BAKER, Nev. — As I’ve been traveling along the Lincoln Highway from the East Coast toward the Pacific, there have been few moments where I’ve felt truly alone.
Yes, I’ve been traveling mostly solo, but with my smartphone — and with it, Facebook, Twitter, text messages and email — the normal life I would ordinarily be living back in Washington, D.C., has been within easy reach even as I’ve been thousands of miles away. For better or worse, that’s the world we live in today.
I had a momentary panic attack. Not a real one of course, but I was slightly uneasy as I drove deeper and deeper into the desert. I scanned for local radio stations. It was the first time I’ve ever pressed “Scan” on a car radio and it turned up absolutely nothing.
If I had some sort of time machine, I would have loved to have dragged Whitman up toward the top of Mount Wheeler to sit among the bristlecone pine trees that are older than the Egyptian pyramids.
But before climbing up to this amazing place two miles above sea level, Walt would have to cross this part of the Great Basin. Geologically, this area between Salt Lake City and the Sierra Nevada mountains is referred to the Basin and Range Province, which the U.S. Geological Survey describes as having “[s]teep climbs up elongated mountain ranges … with long treks across flat, dry deserts.”
That pattern repeats itself over and over again. Looking at a map of Nevada’s rugged topography, it’s pox-marked by primarily north-south mountain ranges of varying length. There are no continuous gently-folded ridge lines like those of the Appalachian Mountains back east.
Driving across this empty territory, there are reminders of the short-lived Pony Express where the historic route crosses the roadway. These modern-day junctions with the 1860s are marked with signs, which stand next to the rough horse-trodden tracks, which disappear into the expanse of the desert desolation.
While I had very good weather for my drive, I couldn’t help think what this place was like during intense winter storms. What was it like for Pony Express riders all alone out in the elements?
In Christopher Corbett’s book Orphans Preferred, one aging rider, William Campbell, detailed the harsh conditions for New York University professor Howard Driggs, who was helping another rider, Nick Wilson, write his memoirs in White Indian Boy, published in 1910:
The worst difficulty I ever had was with the storms. Sometimes the fierce wind and rain that came on that level country would slow us up a good deal. It was the blizzards, though, that gave us the toughest treatment.
Although Campbell was talking about riding across Nebraska’s Platte River valley in this case, out here in Nevada, it’s easy to imagine what this rough landscape would be like during a blizzard.
These tough weather conditions made it hard for humans. But the pine trees up on Mount Wheeler have stood the test of time in spite of them.
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Great Basin bristlecone pine trees (Pinus longaeva) grow under very specific conditions, usually just below the treeline on remote mountain tops in the American West. They’re believed to be the oldest living trees anywhere in the world. The Methuselah Grove in California’s White Mountains contains a bristlecone pine tree that’s more than 5,000 years old.
It took 30 to 40 minutes to reach these trees from my starting point at the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive. It’s a moderate hike that took me through what’s probably the most stunning setting I’ve encountered on my trip. About 10 minutes from my ultimate destination, a hiker on his way down the trail told me: “You’re almost there. It’s totally worth the hike.”
I had made it this far, so I wasn’t going to turn back. Soon, I came across a relatively exposed clearing on the rocky slope, punctuated with various trees hugging the ground.
The grove had interpretive signs for visitors. An introductory marker described the trees as having “grotesque beauty.” But some previous visitor had taken the time to scratch out the word “grotesque.” In this case, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
These are gnarled trees. They twist and turn. Unlike the giant redwoods of northern California, these pines have terrible posture, coming out of the rocks at strange angles.
This grove is also an ancient cemetery. One marker points out a tree that lived for 1,500 years, finally succumbing to the elements around 1400 A.D. after a “desperate struggle to maintain life.” But the tree’s corpse didn’t disintegrate. According to the tree’s sign:
Because nutrients were scarce its growth was slow and difficult. The annual rings are narrow; the wood is compact and resistant to decay. Thus its ability to stand for centuries after death is directly related to the adversity of its life.
I think Walt Whitman would find grotesque beauty in these trees, much like he did in Abraham Lincoln‘s face:
I think well of the President. He has a face like a Hoosier Michael Angelo, so awful ugly it becomes beautiful with its strange mouth, its deep cut, criss-cross lines, and its doughnut complexion.
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This is certainly a beautiful spot. I didn’t get to enjoy it alone as there were other hikers on the trail with a park ranger. But it’s not difficult to contemplate the gravity of this place. The wind howls constantly. The view is amazing. The longevity of this grove is truly spellbinding.
In the grander scheme of things, the United States is a very young place. These trees are generations older than Walt Whitman or the Founding Fathers, multiple times over. Walking among these ancients, I had the same feeling as I did when I stepped into the Kaisariani Monastery on Mount Hymettus outside Athens during a high school Latin Club enrichment trip to Greece in 1996.
Parts of the monastery complex date to the 10th century A.D., which was a date that was hard for me to fathom at the time. That had been my first trip to Europe and I had never been inside a building that old. Although we would visit plenty of ancient ruins on the trip, it was incredibly humbling to step into a mostly intact building more than 1,000 years old.
The Pantheon in Rome, which I visited on another high school trip two years later, inspired similar feelings of awe. And so too did these incredibly ancient trees on Mount Wheeler. Like monks retreating to mountaintops to seek solitude, these pine trees have stood here looking out over the desert basin for centuries of contemplation.
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The act of ascending and descending a mountain forces any hiker to think deeply about the terrain. Even when traveling in a group, conquering the mountain with two feet requires personal struggle. Deep breaths are sometimes needed to deal with the high altitude. It can be hard to focus on group conversation when deep concentration is necessary to navigate the craggy rocks and uneven trails.
Then there are periodic moments of amazement when a majestic vista or a particularly beautiful sylvan spot is discovered. As Whitman would exclaim in “Poems of Joy“:
O to realize space!/ The plenteousness of all — that there are no bounds; / To emerge, and to be of the sky — of the sun, moon, and the flying clouds, as one with them
During my descent to the trailhead, the pine trees grew taller. I encountered a group of five retirees who said they were from San Francisco. We stopped for a few moments to chat and take time to rest.
“How far is the glacier?” one asked.
“I didn’t make it up that far,” I said. “But the bristlecone pine trees are about 20 minutes up the trail.”
One woman seemed confused, pointing to the trees around us. “Aren’t these bristlecone pines?”
I was pretty certain they were, since they had some twisted branches like the ones higher up. But the ones we were standing among weren’t the truly ancient ones.
“The ones that are 3,000 years old are at the top of the trail,” I said. “Then there’s another trail from there that goes up to the glacier.”
I told them there was a park ranger up at the grove who could likely tell them how far the glacier was.
One woman seemed like she wasn’t in the best of shape to continue the climb: “Is it worth the hike?”
“For those trees, it’s totally worth the hike,” I replied. “It’s only about 20 minutes more if you’re going at a good pace.”
One man chuckled. “That means 30 or 40 minutes for us. Our legs are ancient.”
“Not as ancient as those trees,” I said.
“Yes, I suppose,” he replied. “Everything’s relative.”