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SURROUNDINGS / MONTEREY PENINSULA

Lone Cypress Poses Proudly for Generations

Stately tree clinging to a granite promontory is a quintessential symbol of the California coast.

May 16, 2002|DAVID FERRELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If the Lone Cypress is the world's most photographed tree, as some claim, Joann Dost is part of the reason. For more than 20 years, she has gone out at morning and night, in clear weather and fog, to capture the elegant lines of the tree and its prow-shaped granite promontory above the surf of the Monterey Peninsula.

"It's so interesting how nature can take a tree and have it grow right out of the rocks," said Dost, a professional photographer who figures that she has shot thousands of frames of the tree in all hues of light. One of her favorite times is evening, when the reddening sun casts shadows across the headlands. "The clouds open up and you get these wonderful shafts of light," she said. "It lasts maybe two minutes. It's just a magical spot."

Van Megert, an artist, is also drawn to the Lone Cypress at that hour. He has spent 30 years with the tree and photographed and painted it hundreds of times, from every possible angle. Sometimes he even takes the photographs to his studio in Paris--a city with its own vast array of landmarks, trees and gardens--and quietly toils on yet another image of the cypress.

"I'm tired of painting it, but it's a way of paying the bills," he said with an edge in his voice. "I've made a lot of money painting it."

Tourists at his gallery in Pebble Beach pay up to $25,000 for the largest of Van Megert's acrylic seascapes. Many have seen the tree in magazines. Its wind-raked look and tenacious hold on the rocks inspires them. The tree is at once stately and mysterious and wild.

Set in nearly flawless composition atop the canted, fissured, massive wedge of headlands, it symbolizes the California coast as few landmarks do. "It's the one thing that tourists connect with," the artist said. "It's something they want to see. If you drive by there on a typical weekend, they're all getting out of the tour buses at that spot."

The Lone Cypress is one of a rare species, the Monterey cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa), that grows only here and on Point Lobos, a few miles south.

Adapted to the craggy headlands, the trees stoop and sway and seem to turn the coast into a fairyland. They drip in the blowing mists. At night you can imagine them shape-shifting into tree goblins. They reach up to 70 feet in height and live about 300 years.

Stranded on a particularly forlorn, Gibraltar-like formation that extends directly west, the Lone Cypress is stunted and embattled. It is held in place by wires and a low retaining wall. A plaque at the roadside proclaims it "a testament to the hardiness of these trees. It has withstood Pacific storms and winds for roughly 250 years."

Frances Larkey, who settled on the coast in 1923, was 81 when she was interviewed about the tree years ago. "There's a kind of lift or exhilaration you get from just looking at the tree on that impressive rock," she said. "It's one of those intangibles.... It represents eternity." Not long after sharing those thoughts, Larkey saved the tree she so loved from an arson fire. In 1984, someone doused it and set it burning shortly after midnight, damaging much of the root system. Larkey's call to authorities kept it from being destroyed.

She died six years ago at age 96. The tree lives on, nurtured by the Pebble Beach Co. with care befitting an elderly executive. The tree's value is evident in several ways. It forms the logo of the renowned Pebble Beach golf resort. Its image is protected by trademark, meaning the company gets a cut from the many people who use the tree for commercial purposes--to sell calendars, Christmas cards, paintings, postcards, posters and sculptures.

The cypress is also a scenic stop on 17 Mile Drive, a loop road through breathtaking forest and beachfront. For $8, you can spend much of a day on a two-lane route that begins in the foothills, under canopies of trees, and descends to long expanses of sun-drenched rocky beach. The drive passes within a few strides of the flagsticks of some of America's premier golf courses: Pebble Beach, Poppy Hills, Spanish Bay, Spyglass Hill and Cypress Point. Mansions crown the low bluffs, which are cloaked with cypresses.

Off Point Joe, an area known as the Restless Sea surges with waves that seem to collide from half a dozen directions. The Lone Cypress is beyond that, at stop No. 16.

Just when you think there should be no more beauty left to find, you pull over and step to the railing and see it, as John and Clara Harrison did. "It's spectacular--unbelievable," he said. "It's incredible," his wife said.

Visiting from Chicago, they were not only sightseeing, but thinking about a future home. Florida and Maine had been high on their list before they reached the Monterey coast. "It's the Garden of Eden," John Harrison said. "Can you imagine getting up every morning and walking down the steps and seeing the sea lions?"

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