Camping, Off-Roading

The Brutal Majesty of Existence

Day 12

Altitude: 7090 ft.  Stoke level: ? Temperature: 78-39 degrees Conditions: breezy, sunny

Today was a real trial for me. It was mentally and spiritually exhausting. All of the stresses and anxiety I have felt on this expedition finally caught up with me on this day. I found out that the Alaskan home-sit opportunity was a no-go, so that was a real bummer. I guess they found someone else to go with. Oh well, that’s the way she rolls sometimes.

I actually had a good night’s sleep for once. Not only did I dream after a long time without doing so, but they were some really good damn dreams at that! I took this as a good sign going into the day.

As I was perusing the internet this morning, I read this great piece of travel writing about walking the Santiago de Compostela route in Spain. This is one of the most legendary hikes in all of the world and one I’d love to do someday. The author mentioned a film starring Martin Sheen called ‘The Way’ being about that subject that had been inspiring to her. I was in a movie watching mood and I’ve always liked Martin Sheen, so I managed to find and stream it. It is one of the finest films I’ve seen in years. It might be my new favorite actually.

It is written, directed and produced by Emilo Estevez, but stars his father. Emilo appears in it as his father’s onscreen son. His screen time is brief unfortunately, but it makes sense in the context of the film. He does say the best line of the the movie, “You don’t choose your life, you live one.” It’s been a long time since I have seen Emilio in anything, I’ve missed him. Ever since I saw him in ‘Young Guns’ I thought he was the shit! Anyways, it’s an absolute masterpiece of a film. It is about a man whose son dies on the Santiago de Compostela. When he goes to Europe to retrieve his son’s remains, he is driven to complete the walk that his son never completed.

It was a tour de force that had me crying half of the movie and laughing the other half. This movie affected me profoundly given my current life situation. It just really felt relatable to me on multiple levels. I cannot recommend this film enough, you must see it.

After I watched this film, I just felt emotionally wrung out. All of the anxieties and frustrations I’ve experienced the past week and a half just boiled over. I kind of just had a bit of a mental breakdown. At the bottom of this breakdown the phrase “The Brutal Majesty of Existence” just lept into my consciousness. I started thinking about it, and just started cracking up. Just what in the hell does that mean anyways? I wasn’t completely sure, but I felt like it just summed up this whole expedition in a single phrase!

It turned my mood around laughing about it, and afterwards I set about getting myself back in order. I hadn’t been eating much at all the past couple of days due to stress and altitude, so I broke out some of my survival ration mac and cheese to eat. It was so much better than your average Kraft-brand boxed stuff. Patriot Pantry makes some damn fine long-term survival rations. I don’t work for them or anything, just a very satisfied customer. If you’re ever in the market for that kind of product I’d recommend them.

So as I was getting set up to write this blog entry in the light of my Coleman lantern earlier, I spied this big ‘ol bug crawling around on the ground. Now, I’m up in the high desert, so immediately I thought with its size and way of moving around it was a tarantula. Now, I’m kind of neutral on spiders in general, but I think tarantulas are really neat. I went to go check out what I thought was a big ‘ol spider.

It turns out I found some kind of freakish creature that I’ve never seen before out here in the desert! It looked to be 50 percent grasshopper/locust, 25 percent ant and 25 percent tarantula. It moves and scurries like a tarantula would, but looks like some kind of mutant cross between species. As I tried to take a picture it scurried to hide under a rock. It took a lot of poking him with a stick to get the little joker to come out and pose for the camera. Once I got him out into the light and he saw I meant to do him no harm it just hung out and chilled with me for a while. I could tell that this was a smart little insect, whatever the hell it was.

If ya’ll know what this crazy creature is, let me know. It looks like some crazy hell-beast, but I kind of liked him. I’d bet it would be an interesting insect to keep as a pet.

I hung out with him a good five minutes or so, then when I tried to pet him he got tired of me and went back under his rock. Whatever the hell it was, it was a cool little creature and it really boosted my spirits. You really never know what you’ll encounter out here in the desert!

This has been quite a day to say the least. I realized that I had some tramua left over from the past couple of days that shook me up more than I thought it did at the time. I don’t think I really could put into words the sheer terror I experienced up there on that treacherous mountain. I can’t remember the last time I had such a prolonged engagement with such a constant level of high stress like that. It worked me over good. The Beast & I made it through with battle scars to show for it. Now I feel badass as hell! The Beast and I had to work & persevere together as we never had before. It was a perfect savage frenzy of man, machine and mountain. I’ll never forget it for as long as I shall live.

So now the question is where do I go from here. I really like this part of California, but it is still too cold and windy at night for my taste. Even though I am technically in the desert now, I want to just go on further south down into the desert proper. No more cold for me on this trip. It’s halfway through June for crying out loud! I actually know of a place to go look for gold at this place called Randsburg. I’m worried that the stream there might be dried up by this time of year, but if so maybe I can work on my dry gold panning.

