Cathro writes for the Oakland Tribune.

Ravaged by arsonists' fire, splattered with pranksters' paint, stripped by vandals and whipped by relentless ocean winds, one of America's sturdiest and most familiar natural landmarks still poses proudly for yet another generation of camera-carrying travelers.

The world's most photographed tree, the Lone Cypress, stands on its granite promontory on California's Monterey Peninsula, guarding 5,300 acres of the most beautiful and valuable geography in the Western Hemisphere.

And like the stern sentinels flanking the royal confines of Buckingham Palace, it has been the target of nearly every tourist's camera since the earliest days of the magic box.

In the 1880s sightseers and guests at Hotel Del Monte, built by railroad baron Charles Crocker, enjoyed daylong drives by horse-drawn carriages over dirt roads that wound around the tall pines of Del Monte Forest and skirted magnificent pebble-strewn beaches. The Lone Cypress, one of the rarest trees on Earth, has seen them all come and go on this valuable strip of real estate.

Today, about two million motorists annually take that same excursion, known throughout the world as 17-Mile Drive,a princely, private, paved highway that links Pacific Grove on the north end of the peninsula with Carmel on the south. While last weekend's fire consumed more than 140 acres of wooded and residential area near the start of 17-Mile Drive at the Carmel gate and inland in the northern portion of Pebble Beach, the Lone Cypress, more than three miles from the fire, was not involved. The California Department of Forestry reports that the entire length of 17-Mile Drive is open and undamaged.

According to Julie Armstrong, communications director for the Monterey Peninsula Chamber of Commerce, overnight lodgings and traffic in the Monterey area have not been affected. Tourists are, however, discouraged from driving into the burned area.

Despite its name, the Lone Cypress really is not alone. Along with those millions of transient "friends" who drop by to take their snapshots, the tree has had next-door neighbors since 1923. That's when the family of Dr. Jefferson Larkey, an Oakland physician, bought property immediately south of the tree and spent weekends communing with cypress, sand dunes and sea. In 1960 the Larkeys built a permanent home there.

"The tree is like part of the family to me," said Frances Larkey, 87, the doctor's spry, cheerful widow. "I often wonder how many more years it has lived than I have."

That's a question that puzzles the experts as well. Gnarled by the ceaseless winds, the 35-foot evergreen looks older than it probably is. Although the species Cupressus macrocarpa can live as long as 400 years in protected areas (where it grows taller but is less picturesque), it probably survives less than a century on a storm-swept coast.

According to Vern Yadon, director of the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History, the species is native only to the Monterey Peninsula. It was discovered and named by Carl Theodore Hartweg, a collector for the Royal Botanical Society of London, in 1846.

The scientific way to determine the Lone Cypress's age would be to make borings in its trunk, which would weaken it and make it susceptible to disease, Yadon said.

Also the subject of speculation is whether this Lone Cypress is the one depicted in the earliest photographs and artists' renderings of the 1890s. Collector Pat Hathaway, whose studio on Lighthouse Avenue is crammed with historical photographs of the area, said he believes there have been at least two Lone Cypresses.

"There has been more than one," he said. The Pebble Beach Co., which owns and protects the tree, said the first one died years ago.

Reader, take your pick.

Artistic presence, however, and not age, is what matters here, and few photographers or artists have appreciated the presence of the solitary sentinel more than Frances Larkey.

"I'm so lucky to live here," she said, beaming. "I can see the lions and whales and sea otters, and, of course, the tree." She paused to observe the tourists over her back fence. "And all those people coming down the path--I enjoy them, too. They come in all sorts of weather, because they also love the tree."

Alas, the tree has not always been universally beloved. One night in 1974, for example ("During the Crosby tournament at Pebble Beach"), Larkey noticed a strange glow outside her window. Peering more closely, she discovered that the Lone Cypress was ablaze.

She called the Fire Department, which put out the flames before they did extensive damage. "There was a large pile of incendiary material at the foot of the trunk," Larkey said. "It definitely was arson."

A few years earlier, the Larkeys awoke one morning to discover the trunk and branches of their evergreen neighbor had been painted a gaudy bright red.

" 'Probably some Stanford rascals,' my husband said. He was a staunch Cal man, you know, and hated the Stanford color."

As it had survived the fire, so too did the Lone Cypress shrug off the paint.

There are other stories about the tree in peril, including one about Samuel F. B. Morse risking his life on a particularly stormy night to grope his way out to the tree to make sure it wasn't damaged by gale-force winds.

What, if anything, Morse could have done to save the tree is a good question. But the point here is that Morse, conservationist, sportsman and financier, had bought 20,000 acres of the peninsula in the early 1900s, and really cared about every living thing within it.

He set up Del Monte Properties and became the area's first environmentalist, protecting the heart of the area--the Del Monte Forest and the 17-Mile Drive--and keeping it a private preserve to this day.

He also turned the peninsula into a matchless setting for golfers, designing the renowned Pebble Beach, Cypress Point and Spyglass Hill courses.

On the forested slopes of Morse's property overlooking the Pacific, the wealthy, under Morse's careful guidelines, were to prove true the words of Monterey's first mayor, Walter Colton, who in Gold Rush days had predicted the gold barons "would sprinkle these hills with mansions and cottages of ease and refinement."

Through it all, the Lone Cypress has stood as a beacon, a self-renewing landmark, oblivious of its enduring fame. Although incidents of vandalism have been relatively few, the Pebble Beach Co., successor to Del Monte Properties, plans to install an alarm system around the tree, which now is only fenced. Improvements are under way in the tree-viewing and parking areas.

The tree, by the way, is not at Cypress Point. It stands at Midway Point, about three miles from the Carmel gate of 17-Mile Drive. The fee is $5 per vehicle to travel on the drive.

A retaining wall was put up in 1960 to protect the tree's increasingly exposed roots. But from those roots, Larkey recently saw, with her binoculars, a tiny sapling emerging.

And about 25 feet from the Lone Cypress, clearly visible from her backyard and to visitors who walk up the access path, a young cypress, about four feet tall and already bent photogenically by the wind, is standing by, growing slowly but steadily, ready to take its place in the California sun and in the viewfinders of travelers yet to come.

For travel information, contact Monterey Peninsula Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 1770 Monterey, Calif. 93942, phone (408) 649-1770.

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