The oldest living thing in the world is hard to find, and soon I'm lost.
I drive out a rutted dirt road south of Barstow, Calif., in search of "King Clone," a creosote bush identified as the oldest living thing on Earth. Said to be 11,700 years old, that makes it centuries older than the redwoods and bristlecone pines we usually think of as elders. What's more startling: I'm miles deep into the dusty dirt-bike and dune-buggy playground known as the Johnson Valley Off-Road Vehicle Recreation Area.
Yet creosotes are everywhere, many torn and smashed by the off-roaders; plastic bags flutter at their feet. Guys in jacked-up trucks and motor homes roar past me, trailers clattering with motocross bikes, ATVs, and beer coolers.
I scan for a fenceline. The Bureau of Land Management says it has protected the oldest handful of creosote bushes, and that seems like a good idea: Out here, creosotes are just pylons for the petrol set.
Then I spot it, a squiggle of wire splitting the haze. There's nothing much to gawk at. Signs declare the area biologically sensitive, and gangs of plants crowd together on a gentle hill. But downslope the ancients start to emerge: Rough circles of scrub in the sand.
The oldest creosotes form circles as they age. When the first generation dies, it sends up new shoots at its perimeter, and these clones of the original plant always grow from the same roots. Now, the oldest plants appear as rings 70 feet in diameter. There are six or seven creosote rings inside the fence, but it's impossible to know which is considered the oldest.
There are no nature trails, viewing platforms or interpretive signs here. There's just the roar of two-cycle engines and the concussion of bombing practice at Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Base over the horizon.
No signs say I can't, so I hop the fence. And instantly feel guilty. Mine are the only footprints inside, and the sand has a crust on it. I walk gingerly toward the nearest creosote ring, trying to take a direct path.
When I reach it, it's just a circle of shrubs, and not a very pretty one at that. Four years of drought have these plants in retreat. They look shrunken and tortured.
But later I talk to Allan Schoenherr, creosote expert and professor of ecology at Fullerton College in California. He says these shrubs can handle drought. Most plants have one root system, but the creosote has two: a deep taproot plus a fan of roots encircling the plant just beneath the surface. Schoenherr calls creosote "the champion of desert plants. It's probably the most drought-tolerant shrub in America."
It doesn't look like a champion. Dotting the southwest from California to Texas, nobody walks up to a creosote and declares, "Lovely!" They only draw attention after a rare desert rain, when they smell like telephone poles and railroad ties.
Maybe it's enough that these plants have gussied themselves up into circles. And how appropriate: The circle stands for all that exists, all possibilities, all time. In astrology it represents eternity. In cartography the circle stands for town or community.
What have these plants witnessed? They were on the earth when saber-toothed cats gored giant sloths. They survived the retreat of ancient lakes. The creosote was a one-stop pharmacy for the Mojave Indians. Its leaves, stewed into tea, treated the common cold, soothed arthritis, halted diarrhea and eased kidney pain.
Made into a paste, the creosote helps to heal wounds, bruises and skin lesions. Today we've learned that creosote contains a powerful cancer-fighting antioxidant. Compounds made from the plant effectively treat AIDS and herpes. The plant can even fight pollution by absorbing chromium from tainted land.
Perhaps anonymity is the creosote's secret. Only by keeping a low profile have these shrubs managed to live so long: To be ignored is to survive.
That shield of anonymity was pierced recently in headlines splashing across America. Jim Cornett of the Palm Springs Desert Museum announced that he'd found a colony of creosotes older than King Clone, and in a landscape more defiled. These live in a garbage-strewn patch of sand at the edge of Palm Springs, with tract homes on one side and Interstate 10 on the other. What's more, these creosotes aren't in a circle.
Cornett theorizes the relentless winds of San Gorgonio Pass caused these creosotes to grow in a line. Each new generation survived only by hiding in the wind-shadow of its ancestor.
Newspapers throughout the West ran blurbs. Local papers did their own stories, complete with skeptics like the botanist Frank Vasek, who discovered King Clone. Cornett now declines to talk about his find. He says the museum needs to do more testing.
For me, it's enough to know creosotes became ancient despite us. I imagine the true, oldest creosote is still growing somewhere in messy splendor * perhaps on a remote Army gunnery range. Maybe even in somebody's backyard.