I finally left my covid retreat, where I had been holed up for more than a year, to enter the reality of the wider world, but instead of the rumored treachery of the news, I found dreamtime over a mountain pass in the Eastern Sierras. We camped in a desert oasis between two streams, and before dawn, smoke from wildfires to the north rolled in, dense rust-colored plumes that painted the morning sun deep red. Eyes burning, mouths parched from breathing hard in the night, we drove up and up and up, hoping to get above the smoke, until we reached that highest point where the sky lives in cool clarity amongst the most ancient living trees in the world, the bristlecone pines.
I had a headache and fatigue from altitude sickness as I started walking the trail into this grove of trees, some more than 4000 years old. I shuffled up the path, feeling weak and tired. Nothing attracted me. Would I just find a place to lay down? The trees will guide me, I vaguely thought, and then it struck me: What a rare privilege, that I can be here at all. Who cares if I have a headache, if I’m fatigued, foggy, tired, sick? I pulled energy up from the earth into my limbs, told myself to walk like a lion. Immediately I brightened, and when I turned, I saw a golden tree.
One side was still clothed in bark, beautiful in its swirliness, its nature hidden. On the other side, the tree was naked, smooth and golden, sun soaking into its limbs, and it glowed as though lit from within. A small branch protruded near the base like a phallus beside a part of the tree that stood upright. Next to it, a hole burrowed into the blackness beneath the tree, and above the hole, the tree bent with such grace, limbs etched like water in the sky, flowing and swirling in a golden liquid dance. I had never seen a tree so luminous, so perfectly whole, godlike, ecstatic, sun and moon united. Inside I felt empty, still, frozen in awe.
So hard to leave that tree, but I did, and a little further up the path, I saw a fallen one, and its root was the sun, glowing golden. In the center of that sun, a black hole — the womb of the universe. Did I get the message yet? Another tree just a bit further up attracted me and I didn’t know why. It didn’t look particularly special, but something told me to walk around it. The side that faced the cliff's edge where the sun was dipping down was carved out by fire into a cove of burnt wood, the inside walls coal black and soft as flesh. At the base of these walls, a perfect bed of black coals and vivid white stones mixed artfully together, forming what could be a pool when the water comes.
I sat inside that coal black tree, face lit by the setting sun, and waited, empty and still. I don’t know for how long. A white bird with black stripes on its face flew down in front of me. She didn’t sing or whistle — just landed near me and looked, then flew off into another tree. It was time to go.
I saw on the walk back how every bristlecone pine was sculpted by hardship—they might twist, bend, lie down or swirl out, but limbs always reached toward the sun. I heard that the ones in the harshest conditions live the longest and are most beautiful. I am astounded by the singularity of these trees. Every one such a different being, emitting such a different feeling, shaped by their wounds, truly non-binary, each growing both male and female cones to self pollinate if need be.
As I walked back toward the parking lot and an evening meal, One last tree beckoned. It stood perfectly straight, forked arms reaching to the sky, naked and pure white, like the living bones of the ancestors — luminous, sacred bones. The sun had faded to baby pink and when I turned back to the path, everything glowed soft and sweet. A newborn joy emerged from inside of my headache, my fatigue, the weakness in my body. If I look close, I can still find its thin golden thread.
You can visit the sacred grove of Great Basin Bristlecone Pines in the Eastern Sierras above the Owens Valley — the unceded territory of the Paiute tribe.