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Pinyons and Bristlecones (Great Basin NP)

Updated: Sep 22, 2022

Thursday, 8 September 2022, Bicknell UT

We checked out of Hotel Nevada after another Everyday Slam slammed our stomachs, getting off to a much earlier start than yesterday. Still, we didn't reach the park until 9:30. This park had started life as Lehman Caves National Monument before getting expanded and promoted, so we considered taking a cave tour to start our day. No such luck - all tours sold out before we arrived. The news didn't crush me - I had waffled over whether to take a tour, since Bill and I had gone underground when we visited the park in the 1990s - but not getting to choose stung a bit.

The park did have one distinction separating itself from other parks: in the fall, they let you collect pinyon pine nuts from the pinyon pines. Since I didn't know when the 'fall season' ran, I had called up two weeks ago to ask. The answer: the pinyon nut season has started ... but this is a poor year for harvesting. "But you can still try when you arrive..."

We asked for more directions at the Visitor Center. Though the ranger showed enthusiasm - "I think that sounds like a great idea" - she confessed she knew little about harvesting the nuts. Instead, we went with the info I'd gotten over the phone. Namely, that the best place to pilfer the pinyon nuts would be the Lehman Creek Trail leading up from the upper campground. Since Bill has a pinyon in his backyard, I relied on him to point them out.

He saw some immediately on the trail. Nothing on the tree itself, but a few green pinecones had recently fallen to the ground. I re-used a spare plastic bag, saving the cones for when we figured out how to extract the nut. Slowly we moved up trail. Though pinyons continued to proliferate, all we could see were brown, dried-out cones, along with a few spare nuts scattered around (also brown and desiccated).

We moved upstream for an hour, with no further luck.

Finally, with the temperature climbing into the mid-80s, we decided to halt the harvest so we could try a trail in the higher, cooler climes. The bag with five nuts got deposited in the back seat, to stay there until we could google our next step.

We returned up the mountain to road's end, then headed out on the Bristlecone Pine Trail.

The ranger told us that no non-clonal organism on earth lives longer than Bristlecones, many of which have been around for over 3,000 years. She did make the caveat regarding aspen groves - where new trees will sprout (clone) from the root mass shared by all the aspen in a grove. Thus, although the oldest individual trees may live to 130, the whole grove may have lived for tens of thousands years.

The Bristlecones thrived only in a narrow range of elevations above 10,000' in poor soil. Their first 15 years, they may only grow to 4'. As they reach maturity, their growth slows dramatically, adding one inch to their girth every hundred years.

Given that, their wood becomes very dense, which helps fight off insects, decay, and fire. Then, once a tree finally dies, the densely-packed wood resists decay - which can make the Bristlecone not only the oldest living things, but also the oldest dead things - like this one dead for 700 years.

The hike to the Bristlecones, nestled in a cirque below Wheeler Peak, began with an easy grade. Before long I amped up to 10%, making for a more strenuous hike. Once inside the grove, though, we forgot about the grade as we pondered these twisted, misshapen vegetation. Trees often continued to grow even after half or more of the tree died, as long as one root remained usable.

On our way back down, we took a slight detour to view Teresa Lake, the other pond nestled at the base of the peak. This late in the season, It barely contained enough water to call it a pond. still, it stayed worth a quick look.

We left the park early, knowing we had our last 4-hour-plus drive of the trip to Bicknell UT, our base of operations to see Capitol Reef NP. Not a fun drive, ending up driving through dark, unpopulated regions. One long stretch at the end sported 'deer crossing' signs (often accompanied with flashing lights) every two or three miles. They meant business, too - I narrowly missed a deer at one point.

And in an unwelcome note, Bill's symphony of hacking coughs found a leitmotif when I added my throat-clearing hacks to the chorus, with a hint of sore throat. I'm sure the stress as I continue wavering on the Death Valley ride isn't helping.

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