“I need solitude. I have come forth to this hill…to see the forms of the mountains on the horizon — to behold and commune with something grander than man.” Henry David Thoreau
I love returning to well-loved wild places; Canyonlands, Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone are favorites that I revisit often even going so far as to live on the border of Yellowstone. Traveling to a new destination, however, energizes my mind and fills my senses with a different sort of aliveness.
Thanks to my brother and his milestone birthday, we ‘discovered’ Bryce Canyon National Park recently. Though I’d driven through Bryce a few times long ago, I’d never hiked along its Rim Trail nor wandered down into its pinnacles. Perhaps the light was poor or the weather was bad, but I remember not being especially impressed with Bryce. This trip changed that game.
Three days sent us onto just a few of Bryce’s many miles of trails. Fairyland was our favorite, though the Rim Trail, hiked in morning light from Bryce Point toward Sunset Point was stunning. The Navajo/Queen’s loop was beautiful but as it is the most popular loop in the Park, it was so crowded that it was hard to see the spires through the people. We buzzed out to Rainbow Point one afternoon to hike the Bristlecone Trail, a one-mile loop winding through spruce and fir to an open cliff. The views were spectacular and the wind howling. A sign stood in front of a gnarly ancient dead tree—a Bristlecone Pine. We looked carefully and found another living specimen, though most would have unknowingly passed it by. While I have many favorite trees, I think Bristlecones are at the top of my list for their tenacity.
Rocky soils, little rainfall, high altitude, cold temperatures and high winds? The Bristlecone would say ‘Bring it on!’ The oldest Pinus longaeva is said to be just under 5000 years—which makes it the oldest known individual of any species in the world. (Aspens are clones and while the individual trees are not long-lived, the roots of one grove when aged, are estimated to be 80,000 years old.) Fortunately that ancient tree’s location (not in Bryce), is kept secret.
As we hiked I thought about the Bristlecone. As a metaphor for growing through adversity, for living longest and best when one must deal with less than optimal conditions. Some years the trees will not grow at all due to harsh conditions but they keep their needles for up to 40 years so they can still photosynthesize and survive. This means that counting rings gives the minimum estimate for the tree’s age—they could be much older. These trees will kill off parts of themselves to preserve the whole, which makes me think of the sacrifice of the few for the good of the many. (It is Memorial Day as I type which perhaps explains why my thoughts go in this direction.)
From the Bristlecone as a metaphor for life, my thoughts moved on to wilderness in general and how traveling through wild lands is like life. We move through life, not lingering too long in any one stage just as we pass through areas of wilderness. In life and in the wild we learn most through adversity, we try the best we can to survive and thrive, and we move on carrying memories and skills learned. While many have traveled these paths before, for each of us aging brings new unknown territory, presenting new opportunities to learn and grow.
The toughest times in my life have always yielded the most growth. When things are running smoothly it is easy to sit back and just enjoy the serenity. Yet when events go south and we must step up or be stepped upon, that is when life gets interesting. As I walked I began to look forward to the years ahead. Those future years are a wilderness of unknowns and I will face them when I come to them.
“Silence alone is worthy to be heard.” Henry David Thoreau