Short trip up US-395: Day 2

Sunday morning I was leaving Mammoth by 8:45. There wasn’t anything planned for the morning, so I parted ways and off I went. When it was all said and done, I only ended up hanging out with my buddies for a few hours. I made my way down the mountain, admiring the scenery as I went. That downgrade just outside of Bishop really is a sight to behold, along with the Crowley Lake area. With snow it’s even more so! And I was glad we did Mono Lake the day before, because had I waited, it would have really made my morning tight. Not investing 2 hours of northern driving before heading south was a good thing.

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Down the mountain I knew I needed gas, and some breakfast. Both were a tad unremarkable, especially since breakfast was just Jack In the Box… I know, I know. There was a good spot I had stopped at last year, but I couldn’t remember which town it was in. I later realized it ended up being down in Big Pine, but that realization came many hours later.

In the meantime I left Bishop and headed south for a few miles before stopping to take some pictures of some large satellite dishes. Very reminiscent of the Very Large Array out in New Mexico, so I was curious. I kept going, seeing a fairly heavy police presence along the 395, and even seeing a guy get pulled over just as I made my turn onto CA-168 just before hitting Big Pine.

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As much as I have wanted to I’ve never wandered very far from the 395, but I wanted to see the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, so this was a chance. I didn’t know much (or anything really) about the drive, so everything was a surprise to me. It ended up being a curvy, and eventually winding road up into the mountains, that eventually, for the span of about 100 yards, became single lane. Overall the road was pretty desolate, but shortly after passing the single lane portion I saw a massive truck and couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to meet along that stretch.

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I kept up the road, hearing a squeak that could only be coming from my car which was giving me a little worry. I turned from what I thought was a desolate road onto a truly empty one, or so I thought. I continued up this road with an uncertainty since the Bristlecone Pine Forest is closed for the winter, but with the warmth of this winter I was hoping it was open. I genuinely did not know what to expect.

The road wound and curved, into the abyss of mountains I went, and I worried until another car finally passed me. Whew! I am not alone. I kept going, saw another car, and eventually a parking lot. Wait, what? A small lot, but there were a few cars, and people. So much for being alone! It was actually a relief. The parking lot was for a pretty amazing vista point, presenting a stunning view of the Sierra Nevada range. It was a really short walk to the best view, and I could have sat up there for ages.

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After taking some pictures I made my way back to my car and headed up the road where I was expecting a gate, but hoping it would be an open one. It was not open. But there were several cars parked in front of it, so my ambitions would at least not be completely foolish. I parked.

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I packed up my hiking gear for a 2 mile hike to the Bristlecone Pines, and was a tad worried about all the food I left in my car. Was this bear country? I guess I’d find out. Pretty relieved that I was not the only one making the trek up to the forest, I started up the road around 11:45. As I walked I couldn’t help but wonder why the gate was closed, since there wasn’t any snow, with the exception of a few shady spots on the side. I walked up, encouraged by the people walking down that didn’t seem tired at all despite my being tired going up. The road was bone dry.

I crested a hill on the road and that’s when I realized why there was a road closure. The road was covered in snow for about 1/4 mile. Oh, so I guess they do know what they’re doing! I kept walking, seeing as that was the final stretch, and made it to the closed visitors center. I read some of the signage and noted that there were two main trails to view the Ancient Bristlecone Pines. One was the “Discovery Trail”, and the other was the “Methuselah Walk”. The former was shorter, the latter promised the idea of seeing the oldest tree.

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Now is probably a good time to explain why I wanted to visit this particular forest. The Ancient Bristlecone Pines are one of the (if not THE) oldest living organisms in the world. Yes, the oldest living organisms in the world, living right in my own backyard… sort of. There are some trees in Norway that lay some sort of claim to that title, but regardless, these guys are in the discussion. When discovered, these trees were dated to be over four thousand years old! Living organisms, not rocks. Later on they found some trees, dubbed the Methuselah Grove which got their name from the tree that they found to be the oldest, at the ripe old age of over five thousand years! With that knowledge, I knew I had to see these trees for myself because that’s pretty freaking cool!

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Back to my dilemma. The Discovery Trail was about a mile, while the Methuselah Trail was about five. I really wanted to check out the latter one since I liked the idea of knowing I saw the oldest living organism on the planet (even though they protect the specific location of the tree for security reasons), but hiking 5 miles round trip didn’t seem like it was in the cards, given my time constraints. I opted for the Discovery Trail and settled for trees that were a mere four thousand years old. Practically newborns!

I spent a little over an hour doing the hike and just sort of soaking in the scenery. It’s sort of hard to comprehend the concept of those trees. If we make the assumption that Jesus was around two thousand years ago, he was as far from those trees sprouting, as we are from him living! That’s impressive. They’re around the ages of the Great Pyramids, which are impressive because they’ve managed to stay standing that long. These trees have stayed ALIVE for that same period of time!

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Making my way back was a little easier, but difficult since I didn’t see everything I wanted to see. I will definitely be back during the summer. I need to see the oldest trees. I got down to my car around 2:30 and was pretty relieved not to see broken glass and a missing ham steak! No bears today. There was a fair amount people parked there, so I’m assuming any danger was mitigated by the somewhat regular flow of people.

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I meandered down the mountain and headed towards civilization, and as the road left the canyons it opened up to a nice view of the Sierras just above Big Pine. I pulled my car over to take in the view, and about a minute later I was joined by another car. An older guy got out, and started taking pictures of his junky 4Runner. I didn’t think much of it until he promised to leave me to my peace and quiet, since he only needed a few minutes for work. That led to a half hour conversation about his job. He caught my interest when he said he “gets paid to travel” and “lives from his car” (not literally, but when working he does). Turns out his name is Norman, and he’s a location scout. His specialty is print ads for cars, so he drives around finding places for shoots. I’ve been looking for some sort of job that pays for travel, and even though this may not be for me, it does make me realize there are jobs out there that I’ve never thought of. He was an interesting dude, and after a while I let him do his thing, since I needed to start heading south.

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It was around 4:30 and I was still in Big Pine. With a hefty part of my drive left I made my way south. In town was where I passed the good restaurant I was thinking about in Bishop. I kept driving until Independence, which was when I stopped at Jenny’s Cafe. Sure enough, there was a “business closed” sign out front. That was a bummer.

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Along the road I came across Manzanar. One of my “tomorrow” things. Unfortunately it was late, and even if I wanted to stop, it would have already been closed. Like Matt Damon on Jimmy Kimmel, I ran out of time, and maybe I’ll get to it next time I’m up there.

Eventually I made my way to Lone Pine where I figured it was a good time to get something to eat and almost settled on McDonalds. Instead I went to the Mt Whitney Restaurant. I’m glad I did simply for the sake that I was in a small town, and that’s just what you do. The food was decent too.

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Belly full, I got back on the road. Having seen so many cops I was content to stay about 5 miles over the speed limit, but I was constantly being passed by cars that thought they were on the Autobahn. I stayed the course and kept at my pace which worked out for me as the sun dipped into the west and produced some nice colors on my southward journey. It was pretty dark by the time I hit the Ridgecrest area and I sped along before finally getting caught behind a truck. It’s too hard to pass at night.

The 395 can be pretty frustrating during that stretch, which was only compounded by loads of traffic on I-15 through Cajon. I got behind a truck and just stayed there until I was down the pass, and it wasn’t much longer before I was home around 10:00.

It was only about 40 hours worth of a trip, but it felt like it was longer. I’m definitely going to re-visit the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest this summer, but I’ll give myself some more time.

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