Travels in the American Southwest

Hot Springs & Really Old Trees

Keough Hot Springs said the sign. What a lucky coincidence, just as I was feeling myself going into the Red Zone on the Grubby Index. Followed the access road to the very base of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. There, surrounded by a campground was Keough's. Grabbed some soap and my razor, a towel and clean clothes. Paid my $7.00 admission fee (not grumbling at all!) and looked around the place. Surrounded by tourquoise painted wooden walls, a large 45'x120' pool contained campground residents taking a break from the heat. This pool's water was around 80 degrees, very comfortable for the grandparents playing with toddlers in the shallow end. Teens and pre-teens frolicked in the deeper end. The hot spring pool was located to one side, maybe 45'x35'. An overhang provides shade over the concession area and part of the pool patio. As I headed toward the turquoise painted changing rooms and showers, I dipped a finger in the hot pool. Maybe 100-110 degrees...Just what my body needed. Showered, leaving footprints in the shower before the water washed the stubborn mud down the drain. Noticed that as I walked to the hot pool, I didn't receive the side-long glances that greeted my arrival. What a difference some hot water and soap make! Gently eased myself into the hot pool. Muscles went limp as the heat coaxed the stiffness out of them. I could have stayed floating in that water all day, but the clock was moving and I wasn't. With a sigh of regret, I dragged myself out of the water. A quick shave and I felt human again. The original stone building which housed the first Keough Hot Springs still stands albeit the doors and windows have been boarded over and entrance is prohibited.

A couple of miles south on US395, I passed through the outskirts of Big Pine. This little community bills itself as the Gateway to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. I'm sure you've seen photos of these pine trees. Twisted and gnarled growing out of rock, these trees grow one inch per century (not a misprint!). One tree was 750 years old...When King Tut died 3,300 years ago. The tree lives to this day! It was 1:30 when I pulled into Schulman Grove after negotiating the twisting and winding CA168. This is the kind of road where you pay close attention. A moment of inattention could be catastrophic as the road has no guard rails. A few feet from the road and the ground drops sharply. Pulling into the only open parking space at Schulman Grove, I realized that my string of astoundingly good luck continued unbroken. This Sunday before Labor Day was a special day. The US Forest Service was holding an open house. I looked at the schedule, glad to see that the morning program was being repeated and it was beginning in 20 minutes. Sat through a lecture on these aged trees. How their age was determined by coring samples. These samples proved so accurate that they've been used to calibrate and confirm carbon-14 methods of dating.

Strangely, pines growing in the rocky soil around the visitor's center owe their longevity to the harsh conditions. With a growing season of six weeks, the trees concentrate on storing energy rather than growth, hence the 1" of growth in a century. Needles of the pines live for forty years! Other Bristlecone Pines, growing in a richer soil, may live only 2,500 years, a fraction of the Schulman Grove's trees whose ages of over 4,500 have been confirmed many times. The slow growth of the trees produces a dense and heavy wood, impervious to insect infestation. It seems that the only thing that can kill one of these trees is lightning...and man. Back in 1964, a graduate student was taking core samples of various trees in the Wheeler Peak area of Nevada. He was looking for evidence of past glaciers. These trees were well known in the scientific/conservation community, some were even named such as Buddha and Socrates. When the student's coring tool broke, he asked and received permission from the Forest Service to cut down the tree! Counting the 4,844 rings, it was later discovered that the tree was actually 4,950 years old. It's quite possible that the grad student killed the oldest living thing on the planet. It's name was Prometheus. Since that remarkable lapse in judgement of the Forest Service, the agency has elevated the welfare of the Ancients to "high priority". Proof of this can be seen when any member of the agency is asked about Methuselah, the oldest tree in the park. Discovered to be 4,723 years old in 1957, its location is kept secret. Were it to be generally known, the feet of thousands of tourists wanting pictures would mercilessly compact the soil around the tree's roots, further stressing what now may be the oldest living thing on the planet. For more on these truly Ancients click here

Left the Schulman Grove around 4:00 and backtracked to the Grandview campground. I had driven through the campground on the way to Schulman Grove, chose a secluded campsite, and left my grill and charcoal on the picnic table to stake my claim.  Everything was as I had left it so I started the grill since my stomach was growling with hunger. Ate well as the sun started dipping closer to the horizon. As I was washing the dishes, I remembered the large full moon from the night before. Grabbed the camera and jumped in the van with visions of the moon rising behind one of the ancients dancing in my head. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to capture that picture, having to be content with some snapshots of the ancients as the sun dipped below the horizon.

Made it back to the campsite, quickly building a small campfire. The temperature was dropping fast. Out came the long johns, at this elevation it was going to be a chilly night. Wanted to sleep well because tomorrow, it's back to civilization...Or at least back to Las Vegas!

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