I have visited the tallest trees on earth-the Sequoia Sempervirins- (just written about); the largest trees by volume and the biggest living things on earth, the Sequoia Giganteum- which are 52,500 cubic feet, about 10 times the mass of a blue whale!
Then, there was a trip which took us to the oldest, most ancient trees on earth, the Bristlecone Pines, which date back 4000-5000 years and are the centerpiece of today’s blog.
About eight years ago I went on my first backpacking trip in three years. My end of life client at the time, Muriel, was nearing her transition time. Her son, Billy aged 58 (I was 48 then), had been visiting her for a few days and was in distress from the intensity of being around his mother. Her incessant needs and newly-acquired, care-giving responsibilities left him feeling ill-equipped to deal with all of his feelings. He asked me if I would take him backpacking. He was not a backpacker. Heck, he was not even a camper. He regularly toked on a steroid-inhaler for an undefined lung disorder, much like a novice climber would use an oxygen cylinder on Everest!
I was jonesing for a chance to get out into nature. For I had been denied my regular adventure staple due to a chronic illness. I had missed nearly two full summers and was ecstatic about being able to physically pull off a backpacking trip again. Billy had been secretly planning to ask me to go and had bought a new backpack at a local Outdoor World. I had most of the accessory gear we needed.
A spontaneous adventure set in motion.
Billy wanted a true wilderness experience. With great glee, though somewhat hesitantly, I suggested a few possible places where we might take a trip. Keeping in mind that a low mileage accrual would be key for my neophyte friend. After my sales pitch on numerous possibilities, Billy, with ambition outweighing common sense, chose the Palisades region of the Eastern Sierra. The plan called for us to set up our base camp a short distance along the uphill trail; this would allow us plenty of time for relaxation, day hiking excursions to see the glacier and views of Mount Sill at 14,153 feet.
I planned a 3-day trip for us up the north fork of the Big Pine Creek, with a 4-5 mile climb into this remote area where we could just relax in a quiet camp all by ourselves. We made the 8-hour drive, heading east from beaches of Santa Cruz through Yosemite National Park and then southward down highway 395. We set up camp at Upper Sage Flat, a rustic forest service campground which topped out at 7400 feet. It was late September, the first days of Autumn. A light dusting of snow occurred overnight. Just a trace. No snow was on the forecast, yet this was the Eastern Sierra, where whiteout snowstorms have taken place even in summer, killing unsuspecting, t-shirt & short’s clad, day hikers- on more than one occasion.
I was in wholesale relish-mode, up early, as morning broke. The clouds that had come in during the night, disappeared, leaving blue sky in their wake. I was imbibing the mountain energy, crisp air & pine scents, all the elements which make the wilderness experience so enticing. When Billy peaked his head out of the tent, I was squatting, steeping green tea for myself and preparing a gourmet, organic coffee with my cone filter for him. He spoke gingerly:
“I am a little worried. What happens if it starts snowing again?” He gushed, wholly unnerved.
I smiled, with a hint of playfulness, hoping to calm his fear:
“Come on Bill, this what we came for! I’ll have some coffee ready for you in 5 minutes.” I said.
Billy and I were a odd pair, we did not have much in common besides the shared bond with his mother, who I adored for her spunky genius and dramatic flair. It was a time of great silence for me and intense inner shifts. Billy came across to me as more manic then I remembered.
Yet we did have a heart connection, both of us a mutual, gentle strength.
When Billy finally emerged from the tent, he was clad, eskimo-like in 3 coats, the last one puffed up as if it had been inflated.
I knew the trip was a long shot but now the Pillsbury dough boy’s Inuit cousin stood before me. He was looking for an oven to jump into but instead out came his pocket inhaler. He took a few drags hoping it might act like a Star Trek transporter. Sheepishly praying for warmth, he danced a kind of jig step.
“This altitude is really affecting me.” He chimed.
“Duly noted.” I retorted.
