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Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest

The oldest living non-clonal organisms on earth are Bristlecone Pine trees that live less than 6 hours from Los Angeles, California on a mountain starting at about 10,000 feet. Places like this are as much church for me as Deep Purple and Jeff Beck concerts, albeit a bit different, but suffice to say what makes each so transcendental to me is the honesty and purity of the experiences, one environmental, geological, exploratory, isolated and historical, and the others sonic, emotional, artistically dangerous and vulnerable, honest and human to the core.

It’s not that I had any desire whatsoever to hit the road and drive five hours to the Bristlecone Pine Forest the day after I got back from a trip to Buffalo in May, 2019. I was exhausted. A friend out west had been asking me to go on this day and I was hesitant, especially on Memorial Day weekend, until, that is, he wrote and told me that there were storms in the area. Then I said I was in.

Storms provide opportunities for my favorite light, front lighted with a low sun peaking out behind me and dark clouds behind the subject. So we set off, set up camp at around 8,500 feet overlooking the eastern Sierras which had an astounding snow pack for that time of year thanks to all the rain and snow during the 2018/2019 winter and spring. The Bristlecones, which start at around 9,800 feet were magnificent in this light.

Ancient Bristlecone Pine Tree
Ancient Bristlecone - May 2019

Moonscape past the tree line on White Mountain above the Bristlecones

We tried the 4 mile trail in the Schulman Grove that goes around the backside of the mountain with a view into Eureka Dunes in Death Valley, but there was too much snow to follow the trail even though my hand held Garmin GPS said we were on it (ish), and it was dangerously slippery, steep and unforgiving so we wisely bailed when we saw no more foot prints ahead of us. The loose dolomite on the ground there is dangerous when dry and visible, let alone when covered in snow. At one point my friend asked "If you fall, can I have your cameras?" I said, "sure, if you can get to me." We went back to the closed visitor center parking lot and walked the much easier Discovery trail there, which was not only navigable, but stunning.

Ancient Bristlecone
Ancient Bristlecones May 2019

I brought plenty of firewood, and by the time the camp fire started to wane I was doing the same from the altitude, adventure, and prior unassuaged exhaustion assisted by a little bourbon. When I decided it was time to be horizontal for a while I learned my air mattress had almost completely deflated. I was too tired to bother and made the most of it. I froze my ass off as temperatures dipped to the mid twenties (Fahrenheit). At the very first sign of light I was up, made coffee and went back up the mountain to get some more shots in the morning light. It was worth it. It always is.

The oldest known Bristlecone until recently is called Methuselah, at approximately 4,849 years old. Think about that for a moment, a tree germinated in approximately 2,833 B.C., just after the earliest of the pyramids were built in Egypt. Supposedly an even older Bristlecone was found recently estimated to be about 5070 years old. These are the oldest known non-clonal living things in the world. Some of the dead Bristlecones on the ground are estimated to have been lying there for up to 40,000 years. I think about what these ancient trees have been witness too, and I silently apologize to the Bristlecones every time I'm there for what humans have done to the. environment.

There are aspen groves which are clonal that are tens of thousands years old, for example. The Pando grove of quaking Aspens in Utah is estimated to be approximately 80,000 years old. I'll have to check that place out soon.

Prior to this trip to the magic Bristlecone Pine Forest, I went up in November 2018. I couldn't believe it when the ranger told me the dirt road up to the Patriarch grove was open. That road is where it gets really interesting. I've seen wild horses up there, and the grass seems like it's as old as the trees. The Patriarch grove is up at about 12,000 feet, so you will feel the thinner air. The views over Owens valley towards the Sierras are breath taking, and seldom (other than holiday weekends) have I ever seen anyone up there.

When I was a kid and my family flew over the west, and even as an adult, I would look out the window and see these giant alpine meadows wondering how amazing it would be to be in one. On White Mountain, towards the Patriarch grove and beyond, I've found one of those long mythological places for me. Somehow it makes sense to me that these ancient trees ended up in such a remote spot for their incredibly long lives. It's truly a special place.

