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First Person

Alone on the mountain — where I belonged

Nevada's bristlecone pines are the oldest trees on Earth. I needed to see them by myself.

By Andy Pepper

“You’ll need snowshoes,” said the ranger at Great Basin National Park, as I peered at a map in the visitor’s center and cautiously expressed my intentions.

“Do you think this hike is a good idea?” I asked. Snowshoes in June — in Nevada — seemed like a red flag.

“I think you’ll be fine,” he said.

Hours later, skidding into a snow-covered ravine, I questioned his judgment. But at that point, I had no one to talk to but myself.

I had come to Great Basin with the goal of seeing the oldest trees known to man, and the secondary goal of doing it by myself. Why hike into the woods alone, knowing full well the risks? Like many ill-advised plans, it started with a mandate from a career self-help book: list your five fondest memories from childhood. I did that, not thinking too hard about it, and a pattern emerged. All my best memories took place in the woods, and in all of them, I was alone. Neither fact came as a surprise; together, they were a revelation.

Bristlecone pines like this one near the summit of Wheeler’s Peak thrive on wild, barren exposures. Photo by Andy Pepper

Growing up queer and closeted in small-town Mississippi was an incarceration. I can’t encapsulate my adolescence in one moment of trauma, but rather a siege of mid-level bullying. In response, I retreated into my own imagination, and to trees. Just past my family’s backyard lay a pasture, which gave way to mixed forest, a creek, and safety. In the company of trees, I found a worry-free playground, an escape, and — though I didn’t know it then — catharsis. The woods were the cloth I embroidered with daydream worlds of adventure and sci-fi. But as much as I was Indiana Jones or Luke Skywalker, I was also Darwin, soaking up everything I could from this microcosm of the natural world. As it all rushed back, I realized I needed more time in the trees, and to myself.

So, at 36, I traded in my communications career — which relied on constant connection — for a graduate program in fine art, the only field that felt creative enough. I earned a fellowship in a summer Master’s program in California. With my partner holding down the fort at home, I hopped in my Prius and began a solo drive cross-country, partly to interrogate the idea of time alone, and partly to visit some very old trees.

Near the summit of Wheeler Peak (elevation 13,064 feet), the central landmark in Great Basin National Park, grows a grove of bristlecone pines, many aged 3,000 years or more. These slow-growing trees are happy at lower elevations, where they look like any other pine tree. But they also thrive on wild, barren exposures like the rockfall below Wheeler’s melted glacier — where they become living sculptures, gnarled and burnished by the winds of centuries. They’re one of a handful of species whose lives can be measured in geologic time.

I remembered something the ranger said: “The trail gets lost in snow, so people have made their own trails. Not all of them go the right way.”

The mountain rises like a fortress above the tiny town of Baker, population 68, which lies at the eastern terminus of Nevada’s stretch of U.S. Route 50. In 1986, LIFE magazine called this leg of U.S.-50 “the loneliest road in America,” and, arriving in the quiet streets of Baker, I understood why. I’d booked a room at the only Airbnb in town, owned by a bright elderly woman named Wilda. I was her only renter, and the only lunch customer at the restaurant/bar/general store.

After lunch, I parked at the trailhead and shouldered my pack. My hiking experience was little more than basic, but the trail to Wheeler’s grove is short — three miles roundtrip. References rate it as suitable for beginners, altitude being the consideration. But late, record snow had deluged Nevada that spring, smashing droughts and burying the trail in drifts that lingered now, when the predicted high was 85 degrees.

On this day, signs of the storm were everywhere. A creek rushed headlong down the mountain, and the forest hummed with the sound of melt water. Tracts of snow dotted the understory around the empty trail, which suddenly felt far from everything.

Still, I hiked in. After 20 minutes, I reached the first big snow bank. It yawned across the trail and ranged for yards, recording a patter of footprints that struck out in every direction. I remembered something the ranger said: “The trail gets lost in snow, so people have made their own trails. Not all of them go the right way.”

He was right. Twice, what I thought was my trail turned out to be an imposter. I doubled back, remembering tales of stray hikers who died from exposure mere footsteps from civilization. After a mile that took an hour, the incline steepened. I was above 10,000 feet, the forest thinner, my path mercifully snow-free — and then, abruptly, it wasn’t.

A hiker makes the final approach up Wheeler Peak in 2004. Photo by Adam Rankin/Albuquerque Journal via Associated Press

As I approached a steep slope, I faced two options: follow the risky trail straight ahead, or take a longer, tamer path that dipped into a shallow ravine. Both were snowed in now. Wary of getting lost again, I followed strangers’ footsteps onto the precarious route, struggling for purchase through knee-high slush. After hours without service, my cellphone dinged with a message. It was my partner, out with friends and checking in. I replied I might be in trouble. Outgoing message failed. I pocketed my phone.

Then I lost my balance.

Tumbling 25 feet, I thought, “I am going to die here.” In a flash, I landed on hands and knees at the bottom of the ravine. My palms were scraped. I stood carefully — nothing sprained or broken.

Slowly, I slogged the lower trail and climbed the slope, gasping in the thin air. A needling headache behind my right eye came into bloom. (“Beware! That’s altitude sickness,” Wilda would say later.) The trail rounded a corner, and the only other human I saw that afternoon stepped into view: a man around 25 with a tan that said he spent a lot of time outdoors. “Going to the grove?” he asked. “You’re almost there.”

The 15 minutes of “almost” felt like an eternity. Then, to the left, treetops broke to reveal the desert below. To the right, the summit came into view, and ahead of it, a massive field of boulders and pine trees. Bristlecone pines.

I spent one hard-won hour alone with those trees — trees that grew right there before the birth of Christ, before the pyramids were built. I photographed them. I sat with them. I looked at them as closely as I could, wanting to remember every detail.

The weight of the experience didn’t hit me until later, when I was one of three dinner guests in the beige dining room at the nearby Border Inn Casino. (“They keep their slots in Nevada and their rooms in Utah,” Wilda said.)

As the couple across the room shared a hot fudge sundae, I suddenly understood the rare solitude that connected my lone adventure with this place, and those trees. The pines’ quiet story spanned millennia. For a quiet hour, I had shared in it.

The couple finished their sundae and left. I tucked into my dinner, alone, but never more alive.

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Andy Pepper is a visual artist, editor, and writer based in Boston.

 

Illustration by Miguel Porlan

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