When a Man Stares Into the Trunk of a Bristlecone Pine…

“It has been said that trees are imperfect men, and seem to bemoan their imprisonment rooted in the ground. But they never seem so to me. I never saw a discontented tree.” – John Muir

I spent most of the past weekend above 10,000 ft in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest of the White/Inyo Mountains in an attempt to find some cold weather relatively closeby to train for the upcoming Arrowhead 135.  Well, anywhere within a 5 hour drive is “closeby” to me as California is a big state.  Over the years I’ve come to appreciate the stark landscape of the Whites and I’ve become a frequent visitor to this high altitude desert located within the rain shadow of the Sierra Nevada.  This is the land of the oldest trees on Earth, including a few dated to have lived for over 4000 yrs.  Perhaps I come up here all the time because it makes me feel young again, but after all these trips over the years I feel like I now have roots up here.  I’ve become part of the landscape.

The plan was to drive up to Grandview Campground at 8600ft, make a spartan camp for the night then start riding up the dirt road the next morning toward White Mountain Peak.  This is the only place I know of in California where one can legally ride to the summit of a 14er, although reaching the summit was not my goal on this ride.  I had heard that the Sierra had not received much snow so I was hoping for just enough of the white stuff to make things interesting as in years past I have been turned back by too much snow.  I was also planning on being able to melt some for water in the latter stages of the ride so I could make a push up to the higher elevations without carrying gallons of water from below or becoming dangerously dehydrated in the thin, desert air.  This was to be a training ride, not a sufferfest.

After fighting massive amounts of Friday night traffic I managed to escape from the LA basin and wriggled into my sleeping bag beneath a soundless sky of stars and galaxies.  Before long, the waning moon rose from somewhere near Death Valley and turned night into the cold, reflected grey-scale of yesterday as the grand chase of the sun, moon and stars played across the open fields and scrub brush of the Grandview campground.  It’s always an out of body experience for me to spend the week as just another office drone, drive through so much congestion and humanity then drift off to sleep watching falling stars streak across the sky, completely and utterly alone with only shadows for companions.  If it wasn’t for my rootless nature I would guess that this is what it’s like to be a tree.

I began riding the next morning and soon realized upon my first glimpse of the Sierra from across the Owens Valley that finding water was going to be an issue.  The snowpack was monumentally thin and the range looked more like September than January.  Over here in the Whites it was even drier.  Luckily, in addition to 70oz in my Camelback I was also carrying an additional 4 liters of dead water weight on the bike that I had planned to dump if I thought there would be snow outside the boundaries of the Bristlecone Pine Forest (the kindling of fires or stoves is not permitted within its boundaries).  In the end, I’d need every drop.  After a few good snow years California is parched once again and the Owens Valley (and further down the straw, Los Angeles) continues to suck at the fluted ridges and roots of her mountain ranges to slake her thirst.

Lately I’ve been feeling a bit worn out from my increased riding volume as well as the strain of trying to get enough sleep to recover while still maintaining my “career” and family obligations, so I was anxious to find out how my body would react to the work required to push a heavily laden bike all day long at altitude.  Honestly, I think I’m starting to feel the years begin to take their toll on my athletic ability.  After years of pushing my body it is starting to push back.  But I’m as stubborn as a mule, which is a good thing when you’re riding up high with sea-level lungs.  Soon I crested the first climb onto the 10000ft plateau that leads to White Mt Peak.

The day passed uneventfully as I sipped at my water stores beneath a cloudless sky.  While the elevation gain from my Grandview starting point was not excessive, White Mountain road is far from flat as it rocks and rolls along the spine of the range from between 10-11000 ft.  After one final frustrating descent that scrubbed off a good deal of the elevation gained in the first 20 miles of the ride, the climb to the surface of the moon near Patriarch Grove began in earnest.

