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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Pilgrimage to Big Mama Juniper

This story begins a few months ago, in Tuftonburo, NH.

I was working at a camp as the rock climbing/adventure education coordinator, and a former Prescott College graduate, Randy, happened to be working there as well. Late one night during staff training, he popped into my room as I was killing time on Google Earth, saying he had something to show me. He grabbed a chair and spun the globe on my laptop to Prescott, Arizona, and zoomed into the north side of town near Granite Mountain.
"The largest alligator juniper in the world lives outside of Prescott. Right here," he said, pointing to the convergence of two dry creek beds in the hills.
"You have to go there sometime before you graduate. I wish I had gone back more than once."

I wasn't sure exactly how to get to this spot, but Randy's enthusiasm inspired me to check it out when I arrived back in Prescott. After all, I thought, what better way to spend time off than seeing a magnificent old tree?

I asked many people about the tree upon my return to town and a few people knew the spot, but what I found out is that many people who know about the tree follow a strict rule of not revealing the location unless they personally bring someone there. I thought it was a pretty neat rule, hopefully it meant that the site hadn't been impacted tremendously by human presence. I was not, however, going to give up on finding someone who would at least give me a general idea of how to find this tree.

Two weeks ago I started working here at admissions and one of my co-workers was kind enough to provide me with a hand-drawn map of a route to the tree. After that, it was simply a matter of setting aside time for the expedition.

Eight of us (seven people, one dog) left on a cloudy Monday morning, carpooling in two cars each with about six inches of clearance, which became important very quickly. As soon as we turned off the maintained dirt road, it was apparent that our trek would have been made easier by simply parking the cars and walking a bit further. This pot-hole ridden dirt trench didn't really allow for us to turn around, however, so we pressed on. A mile of bumping and scraping later, all but the driver piled out of our vehicle to avoid tearing off all the essential components of the car. Half a mile from where we were supposed to park we came to what the map labeled as a "hill," but with this car's clearance it might as well have been a drawing of the grim reaper, mangled car parts hanging from his scythe. Luckily, there was a place to park below the hill of death, so we decided to cut our losses and continue on foot.

The hike along the road, and along the creek bed, was spectacular. Between the large crags of granite erupting out of the landscape we were greeted with the sight of an abundance of life. Alligator junipers, mountain mahogany, a plethora of oaks, as well as many cactus species, were there at every bend. The view of Granite Mountain was beautiful, like some sort of ancient but friendly behemoth on the horizon. We came around the top of a small hill, and there was the Big Mama Juniper. Unmistakably large, it didn't even seem possible that an organism could tower that far over all of it's neighbors. We crept along in silence and reverence as we approached the tree, in awe of its beauty and ability to thrive in such a place. There were no words, and it was impossible to fit in the frame of our cameras, though we certainly tried.

Many of us interacted with the tree in the way our ancestors would have, we climbed. It was the only way to really engage all the senses in this wonder of nature. From up above, you could see all the area around the tree that was influenced by its presence. I observed that nothing bigger than a shrub had grown alongside this one's great roots in a long time. I imagined what sorts of catastrophes this creature must have experienced in its lifetime; flash floods, fires, earthquakes, lightning, and humans. Trying to fathom that sort of lifespan hurt my head, so I decided to simply feel the tree beneath me and let it speak for itself.

After a few hours, we said our regretful goodbyes to the tree, and hiked back to the cars. I remeber looking back many times before we dropped back over the hill, wishing I could stay longer.

I know now why Randy suggested I make a point to travel to this old tree. You could spend years there, listening to the stories it has to tell. I hope that in my last two years here at Prescott College, I can at least give it a few days of my time to be listened to and enjoyed.

Zach Schiewetz.

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