In 2011 I discovered the concept of the “Champion Tree.” I was looking up information about how long it takes a tree to grow and mature.
We had lost so many after May 22 in Joplin. Estimates are around 20,000 trees lost as a result of the May 22, 2011, tornado. The New York Times had actually written an article two weeks after the storm, titled “Destruction of Joplin, MO., Seen in Its Trees.”
After the tornado, and for reasons I can’t completely describe, I was compelled to go out and see as many Champion Trees as I could.
I travel all around the four states for my job. I downloaded the free list of each state’s Champion Trees and began to see if my travels might take me near them. I noted their locations, drew up a rather amateur map for myself and put the list and the map in my briefcase.
I was looking forward to taking the scenic route once in a while, if needed, and the deviation in my routine would be a welcome change.
I have since seen over 50 Champions in six states, including the largest in Florida, a Bald Cypress, and the largest in California (and the world), a Giant Sequoia.
When I began this journey to “Meet the Champions,” I knew I would see many amazing trees. I knew some would be more impressive than others and that some might even be gone from a storm or lightning, which is very common, since these trees are almost always by far the biggest thing in the general vicinity.
What I didn’t know, what caught me off guard and completely by surprise, was the number of people I would meet in this process. I have met some incredibly interesting and wonderful people along the way, and I would like to tell you about a few of them.
Gary Pinkell, Great Bend, Kan., owner of the largest Quaking Aspen in Kansas
I was driving from Joplin to Hays, Kan., to attend a Fort Hays State event. After driving for hours and then using my GPS to find Mr. Pinkell’s house, I pulled over to the side of the road to check things out.
It was a nice residential neighborhood with neatly kept yards. It was around 5:30 p.m. and people were getting home from work. It’s always weird parking in front of someone’s house to look at a tree. People just don’t expect to see that.
I saw this beautiful Quaking Aspen tree. It was the first time I had ever seen one. It’s white bark and papery leaves whipping in the Kansas wind was a wonderful sight against the western evening sky.
About that time a man came walking out of the house carrying out the trash. I was now standing near his driveway and before he could wonder who this weird guy with Missouri plates was, I asked him if I could take a picture of his State Champion Quaking Aspen.
He immediately brightened and told me to take as many as I liked. He proceeded to tell me about how a couple decades ago he had decided to buy a Quaking Aspen sapling while in Colorado. He had been so impressed by them, he wanted one in his front yard.
His friends told him he was crazy and that it would never grow in Great Bend and that he was a fool for wasting his money. Now I know why he was glad to see me!
They were wrong and he was right. Mr. Pinkell has a very majestic tree that seems to absolutely love the home and yard that he had picked for it.
He loves that tree and will probably never sell that house. It was a neat moment that I believe neither of us will forget.
Lynn Paul, Tonganoxie, Kan., owner of the largest Swamp Chestnut Oak in Kansas
Lynn is a widow who lives about 10 miles out on a gravel road. Talk about the scenic route!
When I first stopped at a farmhouse that fit the description, I was greeted by a woman and three children who were playing in the front yard. She told me that she didn’t know anything about the tree, but I could go to the next house down the road and ask Ms. Paul.
She was a longtime resident and her late grandfather had purchased the land, 320 acres, back in the forties. Lynn Paul would know.
I drove there and followed the winding tree-lined driveway through what seemed like several hundred yards. When I reached the house, I hesitated to shut off the car and had half a mind to drive away and forget this discovery.
This lady could be crazy, that tree could be 200 acres back into the woods, and the sun would set in a little over an hour.
Lynn’s two dogs walked up to my car and she walked out of the house. I rolled down the window and told her I was there to see the Champion Tree. Her reply made things even weirder.
She said, “I have been waiting on you!” I immediately thought that the neighbor must have called her, but I didn’t get a chance to ask because she immediately told me to step out and led me on a tour of the property.
I didn’t realize that I had been driving through an orchard coming up the drive. We walked through the orchard while we sampled heirloom apples and the most amazing persimmons I have ever tasted.
