Last Monday, The Beloved, Penny and I crossed down from Mammoth Lakes and took a trip across the Owens Valley and then back up into the White Mountains to see the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, which is a few miles east and a mile-plus up from the town of Bishop CA.
The trip up is probably not for those prone to getting motion sick – it’s a twisty-turny road of multiple switchbacks, dips, blind curves and precipitous drop-offs. I suggest going before happy hour.
However, the reward is remarkable. At the top, there’s a forest of Pinus longaeva – the Great Basin Bristlecone Pine — clinging to life in crappy alkaline soil on these windswept crests above 10000 ft. The Bristlecones are remarkable because they can live thousands of years – the oldest tree in this forest is the oldest single living organism known – ~4800 years*. Think about that – this tree (which they won’t mark for fear of vandalism) was a sapling at a time when Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures were the latest and greatest. And there are dozens more over 4000 years old. Tree ring data for these pines goes back ~10000 years, not long after the last Ice Age retreated from the region. Talk about Native Americans.
These trees, while tough, grow very slowly. They occupy this environmental niche mostly because not much else can grow under these conditions – when they seed themselves in richer soil nearby, they’re easily out-competed by other plants and never make it.
All of the trails weren’t yet open because of snow, but the short ones that we had were more than enough for our oxygen-starved lungs. It’s funny, on the other hikes we took, we were going from 8000-9000 ft and we did fine. Change that to 10000-11000, and we were happy to take our own sweet time that included a lunch break on a crest that looked west back to the Sierras.
If you should ever find yourself in this area – and need a little perspective on life and the way we allow the hours and minutes to drive our days, I strongly recommend taking the detour to see and walk among these wondrous organisms.
* There are clonal organisms – like some aspen groves – which live off a single root system that might be 10-20 times that age, even though the “individual trees” are not anywhere near that old.