I stopped in a small town somewhere in the desert for a quick breakfast. Then I drove farther north until I reached the last town before the mountains. I stopped there to fill up on gas and get supplies, which consisted mainly of sandwich bread, fruit, two cans of tuna and some peanut butter. Then I got into my car and drove into the mountains, into Sequoia National Park, where I’d sleep for two nights.
I’d been there once before with a friend of mine who called this place home. He goes by many names. Clyde. Cole. Mr. Penny Leftfoot. Silvio Lazaar. The Longdead Soldier. I’ve actually never known his real name. He’s a blues guitar player, one of the best I know. Not long ago, we’d made a trip like this through Kings Canyon to pick up an old electric keyboard, but we only stayed until late in the night before driving back down to LA.
Anyway, after getting to my campground and setting up my tent, I set out to see what had become known across America as General Sherman, the largest tree in the world. I reached the trailhead and stepped into the grove, where it was very warm and stuffed with tourists wandering and laughing and taking pictures. I heard babies and toddlers crying and whining, and kids sprinting up and down the trail playing tag and accidentally photobombing the pictures of strangers. I continued to a point where I could see larger crowds gathering to snap a picture of something in the distance, still obstructed from my view, but something I knew, as I approached the crowds, could only be the General Sherman Tree.
There it stood, mightily at the center, surrounded by excited onlookers who looked like ants by comparison. It stood crowded with admirers, and yet it appeared strangely alone, like a silent sage, a wise man who had seen generations come and go and witnessed all the great moments of human history from the very spot upon which it stood. An iconic, silver screen legend–the kind you know must be growing old even though it appears ageless–always encountering a crowd of photographers or tourists taking their picture, but still taking it in stride like a professional. They are no stranger to the attention. They’ve seen it all before.
All trees, technically speaking, are alive, and I understood and appreciated the fundamental principle that they, like all other plants on earth, are living breathing organisms. I also knew that General Sherman was no ordinary tree. I knew that before I even saw it. Yet the more I looked at it, the more I understood the importance of these truths which concern all living things on the planet. The more I looked at it, the more I connected with it. The evening grew quiet.
I felt like the tree itself was looking for something or at something, looking in my direction but still past me, someplace far beyond where I stood. Despite it’s more than 3,000 years of age, despite its vast wisdom and experience far superior to my own, it too was still something of a lost soul, searching and still somewhat unsatisfied with everything it had thus far understood its purpose to be on this earth. It might have been a wise and compassionate king of these mountains, but it was a king still subservient to a higher order it didn’t fully understand.
A soft rain fell, more like a mist than a rain. It only lasted a minute, but in that minute, it seemed to freeze time itself; and as the surrounding tourists vanished from sight, it left the two of us alone, facing each other.
The rays of the sun beamed in through the forest, shining down upon us both, revealing the tree in all it’s youth and ancient power, a reclusive angel having kept its vigil for centuries here in this shadowy grove high up in the mountains. In that moment I felt something I hadn’t felt before.
We were pilgrims, old and young. Angel and man. Man and angel. Guardian angel, maybe. Brothers. In that moment, we were no longer separate from each other. In fact, we never had been. There I stood, once again remembering something I’d once known long ago.
It was the first time in a long time that I’d ever felt this way about anything in nature. It wouldn’t be the last. Unbeknownst to me, an entire family existed, scattered far across the wilderness of America, and farther still, across the Atlantic Ocean and out to the far eastern reaches of Europe. It took the form of people I’d meet, and the many beautiful things I’d see along the way.
It was ocean and sky, woman and man, living and passed on. With them I felt connected in common cause: that each of us might reach the realization of love and respect for all living things. An understanding of our ongoing, unfailing connection to one another.
I remembered something from my early days in the church, something that made more sense to me now than it did before. As it was in the beginning, it is now and ever shall be. United in one breath, one beating heart.
The thought didn’t occur to me at the time, standing in the shadow of General Sherman and the mighty sequoia. It only does now, as I recall the story and wonder how it might sound to someone reading this. Truth be told, prior to this experience, I wasn’t much of an outdoors person. I liked to be outside as much as the next guy, but I’d never really camped before at all, and I’d never done much hiking beyond the typical neighborhood hikes in and around LA.
I’d never spent much time in the mountains, amongst the trees whispering at night. I’d never lay quiet, listening for melodies beside the creek in the early evening. I’d never breathed in the rush of the river beneath the new morning and the slow, rising sun. Now, that was all about to change.