Lynn told me that I was late, and that her father had passed away just a few years before and that I was his kindred spirit. She spoke about how her father spent every weekend searching the countryside for Champion Trees and had even discovered a handful of them for Kansas.
I could not get a word in and was in wonder. I swear we had an otherworldly encounter on that Kansas evening. Lynn showed me all of her dad’s notes, his leaf collection and a dozen trees he had grafted.
Her father had been the chief groundskeeper for a major museum and loved the simple beauty of trees. It turns out that Lynn is also a poet and had written three books.
I gladly purchased her book, we shared contact information and we have emailed each other a few times since.
Alan Pollom, Topeka, Kan., owner of the largest Sycamore tree in Kansas
Alan also lives a few miles down a county road and had a long winding driveway that leads to a beautiful and very secluded modern home in the woods.
My strategy this time was to have the list of Champions in my hand when I knocked on the door. I figured it was a high likelihood that I had the wrong house, since it was a county road address.
I was wrong, it was the right house and Mr. Pollom, who was about 55 to 60-years-old, invited me in. I stood in his foyer while he retreated to the back office of his home to find the map of his property.
I was wondering if he was going to come out with a shotgun and call the police, but he came out with a rolled up map, spread it out on the dining room table and showed me where I could find the tree.
It was down a gravel road, through the chained but unlocked metal gate, and to the right about 250 yards. I “couldn’t miss it, it’s the largest living thing anywhere near here.”
I found the road, found the gate, picked up a big stick to walk with and then I heard a car door close behind me. Mr. Pollom had come to join me. He said that his wife had come home and told her it was rude to send me alone and to “show the guy some hospitality and take him to the tree.”
Mr. Pollom ended up telling me how he had purchased the land for conservation, had sprayed for invasive weeds, planted prairie grass in one area, and was in the process of planting wildflowers soon. He also took a few pictures of me and the tree with my phone!
Gilbert, bus driver, Kings Canyon State Park, Three Rivers Calif.
I had flown with my wife and son to LAX, rented a car and drove to Bakersfield where we spent the night. Drove the next day to Three Rivers where we checked into our hotel for a 2 night stay.
I had purchased a ticket online to ride the shuttle up the 1 hour mountain climb to Sequoia National Forest to see the largest trees in the world.
When I boarded the shuttle the next morning, the driver, Gilbert, said they had “no record of me on the itinerary.” I was furious. I had traveled across 2 time zones to find out my ticket was no good.
Gilbert opened the shuttle door and I went back to the hotel room to tell my wife. Like great sports, they decided to take some Dramamine for the winding mountain road, and we would drive the rental car up.
They had originally elected to stay behind at the hotel and swim while I got my “tree fix.” An hour later we arrived to see the most amazing trees on the planet. The forest made us feel tiny. We were at ground zero in the largest concentration of biomass in the U.S.
The General Sherman, the Champion of Champions, was a short free bus ride away if we would just walk up to the lodge and catch the bus. When our time came to board the bus, guess who was sitting in the driver’s seat? Gilbert again!
He didn’t seem to recognize me and my wife and son. We took a seat and had a good private laugh and all three of us saw the General Sherman together.
I thought Gilbert had ruined my trip, when he really helped make some of our greatest memories as a family.
I have many more of these stories. Some are just moments where me and another person share a mutual interest in a Champion Tree. There is a sad story of the widow who lost her husband to cancer and a few years later, their beloved Champion Tree to a lightning strike. She seemed so happy to share the stories with me and insisted that I stay and see old pictures of them and their kids in the yard by the tree.
There is a story of a golf superintendent who took my on a golf cart to the back of the course in the middle of a bust golfing day, to show me the Tulsa Country Club’s Champion Lacebark Elm. And there are more stories to share and more adventures to be had.
I think what I have gotten from this journey or experience or whatever, is this: if you want to see something that inspires you or makes you feel closer to completing your bucket list, go see it. Go for it. Do it while you can.
Life is short and unpredictable and there’s so much living to be done while we can.
So often what we expect to find is everything we hoped for and if we pay attention, so much more than we ever imagined.