We walk down the paved trail with a thousand other supplicants, most or all unaware of what we do, thinking it mere tourism. A woman coming up the path: They don’t look any bigger than the rest.
The heat is sedentary on the mountain. We peer between younger trees for our first glimpse. The kids show their excitement by leaping along the rocks at the path’s edge.
At last out of the forest it appears, so obviously superlative. Many times the size of the ponderosa pines and incense cedars around it. Its trunk knuckles down onto the mountain stone like the foot of a mammoth. Larger than mammoths, or whales. Larger than any other single living thing, and older than all but the oldest trees. Two thousand years and more.
Rusty haired bark covers its spreading base, which widens to meet the ground like rolling flesh or cooling lava. Higher up the trunk goes scaled and gray. And then there are its branches, thick and gnarled, hundreds of feet from the ground, larger than trees themselves. The foliage, a burst of gray green, is indistinct at this distance, a cloud halo around the crown.
So huge there ought to be but one in the world, yet many stand side by side on this mountain slope. Like columns in a cathedral, whose roof is the sky. Around their bases, we are teeming like ants on our paved paths. Yet unlike the echoing space in a cathedral, the thick forest floor and the warm air and the furred bark of these giants absorb sound, so that our chattering is muted. Our human sounds are made appropriately small, like the speech of squirrels or jays.
The trees have stood here silent and enduring since Rome was young. We are brief sparks flickering around their feet. Though their long-term survival is in question, because of us – our climate-warping gases, the crawling pests we bring – their trunks contain the wood of millennia. They are lived time made flesh.
Last night we slept in the open on the mountainside. The forest dark was silent as the far stars, so that our steps in the pine needles seemed loud as thunder. In our future lies the desert, wind clawing the sage brush, the road like a streak of ink on the white hard-pan.