First though, since I’m so close, I want to go check out the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest near here. I’ve always wanted to experience these trees, they are the oldest known non-fungal lifeforms on earth. They are over 4000 years old, and the Methuselah Tree is 4851 years old. These trees were already ancient when Troy fell. When Paris shot his poisoned arrow into Achille’s heel, these trees were growing strong.  Almost all the civilizations we have ever known have risen and fallen, and yet these trees have stood sentinel on their mountaintops through it all. Through wind, rain, snow, and pestilence, these trees have survived. I’ve known about these trees for years up in the White Mountain range, and I’m looking forward to finally experiencing them in real life.

I also am thinking it would be nice to cash in some of the Airb&b credits I have left over from my Alaska trip for a night. I am just utterly filthy, it’s been almost two weeks since I had a shower. The idea of being in a nice, warm, wind-free environment and sleeping in a real bed for a night would really get me back in sorts methinks!

Edit: I was informed by a friend of mine that weird bug I found is what is known as a Jerusalem cricket. I have heard of these insects before but I never knew what they looked like. Well, now I know!

Day 13

Altitude: 4161 ft.  Stoke level: 9 Temperature: N/A  Conditions: N/A                                  

I finally hit the wall on this expedition. After another night with temps down in the 30’s, I had to take a break from the elements. I used my Airb&b credits and booked a couple of nights at the Day’s Inn in Bishop. I really hated to use my credits, but I had reached a point where I was shattered. Nearly two weeks of the road life left me really needing a hot shower and a warm bed to rest up in.

Boy oh boy, I really made a good decision on that one. I don’t think I have ever appreciated a mediocre hotel room the way I do this one. It took me 20 minutes in the shower to get the dirt and grime off, and my towel still had dirt marks on it after I dried off. Dust is still coming out of my pores! I hated to spend money on fast food, but after I got cleaned up I had to go to Taco Bell and get a bunch of nachos and a large Baja Blast. It was the height of decadence lying on a nice comfortable bed and chowing down on some nachos, let me tell ya’ll!

I’m already feeling 100% better, and after some solid sleep tonight I should be feeling like Superman! That is good, for the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest awaits me on the morrow. I hear you’ve got to get an early start if you want to hit up all the trees in one day, so it’s going to be an early bedtime for me tonight. I’ve no problem with that, I’m absolutely haggard at the moment and my body is craving rest.

I feel really good about finally getting to see these trees. When I was around 20 years of age, I got a photography book that featured the Forest and the pictures just blew me away. I swore that someday I’d make the pilgrimage. That time is now and I’m super stoked about it. I feel tomorrow is going to be a good day indeed!

Day 14

Altitude: 11265 ft.  Stoke level: 10    Temperature: 88-43 degrees     Conditions: light breeze, clear blue sky

It turned out to be as good of a day as I had hoped. I coudn’t have asked for better weather to go check out the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. It was so hard for me to get out of the bed this morning though! I could have slept for another whole day, I was so tired. I had wanted an early start because I knew that there was a lot to see and I would need as much time as I could to do it. Once I had a good breakfast and got up on the mountain however, I felt energized and ready to go see these mountain ancients.

Views from White Mountain close to the entrance of Schulman Grove. This is looking westward towards Bishop.

There are three trails to take up at the main visitor center located at Schulman Grove. I decided to take the Methuselah Trail first, as it was the most difficult and longest. This trail has the oldest and largest trees. The Methuselah Tree is located somewhere on this trail but it isn’t identified as such. I guess they think people would mess with it. People being people, the Forest Service is probably right. One thing that bothered me is that I didn’t have a guide to interpret the numbered signs on the trail. Usually you get those maps at the visitor center but it was closed due to coronavirus. On the plus side, that meant I didn’t have to pay a fee to enter, but I would have gladly paid to get a map, see the exhibits and support the upkeep of the park.

The hike wasn’t that bad, but being at 10,000 feet altitude, I spent a lot of time stopping to catch my breath. It was all good though, there weren’t a lot of people around and I didn’t feel crowded or rushed. It was nice to stop and rest at nice benches every quarter mile or so and take everything in. It was an absolutely beautiful place to hike. I felt every worry and scrap of anxiety leave my body. You could just feel the energy of these ancient trees. They weren’t the most beautiful of trees, but they just had such a rugged, wise character to them. It was impossible to feel anything but peace and joy around these powerful forces of nature.

You can see why they call these the White Mountains. The light color is from dolomite, which only the Great Basin Bristlecone and Limber Pines can grow in.
An old tree still growing strong.
The dead trees make the coolest pictures!

There were more than just cool trees to look at, there was a lot of nature on display as well. I saw golden eagles, ground squirrels, and a mountain bluebird. I couldn’t get a good picture of any of them except for the ground squirrel. The bluebird in particular was almost neon blue in color, I’ve never seen a non-tropical bird that color, it was wild!

Ground squirrel chillin’ with his ground score.

As the hike progressed, the sun shifted position in the sky and gave better light to take pictures by. The grain and color of the wood cannot be appreciated with noon-day light. There is a texture to the grain that I’ve never seen before in trees. How these trees survive as long as they do is a result of the tough environment. They don’t grow but just a little bit every year, and keep their needles for like 40 years at a time. They secrete a really potent resin that helps keep away pests as well. I had heard that it had a really rich smell, so at one point I got some sap on my fingers just so I could get a whiff for myself. It was the deepest and richest pine odor I have ever smelled in my life. I kept thinking what a tremendous incense it would make!

