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Tree in the Trail

The White Mountains are the northern extension of the Inyo Range and rise to over 14,000 feet. These mountains form the eastern edge of the Owens Valley, which is bounded on the west by the Sierra Nevada. The White Mountain Range hosts isolated groves of an ancient Bristlecone Pine forest that lives just below the tree line at around 10,000 feet. Pinus longaeva is one of the few plants adapted to the alkaline soil associated with the white dolomite that gives the range its name, so it has little competition in that environment. These are the oldest trees on earth, slowly growing when at high elevations, with the oldest so far dated at 5,065 years old. The same range also has outcrops of two Lower Cambrian green shales, but they are not easy to get to.

The particular green shale I was thinking about that day is exposed in the Lower Cambrian Harkless Formation in a pinyon pine forest at about 7,000 feet elevation. Access is by a mine "road" that has not been touched by a road grader in at least 40 years. It's crossed by a number of tracks, most of which are not marked with road numbers. I hadn't been there for a year, didn't believe the directions I had in my field notes, so took a wrong fork.  Lots of wandering around, driving up a track only to find that it either went nowhere or definitely didn't lead to the mine, but finally I stumbled onto the right trail.

Starting down a steep hill about a half mile from the area of shale outcrops, I suddenly realized that a fallen pinyon pine was completely blocking the road. Rats! Even worse, I found that the hill was steep enough that there wasn't enough traction to back up, so there I was, stuck above the dead tree and below the crest of a hill.  And of all things, the bow saw that usually rides along was at home in the barn. Who would have thought. Now what? 

If I drove over the edge it looked like I could intercept the road farther down the hill. I climbed down to see if any trees or large rocks would be in the way and a path was clear, so over I went in the van, scrambling back onto the road farther down the hill. Easier than I thought. I figured I was stuck there anyway, and from the downhill side, I might be able to drag the tree out of the way. With this in mind I went looking at rocks and found a spectacular outcrop of vertical hard green shale layers forming the spine of a ridge. At least I can still read a geologic map!

Now, how to get back? Nosing the van up to the roadblock, I climbed out and investigated. Ugh, way too heavy to budge by hand, but having had the opportunity to pull other folks out of sand, or mud or to the nearest shop from the middle of nowhere, I carry a long nylon towing strap. Wrapped one end around a large branch and threaded the other through the towing loop under the front bumper. Reverse, gravity and the weight of the van gave me an advantage over the dead wood. Leaving slack so I could gather speed, I shot backwards. At the end of the strap, a sudden snap! and I had about half of the tree on the end of the line. Here it is in the photo, out of the way at the edge of the road. This might work! Now for the rest. A few more yanks on the remains of that pinyon and the road was at least passable.


First installment in moving the tree 


What would I have done if I didn't have that towing strap? I was able to drive around the tree off the road going downhill, but there was no way that I could have gotten around it and back onto the road going uphill, so I would have had a good hike in front of me. You can just bet that the bow saw is back in the van where it belongs.

Apologies to Holling C. Holling for appropriating his title. Along with Paddle to the Sea, Minn of the Mississippi and Seabird, all written and beautifully illustrated between 1941 and 1951, Tree in the Trail is the story of a cottonwood growing on the Great Plains alongside what later became the Santa Fe Trail. Intended for children, these wonderful books can be read by adults with pleasure. Even better when read to your kids. They are available online.

July 15, 2017 by RC de Mordaigle
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