By Oliver Gunther
I was a teenager when my parents, whose birthdays were very close together, celebrated their fortieth birthday. I thought, “Forty. Man, that’s old.”
I am now a few days away from turning that same age and I am feeling it. It’s an odd age to anticipate.
It’s like standing on the dividing line — the precipice — of the average human life span.
The lines on my face are coming in like teeth. White licks are showing up in my hair. I’m fit, but when I wipe out on my mountain bike and get wounded, it takes noticeably longer to mend.
Perhaps my wife saw a train wreck coming. She watched me carefully; she could smell the impending mid-life-crisis. And so, in a wise preemptive strike, she decided to take me to the oldest living being known to humankind.
We flew into Las Vegas, drove through Death Valley, and then passed through the Owens Valley — with the Sierra Nevada Mountains flanking us on one side and the White Mountains of California on the other.
Inyo National Park was closed in April, which meant that we had to hike from the gate at the main road, head high up in the mountains into the Bristlecone Pine groves. We had the park to ourselves.
The temperature was two degrees Celsius, and the air was very thin at an altitude of 3353 meters. My breathing was laboured, as though I had been running. But the air smelled of wild lavender and it was as refreshing.
As we ascended, the clouds closed in on us with a light drizzle, but then gave way to the sun. There was still snow on the ground, as deep as sixty centimetres in some snowdrifts.
After an hour of hiking uphill, we caught our first glimpse of one of the most ancient forests in the world, where the trees are thousands of years old. The forest seemed enchanted, as though the trees were going to start walking or talking, or something else equally surreal.
Maria and I walked along the path of the Bristlecone Pine grove, zigzagging up and down hills, walking past old survivors.
There too were the remains of the ones that didn’t make it, still defiant.
Ancient Bristlecone Pine trees in the White Mountains of the Inyo National Forest near Bishop, California. With some at over 4,700 years old, they are the oldest trees in the World. (GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)