’ve always thought it was from the way the tectonic plates shifted, my dad says in a voice note, as I’m driving along the valley floor, still staring up. That the west plate was a gradual shift, creating the great San Joaquin Valley, the Sacramento River Valley. And the east was much more violent, sudden, erupting into vast peaks that climb vertically, almost immediately. He pauses, as if he’s looking out towards the same infamous 14,000+ foot peaks I am — Mt Whitney and Mt Williamson, Mt Russell and Mt Langley — and at the clouds forming like a cauldron above and really inside of them. It really is quite remarkable, his voice trails off.

Of course, it’s not only tectonic plates that have sculpted this natural masterpiece, John Muir reminds me, as I listen to his biography. It’s in these mountains, only a few miles from the dirt road turnoff I’m passing now, where Muir first discovered California’s living glaciers. For years, the scientists rejected and even mocked the discovery, the very idea of glaciers in California. Geologists like Josiah Whitney, whose name crowns the Sierra’s tallest peak. The range was formed abruptly and almost instantaneously, from a catastrophic earthquake, they said, accusing Muir of being “ignoramus,” unqualified to practice science, “a mere sheepherder.” But with his sheep, and ultimately without them, Muir climbed to corners and crevices in the Sierra that few scientists ever had or ever would, seeing things few others saw. The main cause that has prevented the earlier discovery of Sierra Nevada glaciers is simply the want of explorations in the regions where they occur, he wrote, ultimately documenting over 60 living glaciers.

The truly miraculous thing about the Sierra, the Range of Light more glorious than any other, is that despite spending the rest of his life there, there were still pieces of the mountain and its sister mountains that Muir never discovered or perhaps never even suspected. Fragments that remained unexplored mystery. Which is exactly where I’m heading now: the ancient bristlecone pine grove of the White Mountain Peak, California’s third tallest summit. The grove is in one of the most remote places still accessible by car, over 10,000 feet above sea level, but there’s a winter weather warning in my jeep GPS and there’s no way to tell if the road is even open.

The ranger in the visiting center doesn’t even know. “After last week’s storm, I’m honestly not sure,” she says. We’re at the beginning of the Inyo National Forest, about an hour south of the grove, and she says that the Forest Service usually closes the road in the winter, given the harsh conditions. She hands me a guide map and tells me I might need it: if I do manage to make it up there, there will be no cell service. And no one working at the grove’s visiting center. I thank her and ask about the snow warnings. “Looks fine now,” she says, glancing out the glass wall, “but things change real quick up here.” She’s wearing a mask and I can’t tell if she’s smiling or warning me. Or both.

I ask her about the health of the Inyo Forest and she leans forward on her desk. Her hair is long and dark and she has two feathers tattooed on the inside of her forearm. She says that Inyo is actually the largest national forest in California, besides Shasta Trinity. “People don’t realize that, because we’re so far out here, and there are so few people here.” Which, fortunately, means they’re able to do a lot more prescribed burning: “low intensity high frequency fires that prevent catastrophic wildfires.” A return to the knowledge of indigenous people. And of the land itself. When fires used to burn naturally every ten or twenty years here.

But funding is a major issue. We talk about the Western Divide ranger district, which was closed for several years because they ran out of funding. An entire district, responsible for nearly 300,000 acres of California forest. “Every year the budget drops another few points,” she says, shaking her head. I tell her about the work we’re doing at the Understory, about our pilot program in West Virginia, and that we’re trying to figure out how to help in California.

She nods her head, in encouragement. And as if she knows how hard it is, far more than I might ever know. I thank her for all she’s doing, and head towards my car.

Outside, two ravens are circling above the parking lot. A road runner is sprinting across the sidewalk and then leaps, like his legs are pogo sticks, over a six foot fence. An eruption of snow clouds is spilling out of the mountain range, warmed by the pink winter sun. Darkness is crawling across the land, possibly followed by a storm. Tonight is not the night, I think, looking back down at the bristlecone map. But at least I can get close enough to see if the gate is unlocked.

An hour later, I reach the turnoff and the gate is still open. But there’s no telling for how long — “things change real quick up here.”

I wake up before the sun and wind back through the valley, up the canyon, and pass the gate, which is miraculously still not closed. It’s not snowing, but there is snow on the ground that wasn’t there the night before.

At 7,000 feet, I reach the falling snow — large benevolent flakes floating into a thin decorative layer on top of the sage brush. At 8,000 feet, the sage brush begins to vanish, and the snow, which has almost fully erased the road, is no longer fully benevolent. I realize that my tire tracks in the rear view are the only sign of human life on the entire mountain. At 9,000 feet, I have to put the car in low 4 wheel drive. “Just keep moving, just keep moving,” I whisper, refusing to admit that the only reason this road is still open is because it’s still too early and the Ranger hasn’t had a chance to close it yet. Which, of course would also mean I will be locked, inside the mountain, once they show up.

I look at my phone: No service. The car’s thermometer has gone from 27 to 8, a temperature I can’t even convert into Celsius. My stomach is churning, like the walk to a first date, the climb up a first roller coaster, the ascent to the podium of a first speech.

Just before 10,000 feet, I reach a completely unexpected second gate, which is also unlocked, and halfway buried in snow. I can see an outline of the visitor center, where my guide map tells me the trail starts. The driveway and parking lot is buried underneath knee-high snow, and I park a ski-run length away from the center, on the only piece of the road that’s angled downhill. The only place I’ll have a chance of getting the car moving through all the snow that will fall during a three hour hike.