After what seemed like hours of expedition-level packing, we hit the trail. We began our ascent upward, with 2000 feet of elevation in front of us. Traveling up a 8-10 percent gradient, the first mile took over an hour. We crawled onward. Billy’s stops and inhaler breaks were taking place every few minutes. At mile two, ominous-looking cumulus and nimbus clouds began to form, quickly mashing together in a chocolate hue.
By mile three, snow flurries and 20 to 30 mile wind gusts were in our face. ‘This is fucking great’, I thought. ‘Epic’. Billy, however, was spent, wobbling and insecure even on a, basic class-2 mountain trail.
“I can’t make it without a fire.” He finally gasped. Just then a wind gust blew away my final rally cry and minutes later we were descending for a hotel in the famous mountain town of Bishop.
The Best Western Bishop Hotel became our ‘Everest’ high camp for the night and I felt like a sherpa had short-roped me to a false summit.
“This is great, huh?!” Billy’s voice rang in delight, after a post trip shower and restaurant meal. I nearly laughed but managed to modify the sound into a small, disenchanted giggle.
“We barely got our feet wet.” I cliched with somber sarcasm.
“Oh, it was great, good enough for me.” Billy replied.
I relented, realizing that this was a perfect trip for him, while readying for a long drive home the next morning. Then Billy surprised me.
“What about doing something else?” He said. Soon I had my Eastern Sierra maps out, scouring for a new adventure. A great idea sprang in.
“What about the White Mountains?” I enthused. They have a forest of Bristlecone Pines said to be the oldest trees on earth.” Billy was sold and a new adventure was born, though one that did not require lungs, legs or heart power.
Less than a two hours away, with a long ascent up a paved forest road in the Inyo National Park, the drive climbed over 5000 feet, to the 9843 foot elevation. A high, moon-like desert that kept getting more and more surreal unfolded before us. Billy was growing more and more manic, as the spacious landscape opened up. Jabbering, unnecessary noise as far as I was concerned, instead of enjoying the serenity in silence.
When we arrived at the visitor center at Schulman Grove, the silence was overwhelming all my bodily senses. The magnificent natural sculptures, twisted by intense winds for thousands of years, the Bristlecone Pines blasted away all my thoughts. I told Billy that I was going to be in silence while we were there. He acquiesced and closed his mouth for a bit. We stayed all of an hour. I walked alone into a separate part of the forest. The silence kept deepening. Something profound, beyond words, thoughts, feelings and mind took over. I was in abeyance to THAT. The slate wiped clean, absorbed in a blissful, transcendent bubble reflected by the ancient Bristlecones. The sparsely populated mini-forest of trees, looked ethereal and yet familiar. They were a windswept prairie of angels who embodied sanctity, watching over mankind and the earth for thousands of years.
Billy found me near one of the pines, as I wandered back closer to the parking lot. I stood, staring in awe at a tree that dated back to the time before Christ, before Buddha–wherein a higher level of planetary consciousness infused humanity. The Pyramids of Giza were being built when this amazing force called a Bristlecone Pine first sprang into form.
“Ready to go?” Billy said. I couldn’t speak, instead I nodded in the affirmative, following him in silence as we both got in the car. As we drove down the mountain, Billy kept asking me questions, making comments as before and I was unable to answer.
Finally, after 15 minutes, a real fear and desperation overtook Billy. He had just asked me for the tenth time, ‘Are you alright?’ and words came from my mouth like a kind of compassion from the ether.
“Yes, I’m fine. The silence took everything away. I couldn’t speak.”
“Oh, I was so worried. I thought that maybe something happened to you, like a bad acid trip.” He smiled at the joke.
“Oh, no, nothing like that. Not even a good acid trip could do that.” We laughed and continued on down the road. The silence began to penetrate into Billy too. He talked less, and basked more. The space grew, a communion without words; a power far exceeding the chatter and banter of normal speech. Silence is the eternal speech. The inner hush has an eloquence that is able to transmit a primordial, timeless language.
This was the last visit I ever had with Billy. His mother died a few months later. Yet we shared a remarkable adventure, one that was not planned and had a lasting impact on both of our lives.