Ascending the winding road that leads from the two and a half horse town that is Big Pine, California, the White Mountains are as rusted red and stark as the Inyos just south of them. If one forgot to consult a map, it might seem as though no places have changed. A desert mountainscape to the east, and westward the still snow capped Sierras rising high enough into the sky to nearly always be sheathed in clouds. Occasionally a windswept glacial silver stone peak shows itself, and then again disappears into the sky.
Around 7000′, the road narrows to one lane traffic in two directions through some otherwise impassible stone. And then the snow begins to fall. Lightly.
We make it to the visitor center, the trailhead. We’re all playful business. We’ve prepared for a light snow; hoodies, vests, and beanies. But not a quarter mile into the hike, the wind picks up. The snowfall increases.
The smell of winter is in the air now, even in mid-May. I relish the feeling of crisp in my nose, the bite at my cheeks. The kids are having a blast, kicking through the thicker stuff. Tasting it. We continue our ascent.
The bristlecones can easily be identified here against the other trees in the area. Local pinyon pines have particularly obvious cones, wide open things with huge seeds–you know them as pine nuts in the grocery store–and sightly curved needles protruding in a myriad of directions. The third major conifer here is a juniper, with scaly needles and tiny juicy round blue cones that resemble and are therefor called berries.
The bristlecones, on the other hand, have needles longer and uniformly curved, like a bottle brush. Their cones are purple and thin, when fresh, and bristles protrude from them. Even when they’ve gone tan, they’re smaller and more pine cone looking than the pinyon’s young green, almost 20-sided die looking variety.
Around turn three we’re now facing the western slope. The wind is calling our bluff. We’re facing it, and the thickening frost on even the youngest child’s mustache, as though we can conquer all.
Wylder is in his mother’s arms. They regret to inform me of their need to return to the van. I hesitate, wondering if I should call the entire expedition of entirely.
“We’ll see you later,” she says, nonchalant. I sense her dismay. Maybe at the weather’s choice of wardrobe for the day, maybe just at the proposition of not finishing the trail.
The rest of us–my two boys, their grandmother–we trudge on.
At 4, Winter is smiling through gritted teeth. He’s happy in this environment. It’s new, we spend our time on the road after all and snow is rarely on the agenda. But it’s also very cold and I’m proud of him for his constitution.
I make a joke to Tristan, our 13 year old. It’s not a funny one by any means, a real dad joke, but he laughs and replies. I know that he’s fine with this all too then.
Another switchback, the wind behind us. And then another, again it pummels our faces.
“Just one more turn,” I assure them all, pulling potato skin chips and pretzels from my bag as an incentive to continue. They all gobble down the lot and march on happily.
Nanny is not feeling as well about the endeavor, I realize. None of us, least of all her, knew exactly how blustery it would be up here.
Winter mumbles something to her. I only hear mention of wet feet. I tell them we can go back as soon as they’d like.
“One more turn,” I preach. And then, one turn later, he’s there.
Old. Gnarled and twisted. Looking like he’s had a wretched life daily absorbing this type of winter, with brief spurts of equally testing hot summers between.
I don’t know how old he is for sure, but he’s a still living ancient bristlecone that’s long lost his bark. Smooth wood exposed to the elements, cracks rising from the snowy floor below and twisting around him like a barber shop pole until they dwindle away into the upper branches. A single one of those limbs still bearing needles.
He’s my elder, and I pay my respects. A photograph, a nod, and a farewell.
We begin our descent. Winter asks why we’re not going to the top, as he’d apparently hoped. He knew my bag was still thick with Starburst and possibly beef jerky.
We climb back into the van. It’s warm. The feeling of Christmas comes over me again.
Slow back down the mountain, to the warmer valley where we’ll just barely need a fire to keep us satiated. We paid homage to the elders, and they reminded us of our relative station in life. May they have a wonderful century.