As the angle of the sun changed, it helped me to take better shots.

It took me about two and a half hours to hike the 4 and 1/2 mile trail. I was famished when done, so I made a couple of sandwiches down in the parking lot. After lunch, I decided to tackle the Bristlecone Pine Trail which was a two and a half mile loop next. It wasn’t a tree-focused trail, it instead wound around some old miner’s cabins and mineshafts from back in the day. The original miners had actually chopped down a bunch of trees to make the structures they needed to do their work back in the 19th century. It was sad seeing all the stumps of the trees, but they didn’t know any better. In fact, a lot of their mining activity actually buried a lot of pinecones so there is a little kindergarden of baby bristlecones growing out of the mine tailings! They destroyed some trees, but inadvertently grew new ones, so the destruction canceled itself out!

One of the old miner’s cabins made from bristlecone.
The bristlecone kindergarten!

As I was hiking up this trail, I started getting super worn out. I haven’t been hiking in a while, and doing it at altitude had just sapped my strength. I made it to the top of the ridge and decided to come back down. I still wanted to see Patriarch Grove, which was a little journey up the road, at sunset. This being the case, I felt like I needed to conserve what energy I had left. On my way back down the mountain, I passed a tree that was the biggest tree I had seen so far. For whatever reason I hadn’t noticed its enormous size on the way up. Was this the Methuselah Tree, hiding in plain sight on the trail it wasn’t expected to be on? I didn’t know, but it was one huge, healthy, and probably super ancient bristlecone. It was as big around as a lot of old-timer redwoods I have had the pleasure of encountering.

The biggest bristlecone of the day, all hanging out by its lonesome.

Upon returning to the parking lot, I downed a Powerade and rested for the final push up the mountain. Patriarch Grove was the highest bristlecone trees on the mountain, a 12 mile haul up a gravel road from Schulman Grove. Even though it was only 12 miles, it was said to take an hour to traverse as it was pretty washboardy. These trees are right at the treeline at over 11,000 feet. They are not the oldest or the biggest, but they stand out more starkly against the landscape. At the Golden Hour, I was hoping to get some good pics up there.

As it was getting later on in the afternoon, I decided to make tracks instead of taking on the last trail I hadn’t yet hiked down. My feet were aching from my new hiking boots, and the 6 and 1/2 miles I had walked during the day had pretty much whooped me. I didn’t know how much further I would have to hike, so I decided to get on down the road.

Awesome views going up towards the summit of White Mountain.

The road up was very good by off-road standards, but I had to go slow as not to shake The Beast to death. My timing wound up being perfect however. As I pulled up into the parking lot of Patriarch Grove, the sun was still a good 45 minutes from sinking below the western mountains. There was only one other vehicle in the parking lot, so obviously this was a spot well-off the beaten path. It was a lot colder than it had been downhill, and the air was super thin. I checked my altimeter and it read 11,265 feet, which is the highest I have ever been on the ground that I have ever recorded. It was a pretty sparse place, I can’t believe anything can grow there at all!

I started to hike up to the trees to get some pictures in before it got too dark. As I ambled up the trail, I ran into this old guy who was the owner of the only other vehicle in the parking lot. He was a friendly old dude named Barney, and we had a nice chat. He was up there to do some night photography, and he had already picked out his tree he was going to work with. I haven’t really talked to anyone much on this expedition with all the social-distancing stuff going on, so I told him all about my journey so far. When I told him about my aborted Alaska trip, he told me he had been a fishing guide up there in his younger days and we had some good conversation about Alaska. He’s like, “No matter what, you’ve got to do everything you can to get up there, it is the best place to be.”

I’m like, “I know dude, that’s what everyone tells me!” He knew what was up! As a local guy, I asked him where I should go after I left Bishop. He said I should go and check out Saline Valley over in Death Valley National Park. It sounded like my kind of place to visit. I made a note of it and we parted ways to go about our photographic business.

My favorite shot of the day. I thought this tree looked like an Ent with its arms raised in glory to the sunset.

It didn’t take long for the sun to fall beneath the mountain, and so my day was done. It took another 2 hours to plod my way back down the mountain. It was all good though, I had such a great time up there with those old trees. That coupled with having a hotel room waiting for me at the end of the road filled me with much vigor. I was really wanting to eat some pizza so I stopped and grabbed some Domino’s on the way back. It was just a hum-dinger of a day all around. I wish all the days could have all been like this one on this expedition. I went to bed exhausted but happy.

Tomorrow I plan on leaving Bishop and going back to my old stomping grounds in the Mojave Desert. As much as I’d love to explore the Bishop area more, I have had my fill of cold and alpine conditions. I’m ready to get back to the desert I love for one last hurrah before this trip is done. Hopefully I can dry-pan myself some gold down there in the wasteland. I’ll have to see what is up down there in those parts.


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