Back to November 2018, It seemed as though I was the only one on the mountain. One car went by early coming from the Barcroft research station above, but I saw no other signs of humans after that, to my delight. As it was getting towards dark I walked around the Patriarch grove taking pictures of the trees and landscape with a couple different cameras, a Nikon D810 with a 28-70mm f2.8 and a borrowed Leica MP-240 with a 28mm f2.8. The light was really gorgeous as it went through the spectrum towards darkness and I so loved feeling like I was the only one up there.

I set up to shoot to some star circles as darkness approached. I set the camera as low to the ground as I could, weighted the tripod, got my focus and settings together, had the legendary tree, the largest known Bristlecone in the foreground, and waited for darkness. I didn't count on the winds that followed.

The Patriarch Bristlecone Pine Tree - Largest known but not the oldest. I read that the Patriarch might actually be five or six trees.

The winds started to howl some time later. I could feel the car shaking and see the camera moving and I knew the star pictures would be useless. As cold as I was knowing the star circles would be out of focus, I eventually packed up and carefully made my way down the dirt road to the paved road down the mountain to Big Pine where I found a hotel room. I slept three or four hours until I sensed light creeping through my window and then went out and photographed around Alabama Hills as made my way as far as I could up Whitney Portal road. Thence home. It was a gorgeous morning with beautiful puffy clouds over freshly snow covered Mount Whitney and the eastern Sierras. I couldn't have asked for better morning light. (pic below).

Some time later, I went back and photographed the star circles I was hoping for, in much better conditions and without prohibitive winds. It's a lot easier at a lower altitude. My lack of preparation almost prevented me from getting these shots at all, as I grabbed the wrong wide angle lens (a 17-35 f4) when I meant to bring a 16-35 f2.8. I ran back my car a half mile away as it was getting dark and grabbed my my 24-70 f2.8 and raced back to reposition the camera and re-focus. So this was lucky as it's difficult to focus on a crisp 'infinity' on all the lenses I've worked with. On each infinity is an "ish" and you need to focus on the furthest object you can find, magnify and manually adjust to get the focus as crisp as you can. Aperture makes a huge difference when doing these kinds of shots. The below is from about 280 pictures, which at this stage I've tried layering in Star Stax and then in Photoshop, which had much better output, and then I gave it a little more love in Lightroom. This will need a bit more work before I can call it finished. But starting out with good source material makes the work worth it every time. On this night, I was particularly lucky to get Polaris cradled in that upper branch. Before leaving that night I turned around and photographed the Milky Way which could be seen across the entire horizon that night. The astral center, pictured below, is to the south.

Bristlecone Pine Forest Star Circles -- Work In Progress

Astral center of the Milky Way from White Mountain, California. So dark I could see the MW from horizon to horizon with my naked eyes.

Alabama Hills Eastern Sierras towards Mount Whitney
Panorama of Alabama Hills Eastern Sierras towards Mount Whitney, 2019. Perfect puffy clouds provided by mother nature.

I remember a particularly foolish hike I went on in May, 2016 when I attempted the aforementioned 4.5 mile hike by myself in the snow. I'd rented a satellite phone to assuage my family's reasonable concerns about me trudging off to the wilderness. I had plenty of water and food, but in my inimitably stupid male intelligence, or lack thereof, decided I'd be better off with two cameras: my then Nikon D810 and a borrowed Hasselblad HD40, an enormous piece of kit that took stunning medium format pictures when it worked and which frustrated me to no end when it didn't. I left the water, food and satellite phone behind as it was all just too much to carry. Smart, right? I know...Please, do not do as I did, as I easily could have been the posthumous recipient of a Darwin award that day, and everyone could have said "he died doing what he loved...," which seldom makes me feel any better about a loss, but I digress. I'm much more careful about that now and always have provisions and a satellite Garmin Explorer + which has an SOS button on it with me when I'm in the wilderness.

Back to my foolish hike in May 2016, on the west side of the trail, where it starts there was quite a bit of snow still, not as much as there was deep in to spring 2019, but enough. But after a few minutes I realized I didn't see footprints any more and wasn't sure if I was even on the trail. I followed my own steps back and got back to the trail to abandon the hike. It didn't end there. It never does. I met two couples who were doing the trail. They seemed nice enough. One had a handheld GPS. They said, "come along with us, we know where we're going..." That was good enough for me, so Shadow and I followed.