I sit in the car longer than I need to. It’s the point of no return. I should wait. I should leave and come back. But tomorrow would be worse, probably impossible. Almost certainly gated off. And last week, I arrived at Yosemite three minutes after the gate closed for the day, and now it’s been closed for over a week, because of all the trees that fell. I put on my face mask, stuff my gloves in my coat, take a final gulp of freezing cold water, and get out of the car.

At this elevation, I lose my breath within a few seconds. I lose feeling in my hands and feet by the first major turn. I lose the path completely after the first ascent. Everything is transformed by layers and layers of snow. And there is only a sprinkle of visible trail markers. The ground buried underneath the snow is slippery limestone rock. I stumble forward, then fall onto a boulder, then trip over a root, then nearly faceplant down the mountain face.

But after each fall, the bristlecone pine is there to pull me up. To give me the energy to get back on my feet. To carry me forward, towards the path. We’ve survived almost 5,000 years up here, their bare branches seem to say. Longer than any other living thing in this world, besides fungi. Methuselah is the oldest that’s been identified, only 80 years ago, 40 years after Muir passed away. The tree is 4,852 years old. His location is undisclosed, but it’s somewhere along the path I’ve just rediscovered. Although it’s mostly likely not along the path, I begin to think. It’s probably deeper within the forest, somewhere off the trail. And every time I find myself desperately lost, gasping for air and squinting for signs of the path, I find peace in the possibility that I might stumble on or past the world’s most ancient living thing. Not till we are lost do we begin to realize where we are, Thoreau wrote.

Is this him? Or this? The bark is cold, hard, smooth, bright brown and often black. The smaller the tree, the older it might be, my guide map says. Going slow is the key to going far. I find a tree that I’m sure is not Methuselah and climb up its trunk. Pain shoots across my frozen fingers as they pull along the tree’s limbs. Falling snow pelts my forehead, below my cap and just above my glasses. The mountain emerges below me, populated with bristlecone, surviving, possibly even thriving. It’s not despite the struggle but because of it, their barren limbs seem to suggest. The branches I’m stretching towards now, in the crown, were the first on this tree to grow, the first to perhaps realize, if that’s the word, that they were growing where little other arboreal life can. Where the conditions are too harsh, the air too cold, the soil too rocky, the elevation too high. The key to going long is to go where no one else wants to go.

Dr. Edmund Schulman, the dendrochronologist who discovered Methuselah, died in 1958, when he was only 49. Eight years ago, researchers allegedly discovered another bristlecone pine, in the same grove, that is over 5,000 years old, but the discovery hasn’t been confirmed. As far as we know, these trees only grow in one place: the subalpine regions of the Great Basin, which stretch from the eastern Sierra Nevada slopes to Utah’s Wasatch Range. But what about all we don’t know? In all the miraculous wonders Muir discovered, he never even imagined something like the bristlecone pine existed. But Dr. Schulman did. Maybe our discoveries are limited to the things we can imagine, his brief but wondrous life seems to suggest.

I press my face against the cold trunk. Nearly immortal. Life that arrived long before we did. And that will likely survive long after we’re gone. But towards the end of the trail, as I stumble around the side of the mountain, I see my first felled bristlecone. And then another. Historically, root erosion is the only thing that can lead to the tree’s death. But warming is also now a threat: as temperatures continue to rise, the competing juniper and pinyon pine will continue to migrate to higher elevations. And as conditions here, at 10,000 feet, become more favorable, as competition and insects and fire become more likely, the future of our most ancient tree becomes less known.

Back in my car, I wrap my bare feet in a towel and wait a bristlecone eternity for them to thaw. The snow is higher than before, although I can’t be sure by how much, and the anxiety of the closed gate comes flurrying back. I put the car in low 4WD and inch forward, wishing I had more time with the forest, with the bristlecone. And also fully aware of the hypothermia that that could entail.

After three long minutes, I reach the first gate. “Alhamdulillah, thank god,” I whisper. It’s still open. I won’t be stranded. At least not here, at 9,000 feet. But it’s the second gate, 2,000 feet below, that I’m really worried about. I descend further. Only slightly faster. The wind is still blowing snow against my car. Visibility is low. The bristlecone are already gone, replaced by the pinyon and the juniper. And then, standing like a tall shrub in the road, I see a man, walking towards me, then stopping.

“How’s it going?” I say, rolling my window down. He’s dressed in a grey down jacket and a black beanie. His car is parked a stone’s throw away. He’s not wearing a face covering and I can recognize the desperate excitement in his face.

With a large exhale, I tell him I’m happy to see him. That him being this far up means the second gate is still unlocked. He laughs nervously, saying he didn’t even see the gate, and asks me how much further till the pine grove. “Only about 10 minutes,” I say, trying to sound encouraging but also realistic.

“Do you think I should keep going?” he asks, pointing to his car. “I’ve made it this far…” his voice trails off. I ask if he has 4WD. If he’s seen bristlecone before. I almost ask him how badly he wants to see them, but I can see the look on his face.

Finally, I tell him the only honest thing I can think to say. “I’m not sure I can suggest that you keep going, but I also didn’t take my own advice.” Do as I say, not as I do. But in reverse. He looks up at me, smiles, laughs, then sprints to his car, waving at me as he turns the car back on and I slowly roll past.

Should I wait for him? Should I follow him up? Should I leave a note at the gate in case the ranger shows up? I don’t do any of this. Let the bristlecone take care of him, I think, as I drive past the second gate, and into the blue sky above the straight and flat road.

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benje williams

“it is common to take a dog for a walk, it is less common to take a dream for a walk” || nature novel in progress || recent writing at benjewilliams.org