June 24, 2013

Not Just Another Tree

Robert Frost once said that he could sum up everything he’d learned about life in three words: it goes on. I recently visited a place high in California’s White Mountains where life goes on...and on....for 40 centuries.

Not many people know about the White Mountains. They take their name from the white dolomite bedrock that dominates their deceivingly docile landscape.   They rise in the shadow of California Sierra Nevada Mountains. But unlike the saw tooth Sierras that have captured the imagination of visitors from around the world, the White Mountains exist in virtual anonymity.

It was two years ago when I glanced across the Owens Valley while descending from the Overlook aid station some 20 miles into the Bishop High Sierra 100k. This was the highest point of the course at 9,300’. I couldn’t believe what I saw. A few miles away and 5,000 feet below me lay the valley floor. Then, rising to over 14,000 feet in defiance of their mistaken obscurity, were the White Mountains, awash in the late afternoon sun. They looked massive, ominous.

Fast forward two years. I’m driving up highway 168, a two lane mountain road that rises to over 10,000 feet, into the White Mountains. Having finished the Bishop 100k for the second time, I decided to capture a glimpse of this solitary place on my way home.  I continued driving for 30 miles, gaining elevation nearly every mile. I’m now driving toward Schulman Grove. When I arrive I get out of my car, then step into another world.

Around me is a sprawling forest of trees that look haggard and remotely alive. These trees are more than 4,000 years old. Unlike other trees that grow from the soil of the land, these trees appear to cling to the hard, rocky mountain top with a grip stronger than life itself.

Even the dead trees remain defiant, not willing to yield their fate to the foreboding mountain. They remain standing for hundreds of years. The trees that have finally fallen and lay on the ground beneath me are said to be 10,000 years old.

Those that are still alive were born two thousand years before Christ himself. They rise, twisting from the barren landscape, into an environment that destroys all other life forms, including bacteria, insects and other predatory pests. With winds that reach more than 160 miles an hour and little if any rainfall, moisture levels here plummet to one half of a millimeter, the lowest level recorded on the planet.

I’m in the middle of a forest of Bristlecone Pines, the oldest living trees on the planet. They have survived because, where they are, nothing else can. I continue walking through these ancient grounds and I come upon one tree that seems to great me with its rich, golden trunk. I walk closer, under its claw like branches. I look up. High above my head branches reach into the deep blue sky. I stand still, trying to absorb the moment.

What would it be like to live to be 4,000 years old? To survive longer than any other single thing on the planet? How big was this tree when Jesus was born? Or Moses? All I could do was wonder. Seconds pass, and I can’t wait any longer.  I raise my hand and rest it on the ancient trunk. How many years was I touching? How many generations could I feel?


Peter said...

Hi Will!

That is one of my FAVORITE places to run! The Methusselah Loop is perfect for altitude training! Nice of you to post. CV-25 is in stock...your bro was Jonesing for it but have not seen an order....

Will Cooper said...

Peter...thanks for the heads up on the CV 25. I'll get my order in now...and thanks for checking in on the blog. Did tommy call you?

Anonymous said...

How's the training going ? Don't you have some rather long races comming up ? Thanks for the heads-up on "RADIOHEAD", that was a good find !Cheers

Jukka Kukkonen said...

At this age it's always a nice surprise to encounter lifeforms older than yourself! :)

Unknown said...

Some of those pictures are breathtaking. I would love to train there. You may have already mentioned it but what is the elevation there?

David | Trust Deeds

Will Cooper said...

David, the elevation is north of 10,000 feet. I think around 10,500, maybe higher.

wes616 said...

The ABPF is one of my favorite places in the world. I have camped there several times in perfect solitude. I always think about the Piutes that would climb up the whites to pray and commune with the spirit when I am there. One place on earth where a man can be truly alone.