As time went on the men were significantly ahead, the women in the middle and me way behind as I kept stopping to take pictures. Somewhere in the middle on the back side, 600 or so feet down we all met up and I took a picture of them and somewhere I wrote down an email address so I could send them this. I've tried every search I can think of and can't find it. So if you see them, please pass this on.

We marched on and the same gap happened again. Shadow joyfully ran back and forth from the front of the pack to the back, and whenever I'd whistle for him, he'd come barreling down, or up, somewhat sheer mountain sides of loose rock, tail wagging, as to say "what's up boss? All good?" I"d say, "yeah, just checking on you..." and off he'd go back to the front.

Not long after getting to the backside of the mountain, down approximately 800 feet where it was sunny and about the time I started to melt, I thought to myself, "sure would have been nice to have some of that water and food I foolishly left in the car..." And I got thirstier and thirstier on the way back up the backside of that mountain as I peeled off my sweaty layers. I came upon the two women at some point who must have noticed my lack of provisions. They'd waited for me sitting on a bench of sorts. One offered me water and some almonds, which I humbly and gratefully accepted. Random acts of kindness from strangers.

That night I camped at the Grandview camp site, same place I camped in May 2019, though in a much more obvious spot closer to the road. The only other campers were some kids I met. We shared a campfire (theirs) and a drink (mine), and I turned in early, worn out from the hike, dehydration and the altitude. I was up before dawn, packed up and headed up the mountain at first light. The snow that year had melted enough to get up to the Patriarch Grove so I went up, photographed some familiar trees, a wild horse and some generally beautiful scenery in a gorgeous morning light.

Wild Horse on White Mountain
Wild horse on White mountain May 27, 2016

Later that morning while I was taking pictures in that beautiful light, Shadow was off doing his thing, and I figured he was close by. After I got the pictures I wanted of some old Bristlecones, I looked for him and he was nowhere to be seen. I whistled, yelled, started the car, drove a few feet and pretended to go...nothing. And I thought to myself, "damn, I lost my dog...he won't last more than a day or two out here...between the elements, coyotes and mountain lions. Then I remembered something about him. He seldom loses sight of me, whatever he's doing. I picked up a rock and pretended I was about to throw it. I heard a rustle from above and saw him about a hundred feet away, standing up from a crouch as he sprinted to me. "You fucking asshole" I remember saying as I opened the door and he jumped in. In hindsight that should have been rhetorical.

Ancient Bristlecone Pine Tree
Ancient Bristlecone Pine Tree. I was so thankful for the clouds that morning.

So there you go. This is one of the places that is a major part of my passion for immersion in wilderness, photography and exploration. This is one of the places that I learned the value of being alone, in the dark, in silence. That may sound weird, but we're so used to sensory abuse, it is very therapeutic to remove some of those distractions. When the power goes out where I live from time to time, all the motors stop, the gas station lights go out, the air conditioners stop, and if it's at night there are no cars all I hear is the ocean and the wind, as nature intended. I love those moments. In the wilderness the deprivation of noise and light pollution is even more profound.

The Bristlecone Pine Forest is usually pretty empty in my experience, especially when it's cold up there, which is much of the year. There are no provisions, the visitor center is open part of the year though they leave the bathrooms open. The Grandview camp site just before the visitor center is great, but there isn't much of the shiny stuff that brings out the hordes most of the time and I hope it always stays that way. It's mostly wilderness. It's hard to get to, it's precious, it's ancient and it's worth it. I encourage people to explore this wonder, but if you go there, I implore you to leave no trace.

Nearly twenty years ago, a friend bought a peninsula on a tropical island long before westerners found it en vogue to be there. Now it's overrun, connected to the mainland by bridge with an airport in the plans and the old locals can't afford to live there anymore. That's progress, right? But early days, in one of the major travel blogs they wrote about one of the beaches adjoining his property as being the best undiscovered beach in the country. He and his friends wrote in and said how awful it was, that it was full of garbage, hustlers, etc...and the magazine downgraded it...until they realized they'd been had. The irony is now that beach is a shit show and I can't fathom why anyone would want to hang out there, other than at dawn before anyone's there. And such is the fate of many a paradise, and such is the paradox of me wanting to share these stories, promote exploration, preservation, leaving no trace and my fear that people might ruin these places. What to do?

Below is a slideshow gallery of images from this magical place.


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