The car shimmies over rocks and ruts on a U.S. Forest Service dirt road along the Sonora Pass. Amid the splendor of autumn in the mountains, my car rarely gets above 10 mph.
This is the way to the Bennett Juniper, the oldest known juniper tree in America.
Well, this is part of the way. We have 12 miles of dusty, rocky road, two stream crossings and three cattle guards to get over before we reach the legend.
An hour later, we finally reach the driveway to plot of land owned by the Save the Redwoods League surrounded by the Stanislaus National Forest.
Augie the Australian shepherd is at the car door by the time I park. Augie belongs to Ken Brunges, the caretaker of the Bennett Juniper. Brunges looks a bit like Santa Claus, if St. Nick were dressed to take on the rugged mountains. He has camped out every summer into fall at this spot since 1988.
His camp is on a ridge that is at 8,400 feet in elevation, overlooking the Bennett Juniper.
“Our understanding is it was found by Basque sheepherders in the 1920s. And they told their boss about this huge juniper tree, up where they were running his sheep,” Brunges says. “And then a few years later, Bennett, who was a naturalist studying junipers, heard about it and talked to the guy, figured out how to get here and came up and it was the biggest juniper he’d ever seen and it’s still the biggest one anyone’s ever found.”
If you look only at the bottom of the Bennett Juniper, you might think you are looking at a redwood. On the top, it looks a bit like a giant stalk of broccoli. The tree stretches more than 80 feet tall and is 22 feet around at the base.
“It takes eleven adults stretching to reach around it,” Brunges. “Not that we let people do that anymore.”
A core sample and carbon testing show the Bennett is at least 3,000 years old.
“That’s pretty much as far back as most of the history of western civilization,” Brunges says. “Rome wasn’t Rome yet. The Egyptians were still building pyramids.”
Experts think the Bennett Juniper could be up to 6,000 years old. But because it is hollow in the middle, which is common in ancient trees, we may never know its real age.
In a sense, having something this old here means that dirt road we took to get to the tree wasn’t a dirt road after all. It was a time machine.
“This area would probably look just like it does right now. Except individual trees would have come and gone, except for this one,” Brunges says, motioning toward the tree.
There is no evidence that the Bennett has ever been struck by lightning, even though it’s in a fairly open area near the top of a ridge. There is no evidence it’s ever burned in a wildfire either, despite being in the fire-prone Sierra Nevadas. Brunges says he reports about five fires a year on his Forest Service-issued radio, most of them sparked by lightning.
It turns out that the Bennett might be getting some fire help from a fairy godmother of sorts — in the form of a marmot.
“The animals that live in the tree, the marmots, they actually make a path right around the base of the tree, so there’s actually a mini fire break at the base of the trunk that’s like two feet wide,” Brunges says. “So if we’re just talking about a little tiny ground fire. Well, it stops at the two-foot mark.”
The tree has survived multi-century droughts that were much worse than the current drought in California. It has adapted to the tough terrain, where bedrock is only about two feet below the dusty surface.
There weren’t any roads up here until the 1950s. Then in the ’60s and ’70s, curious onlookers started showing up. Families would come to picnic below the tree. People were compacting the roots and wearing off the bark. The tree was being loved to death.
Eventually, the Bennett ended up in the hands of the Save the Redwoods League, which brought in Brunges to help protect it. His first summer was nearly 30 years ago and it took some time to get used to being deep in the backcountry.
“It gets so quiet at night, you sometimes say, ‘I think I can hear my heartbeat,'” Brunges says. “And then you look over your shoulder” to make sure it’s not someone else’s heart beating.
Brunges says most visitors come from California and many are locals. The guestbook shows visitors came from as far as Illinois and Hamburg, Germany, in September. In all, Brunges gets an average of 75 people each week. It’s busiest at the height of summer, when the streams that cross the road have dropped enough for cars to get through.
Tisha Carper Long came from Sacramento to visit the tree with her husband. She was willing to stand out in light snow flurries to get a look at the giant that’s been on her big tree bucket list for a while now.
“It’s got that kind of character that a really old person has, where things get gnarly and yet the beauty is so apparent and really sacred and wonderful,” Carper Long says.
One thing is for sure. No matter how long visitors stand and gape at the tree or how many years they come visit, they won’t see it change in size. It only grows about 1/50th of an inch a year, so about one inch in a human lifetime.
As fall turns to winter, the tree keeper, and his dog Augie will head home to Columbia, about an hour away,leaving the Bennett Juniper to battle the brutal high-elevation winter in the Sierra Nevada.
But the tree is still not alone. Another pair of much younger junipers named Fred and Ginger stand nearby. They grow side-by-side, one dipping the other in a dance move like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
And when the snow melts next June, Ken Brunges will be back again. And people will brave the dusty roads to catch a glimpse at a living legend, the Bennett Juniper.
Or as a visitor wrote in the nearby guest book, “Thank you for having the courage to stand long enough for us to see you.”