California’s Highway 108 slinks through rocky gorges and around sunken lakes just beyond the northern limits of Yosemite National Park. I’m spending a few days road-tripping the scenic byway because I’m on a mission to find the “tree man.”
That’s what Ken Brunges is often called. Why? Because he lives in the shadow of one of the biggest junipers in the world.
State Route 108 runs northeast from Modesto, California, to close to the Nevada border. Along the way, it pops through a few small towns, including the notable Twain Harte, named for two American authors, Mark Twain and Bret Harte, who wrote stories about the region during the California Gold Rush.
A few miles north of this census-designated place, locals pile into Alicia’s Sugar Shack for breakfast burritos and baked goods shared on communal tables or on the pine-needle-blanketed ground outside. Less than 20 miles up the road, Pinecrest Lake, a long-popular family boating destination, awaits.
But it’s the stretch of 108 that runs through the heart of Stanislaus National Forest—where paths wend to beautiful backcountry spots like Kennedy Meadows, with its enviable riverside campsite, and pack mules lead longer-haul trips into the Sierra Nevada wilderness—that I love best.
Before reaching Sonora Pass (which is typically closed from late October through May), 108 is all steep switchbacks hugging jagged walls of rock—reminding me a bit of Needles Highway in South Dakota’s Custer State Park. It’s impressive.
There are oodles of world-class natural attractions in the nearly 900,000-acre forest—including the Trail of the Gargoyles, which eluded me—but they are hard-won, owing to a dearth of signs. (To actually locate them, you’ll need to swing by the Summit District ranger office, a few miles past the Pinecrest Lake turnoff on 108, for maps and directions.)
There are no signs leading to Ken Brunges, either—or to the Bennett Juniper, which he’s spent the non-winter months of the past 27 years guarding.
But today I’m traveling with Nick Anzar, a fly-fishing guide with Yosemite Outfitters, and his friend Thomas Atkins, who saved a beloved mini-golf course in Twain Harte and is compiling a book he plans on calling 108 Things to Do on Highway 108. “We learned these roads from our fathers, coming up for firewood,” Nick tells me.
We zero right in on the tree, where we’re greeted by Ken and his dog, Augie. We are not the pair’s first visitors of the day. “We had some hunters earlier,” Ken announces. “About 95 percent of visitors have been before, or are with someone who’s been [before].”
Ken, who used to lead rafting trips in the area, is wearing a fishing vest emblazoned with a name tag from the Save the Redwoods League, a San Francisco-based organization that watches over “trees of significance.”
Ken’s tree, the Bennett Juniper, is approximately 3,000-4,000 years old and the largest known juniper in the United States.
“It was being loved to death,” Ken says. “People were walking on the roots, parking by the tree. Bark was peeling off.”
I follow a path to the base of the tree, its thick red trunk resembling a thick column of pulled pork streaming out of the earth. I look up and note that the top of its head has browned. “They die from the top down,” Ken reports soberly.
I ask him what it’s like living so long in the woods alone.
“It’s so quiet you can hear your heartbeat,” Ken says.“It’s spooky.” And the Milky Way, he adds, “[is] really milky up here.”
But, he acknowledges, he’s not alone. Benny the marmot lives in the juniper. And there are coyotes, and bears poking about. (Ken sleeps in a tent near the tree and keeps his kitchen in a separate utility tent left wide open so bears won’t wreck anything to get in.) Birds, too.
The Townsend’s Solitaire, which feeds almost exclusively on juniper berries, comes and stays on the Bennett from mid-September, Ken tells me. “They got this song they sing [that] reminds me of a microwave oven. One long solitary beep.”
I get the feeling that here, in this isolated place next to this singular giant, Ken has found his ideal home.
“These trees are loners,” Ken tells me. “They don’t grow in forests.”