Patriarch Grove is a barren, windswept shelf at about 11200ft that contains the largest of the bristlecones.  The views from this grove are nothing less than astounding with the hulking mass of White Mt Peak to the north, the Sierra Nevada to the west and the Inyos stretching off toward the oblivion of Death Valley to the east.  The soil is composed mostly of rock.  Aside from a collection of twisted trees that array themselves around the area like the standing stones of Stonehenge, nothing else really grows here except for a few weeds of introspection.  I’ve stood in cathedrals that lack the grandeur of this place.

The survival strategy of the bristlecone is similar to that of the fat bike: adapt to places on earth that no one else wishes to inhabit.  Within these isolated places in the Great Basin, the oldest of the trees grow in the most exposed locations within the poorest of soils like some gathering of loners that huddle in their corners and wonder why they ever decided to get together in the first place.  They are a monument to endurance and the surfaces of many are sandblasted and worn smooth by centuries of sand and ice driven into them by the everpresent wind. The trunks of those that die continue to dot the landscape for thousands of years in an elephant graveyard of the plant world.  Those that continue to live and endure reach out with twisted trunks to caress the woody bones of their dearly departed brethren.  Mortality reaches up and smacks you with silence in a grove of bristlecones.  I feel for these trees, I really do.

I ditched my bike and wandered around on foot for a while amongst the old ones, my shadow briefly crossing the path of trees that predate some religions.  These trees have stood in mute witness to the rise and fall of entire civilizations, watched pyramids crumble into antiquity and observed from afar the rise of humankind’s haughty belief that they alone lay claim to the world.  To paraphrase what Friedrich Nietzsche once said about “the abyss”: when a man stares into the trunk of a bristlecone pine, the bristlecone pine stares back at him. 

Standing beside the nearest neighbor of the namesake Patriarch tree I found myself rooted discontentedly in the ground, imprisoned within the pitiful collection of actions that comprise my own 44 year shadow upon this earth.  Meanwhile the grove encircled the sky and the sun began its dive toward the distant Sierra Nevada, a shooting star in the timelapse of my thoughts.  The wisdom of an ancient tree knows no horizon, unlike humanity.

Returning to my bike, I turned my back on the grove and pedaled toward Grandview while the sun began to set.  A front was moving in and the lenticular clouds began to bloom over the crest as the Sierra Nevada wrung the gathering moisture from the atmosphere in a graphic display of the term “rain shadow”.  As the sun set the temperature dropped precipitously in the dry air.  This is what I had come up here searching for… cold, crisp air in which to test some gear out.


A lone sentinel caught the final rays of day and I passed once again into shadow and dust as I bumped down the road.  Alternating between climbing what I had descended earlier and descending what I had climbed, the yin and yang of the “out and back ride” waxed and waned with each pedal stroke until the realm of day relented.  I turned on my headlamp to illuminate the way.

Nearing the end of my journey, the road forked at the base of a shallow valley as the turnoff for the Schulman Grove (the area where the oldest of trees reside, including the aptly named “Methuselah” at almost 4800 yrs) appeared in the night.  One more mile and I would be able to cruise the final downhill back to the comfort of my sleeping bag. It had been hours since I had seen any vehicles, but just then a truck from one of the research facilities located high on the mountain burst over the crest of the hill behind me and rattled past on the washboards of the road.  In the calm cool of the inversion layer that had settled in the valley the ensuing dustrail hung in the air like snowflakes for what seemed like a sooty eternity.  

With the dust being so thick I slowed considerably while gaining the lip of the valley ahead of me.  Coughing and sputtering, I crested the ridge and immediately burst out of the cold valley that had tenaciously trapped the dust left behind by the truck.  I eased up on my pedaling as I regained my momentum, then glanced up at the clearest, darkest sky populated with more stars than I have ever seen.  So entranced was I by the view that I began to waver drunkenly on the bike in a series of overcorrections as my eyes continued to be drawn to the heavens despite my best efforts to watch the road.  Transfixed upon the starriest of nights the likes of which were never dreamed of by Vincent Van Gogh, I promptly rode into the ditch beside the road and fell over like a tree into the dust.

All philosphical musings aside this you can assume: when a bicyclist falls over and no one is around to witness it, I’m pretty sure he laughs.

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