During my drive across the country to seek out unmarked and yet significant historic sites, it’s not until I hit the Utah-Nevada border that I begin to appreciate just how old Prometheus—my focus on this portion of the journey—was when his life ended abruptly 20 miles west of here.
While eating lunch at the Border Inn, which cleverly straddles the state line to offer Utah’s cheaper gas prices on one half of the property and booze and slot machines on the other (I’m on the Nevada side), I skim through Gordon Kerr’s book Time Line: History of the World. Prometheus himself isn’t mentioned, but the chronology puts his 4,900-year lifespan into context.
Prometheus was born about 2900 bc, some 200 years before the Egyptians began constructing the Great Pyramids. He was a wee sprout when Sargon of Akkad, the world’s first emperor, rose to power around 2300 bc near what is present-day Iraq, and he was just entering adulthood when the Trojan War began in 1190 bc.
By the time Prometheus was well into middle age, Solon had introduced democracy to Athens, Buddha had found enlightenment, Marc Antony had stabbed Caesar and Christ had been crucified. Prometheus was getting on in years but still strong and vigorous when Spanish explorers first set foot in the Americas during the early 1500s.Then, on August 6, 1964, a 30-year-old University of North Carolina graduate student named Donald R. Currey, who was studying historic climate change as recorded in the rings of old trees, led five men to the north slope of Wheeler Peak along Nevada’s Snake Range. In what is now Great Basin National Park, they found Prometheus and literally chopped him to pieces. Despite having survived for five millennia in conditions that are fatally inhospitable to most living creatures, the ancient bristlecone pine was no match for a half-dozen men armed with chainsaws.
When Prometheus’ rings were finally counted, the full horror of Currey’s actions became apparent. With the permission of the U.S. Forest Service, he and his team had not only destroyed a 4,900-year-old tree (some estimates have put the number closer to 5,100), they had killed the oldest living organism in the United States and, quite possibly, the world.
After discovering Prometheus’ story, I called Betsy Duncan-Clark, chief of interpretation at Great Basin National Park. Betsy couldn’t have been nicer, but she said it was unlikely that anyone at the park could help me. Finding Prometheus would require a full day of mostly off-trail hiking. The site wasn’t easily accessible, and the staff couldn’t escort every visitor who wanted a personal tour.
“I totally understand,” I said, “but what if I tagged along with a ranger who had to hike out there anyway for some other reason?”
“That might be an option, but then you’d have to go on the exact day we tell you, weather permitting, and abide by other conditions. So no promises.” Betsy recommended I consider using GPS coordinates to find Prometheus on my own.
“I’m fine with that, but I have a horrible sense of direction, and I guarantee you I’ll get lost. Then you’ll have a search-and-rescue mission on your hands, which will be much more time consuming in the end.”
My passive-aggressive logic apparently paid off. Several days later, Betsy gave me a fixed date and time to meet with Ranger Bryan Petrtyl at the Great Basin Visitor Center. “I’ll be right on time,” I assured her.
Two minutes early to be exact.
While I’m organizing my camera gear, Bryan walks in. I introduce myself, and we waste no time plotting our day.
Water bottles filled, food packed, suntan lotion applied and boots tied, we hit the trail. I’m not sure whether I’m lightheaded because we’re almost two miles above sea level or giddy with excitement because everything is going according to plan, but for some reason the hike transforms me into a chatty, inquisitive 6-year-old. “Bryan, what’s that tree over there?” I ask. “It’s a spruce,” he says. When did you become a ranger? Six years ago. How old are you now? 27. What got you interested in the great outdoors? Hunting fossils as a boy back home. When do you think we’ll find Prometheus? About three more hours. And so on. I suspect he’s secretly hoping I’ll run out of questions or, ideally, enough oxygen to walk and talk at the same time. But for a city boy like me, the fresh air and stunning views are exhilarating.
Bryan and I break from the trail and the terrain becomes considerably more precarious. After about another hour of hiking, Bryan stops and without much fanfare (I’m guessing he’s not a fanfare kind of guy) says, “This is it.”
This is what? I think, glancing over a scattered pile of large gray rocks. I lean closer and realize that mixed among them are chunks of curved gray wood. Then I see the base of the tree jutting about a foot and a half out of the ground, cut unevenly across the top.
I had expected the stump, but not these large portions of the actual tree strewn about. He must have been enormous, I think, reassembling the pieces in my mind. Currey reported the circumference to be 252 inches, or exactly 21 feet.
I tell Bryan I need about 45 minutes to make notes and take a few pictures of the site. He says that’s fine and goes off to conduct whatever duties he’s officially here to perform.
Before coming to Nevada, I had considered Prometheus’ fate—that he had been cut down by those who, ostensibly, should have been protecting him—as comically ironic. But looking over his withered remains, I’m struck by how profoundly sad a loss this is. A tree that had tenaciously endured for approximately 5,000 years, through droughts and blizzards and windstorms and avalanches, was knocked down, just like that, in an afternoon.
Currey later expressed regret for what he had done, and before he passed away in 2004 at the age of 70 he had become an impassioned voice for both the creation of Great Basin National Park and a law that would protect bristlecone pines on federal property, legislation that Congress eventually enacted.
As I stand there, staring at what’s left of Prometheus, I’m reminded of something Bryan had told me earlier, about how heartened he was by the number of families he’s watched reconnect with one another out here in the woods. They communicate in whole sentences as opposed to abbreviated texts and bond over a shared discovery, whether it’s an intricate rock formation, a hidden bird’s nest or stands of bristlecone pine trees that first sprang to life about the same time Homer was composing the Iliad. When these are destroyed, whether through vandalism or carelessness, future visitors are denied memories and experiences that have nourished the souls of so many others. The impact of these irreparable losses cannot be quantified.
Bryan has returned and is eating quietly about 30 feet away from me. I’m not hungry but decide I’ll need energy for our descent and begin nibbling on some granola and a green apple. After finishing I see Bryan stand up and adjust his backpack, a silent signal that it’s time to leave. I look around to make sure I haven’t left anything behind and then pocket my notebook. My mind was a whirlwind of questions coming up here, but now I’m just lost in the scenery. I’m tempted to ask Bryan if he ever tires of this view, but I think I know what his answer will be.
He looks over to see if I’m ready, and I nod. We head down, neither of us saying a word.
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