Road: Petroglyphs, Volcanic Tablelands and Ancient Bristlecone Pines

Art Journal, The Road

Stuck in a holding pattern. We could’ve gone east on US Route 6, but that road had high wind advisories for towing campers. We could’ve backtracked south, but that would’ve meant going over territory our eyes were well adjusted to and the location we would camp was also getting hit by the winter storm. North or west, I know where I wanted us to go and that required going over the Sierra Nevadas. And they were getting some winter precipitation.

We stayed where we were. Let it pass, with the early days of March.


March 8
A day of nothing. A blissful nap. Then Kurt changed the oil in the truck and fiddled with things. It’s really something how fast a day can fall away to dusk with nothing tangible to show for it.

March 9
A day to explore. Kurt and I went back up the mountain to explore more of the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. It was much colder. The temperature dropped to a sharp 19 degrees F from the breezy 50’s in the valley floor.
I mistook the crisp air as familiar home turf and tried to walk a bit brisker than I should’ve. That peppy feeling plunged away fast as I was faced with oxygen hungry lungs for walking just a hundred feet. The only other time I felt like that was in the throes of bronchitis.
Somewhere I read that the Forest was just as interesting down the road from the visitor center. So… we went. And it was fine. Until the road turned down a slope that didn’t get as much sun and then it became a tense mountain ride, downhill on icy snow ruts along a cliff edge. Me, begging Kurt to put on the tire chains while imagining us sliding right off the side, Kurt refusing.
The road got better. On this side of the peak the skies, dark, were filled with snow clouds hugging the mountain valley. We arrived in time for snow, minute hard pellets made from cold skies.

Alone in the valley was a black horse gathering a saddle of snow on his back. I was hesitant to assume he was wild or feral but I can’t find evidence of anyone living up there and according to the internet there is a White Mountain Wild Horse Herd. For now he’s a mystery.
And there where the horse grazed is also where we couldn’t go any farther. The road was snowed in yet with no tracks breaking the way.
On our way out I marveled at how quickly the weather changed just miles down the road. The clouds completely broken up, blue sunny skies.

March 10

If the mountains looked like they were getting precipitation yesterday, they looked absolutely violent today. We were planning to leave tomorrow, but have decided in our best interests to stay another day. Give the Sierras one more to rage it out.
In the afternoon we took another drive to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. It was even colder with a sharp, biting wind. This time there were no rude photographers to shoot around at the old snag on Discovery Trail. Just my husband and I huffing and puffing our way up the trail in thin, cold air.


This snag is often mislabeled on Instagram as the Methuselah Tree, counted once oldest known living tree, but that’s wrong. I can’t find a proper name for it. I’ve found where many say it died about 300 years ago and was about 3500 years old.
What is it about this snag? It is photogenic. It’s fairly easy to find, hanging over the trail. The snag can be isolated in the frame. It’s a primordial memento mori. The opposite of the tree of life in its way. It’s also an exploration of wabi sabi philosophy. The communal celebration of the slow undoing of an ancient the life force. Beauty in it’s decline.

March 11

Cold. Snow. It appears we are adding yet another day to sitting here waiting out the Sierra storms. They. Were. Supposed. To. Be. Done. Yesterday. Couldn’t see either mountain range this morning and this evening the cloud cover over the valley is low, dark and oppressive.

March 12

Reader, that weather yesterday sent me scampering for the cozy happiness of the bed. It felt like Christmas morning in the north. A warm nest to crawl into with a book and nowhere else to go while the earth gets her blanket of snow. Never mind that it’s spring and missing was the smell of a fresh pine, covered in dancing lights, hovering over sparkling presents with tender bows. The skies were heavy with clouds.
We best be leaving tomorrow.

For today though, we checked out some petroglyph sites in the Volcanic Tablelands believed to be created by the Paiute people. Some of them were incredibly visible, others faded, one location dense with symbolic markings. Some locations were visibly marred by modern hands. A name here. A date there. I wanted to find out more about the symbols and read the area was raided a few years ago. People cut some of the petroglyphs out of the rocks and damaged others in the process.
This is always and everywhere. Friends of the Death Valley have put on a social media campaign to raise funds to help them fix the scars left on the playas by people driving on them. We see rocks defaced. Trees and saguaros carved. Fallen sequoias in Sequoias National Park covered in names. The oldest Bristlecone Pines are kept secret because people cannot be trusted.

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Road: People are People

Art Journal, The Road

People are people no matter where you go. The good, the bad, the entitled, the desperate. Kurt and I were just talking about people. Last year we went to Sequoia National Park to stand among the giants. The thing that stood out immediately for me was the fencing around each of the old towers. I imagined hugging, touching, smelling, communing with one of the old giants. That’s exactly what I shouldn’t do.
They have hardly any root structure for their size and no taproot. In an attempt to preserve the trees from the trampling feet of millions of visitors they erected low fences and dismissible signage. Kurt and I sat there on a bench marveling at the impossibility of such life, when the French kids showed up.
I always thought it was Americans who behaved entitled everywhere they went. That’s the trope at least. I was pained watching them clamber around the base of the tree for inane selfies. Heartbreaking for the tree, how many years of this stress could it ultimately take before going down? That’s when another (I’m assuming middle-eastern by accent) gentleman chastised the French kids.
Tonight we were visiting the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. At between 9,500 – 10,500 ft in elevation I really took it easy on the trail. I’m neither fit or at all used to high altitudes. It went ok. I had a brief, mild headache and started feeling dizzy for a little while. I took a lot of breaks and happy dance I didn’t die. Bonus I walked among trees that could pre-date Caesar. Older than the fall of Rome. Older than Shakespeare. Some of the dead ones (they don’t rot very well) could go as far back as 10,000 years. Before pyramids. Before the rise and fall of the Greek City States. Some of the trees seen today could outlive us by hundreds of years, thousands.

They varied from twisted gnarled forms to shooting straight for the sky. Many of the Pines were missing all or part of their bark, yet remained alive. Their needles surprisingly soft. The bark-less wood solid and ungiving.
It seemed we had the place to ourselves, then stumbled upon a couple men set up off trail to photograph one of the more famous trees. There was signage all around asking people to stay on trail. Protect the trees that are thousands of years old, from us.
The men, middle-aged, dark in complexion and speaking another language than English, were unfazed by my husband’s emotional outburst while pointing to the signage. They continued to speak to each other in their language. Kurt walked off, while I stayed to try to get some photos. It slowly dawned on me these men were as awful as my husband believed. I wanted to say they were trying for the best angle, but afterwards I realized it wasn’t. There were many, many amazing angles to explore with the camera without going off trail.


Then no matter what I was trying they made no effort to move out of the frame. No offer to move unused gear. They continued to chat. Then one sentence of English looking at the sky “it’s too dark.” That was for my benefit out there photographing without a tripod (I find them stifling and unnecessary).
Usually the people we meet are interesting. Nice. In this case not so much. Often it’s at more popular locations with Instagrammers we’ve seen the worst behavior from people. Garbage strewn sites like Cadillac Ranch. People wrecking delicate ecology in the deserts. Carving their names into saguaros and sequoias.
Me? I went up there to taste a piece of time for myself. Worship at a cathedral of ancients. Possess the essence of the forest through its textures and details, not just capture the most photographed tree. That was icing.