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DAY 1: White Mountain Bristlecones: served with a shiraz mustache

July 14, 2008


July 5, White Mountains, Inyo National Forest, Eastern California served with
porkloin, grilled corn, and 2005 Marquis Philips “Roogle” shiraz, chilled briefly in a bucket of snow

At 10,000’, we’ve left paved road and the Schulman Grove of the Bristlecone Pines in the White Mountains of California’s Inyo National Forest to climb steadily up a well maintained dirt and gravel road. Sagebrush, a calf high shrub, dots the hillsides with soft green, and sends up gray green flower spikes which will bloom yellow by late August. Abundant coral red Indian paintbrush bracts burst in color between the sage while purple lupine lines the road and sends wafts of grape through the window to mingle with whiffs of sage.

We’re headed for the Patriarch Grove at over 11,000’ where, we have been warned a large snowpatch blocks the road requiring an extra mile hike-in to see the twisted, bony trees scatter about the dolomite hillside.

Bristlecones are called the “ancient ones” because, as far as trees go, they outlive everything else by hundreds of years. Many have lived thousands of years. Creosote, a head high desert shrub found in the Mojave just south and thousands of feet down, live this long as well but there’s some debate whether an old individual is the same plant or a clone.

Regardless, there is something about these desert climes that keep these trees and shrubs hanging around for generations longer than anything or anywhere else.

I don’t blame the bristlecones for sticking around—this is one of my favorite places on earth, and I am sharing it for the first time with my son and my husband, both of whom are eagerly peering out the windows as we wind our way up the mountain to the Patriarch Grove, scoping out possible camping sites along the way. From previous trips, I know there are a few right on the ridge of the range, sites where we will be able to peer down into the Owen’s Valley to see the lights of Bishop—and even more to my taste, to see the peaks of the Sierra, adorned still with white in avalanche shoots, the glaciers in the Palisades as well as remaining patches in assorted places.

We still scoff however at the possibility of snow on this side of the valley. It is HOT—in the 90s here at 11,000’ and climbing—how could there be a patch of snow still on the road which will detain us from arriving at our goal?

But as we near, we do find the road closed, with a weak patch of snow, and there, yes, a large one, large enough to sustain an extensive snowball fight by a group of a dozen or so teens and their families up for the day from Bishop.

We make sandwiches while others BBQ hot dogs. The terrain feels like the moon—white hillsides of dolomite are very otherworldly, even though we are surrounded by vehicles and people. Bristlecones live just up the hill from us too—stark, bizarrely shaped and formed by winter ice wind whipped to splinter off the bark, stripping off the cambium layer which sustains its growth, leaving just enough life for it to preserve another year.

The 4 year old is ecstatic and fascinated by the snowball fight. He lives yearlong on the coast, and even though we went on three ski trips this year, he loves and is entranced by snow; he is anxious for us to hurry down and join in on the snowball fight. He doesn’t quite understand the logistics as well as the social dance involved—these are teens from Bishop we don’t know and—these are TEENS. We are old enough to be their parents. We know they don’t want us around. But we stop at the snow patch, watch the antics, exchange some snowballs, and then, when the teens move on, we do too.

We don’t get very far when the 4 year old finds a patch of snow in a gully and insists on going up there. Go right ahead, we encourage him; he gets quite a ways up before he turns around and joins us. We continue on, but by this time in the afternoon, he’s about out of steam so when he suggests we head back, we do. It’s time to find a campsite. We’ll save these bristlecones for another day and see the Schulman Grove trees tomorrow. First, we use a sauce pan to scoop snow into ziplock bags and a bucket to assist our rapidly depleting ice.

Heading back toward Shulman Grove, we descend steeply on the short section of paved road, then climb back up to the ridge where we inspect then reject one campsite—too exposed, but great views—and continue on until we find the “perfect”site—a bit more off the road than others, a few trees, and awesome views down and across the valley. Plenty of flat space for the van and even a makeshift whiffle ball diamond; no bugs, not too hot, the sliding door opens out west toward the sierra, the windshield faces the trees—limberpines and bristlecones, but not likely much older than a few hundred years. Certainly not “ancient ones” but of the same stock! The oldest ones are only found in these two groves. A number of very old ones grow in Nevada at Great Basin National Park, and the oldest one ever found lived there until the 1950s when a scientist named Curry cut it down to figure out its age when his coring failed.

Under the shade of a bristlecone, I make us a table using two found fallen tree branches—the 4×4 piece of plywood we keep in the back of the van balances on them with the help of a flat rock. This is where we set up the portable propane BBQ. While the boys practice hitting the whiffle ball and running bases, I put a bottle of 2005 Marquis Philips shiraz in the snow in the bucket; the label has a “Roogle”—a mythical eagle/kangaroo creature seems appropriate this July 4 weekend.

Time to relax, enjoy the afternoon, and break into a new book –Barbara Henning’s You, Me and the Insects (2006 Spuyten Duvil) about her stay in Mysore India to study yoga and life. I am instantly present deeply in two places—getting camp set up here in the White Mountains, getting her place set up in India, preparing food, distracted occasionally by family by memory by things to do. Her book is full of observations, almost like a meditation—I see my mind thinking about this, I am now observing that. It’s vivid and masterful. I’m in heaven.

And it keeps getting better! The Big Monkey BBQs corn, then a very peppery porkloin while I stir fry squash. The Roogle is incredible, its rich, vivid flavor, and intense fruitiness standing up to and balancing the peppery porkloin.

“You have a shiraz mustache!” laughs my husband and my child joins in.

The Marquis Philips 2005 is a shiraz to cut your teeth on, one that sticks to your ribs and your upper lip. The 15.9 alcohol plus the altitude socks it to me quick; the wine is smooth but edgy at the same time—just like our campsite!

The smoke from recent fires light the clouds a deep blood orange. The day cools. The child sleeps. We sit in campchairs, watch the slender moon set, feel close to the stars. A day well done.

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