The Man, The Trail, and The Wilderness Ideal
by Don Weiss
“A journey of a thousand paces begins with one step.”
I stepped onto the shuttle-bus for Happy Isles, the start of the John Muir Trail. It was CHAOS. I was assailed by noise, children of all ages, all in full cry. Babies in backpacks howled, screeched, or gurgled. Pre-teen girls giggled, eyeing one another’s electric pink or cerulean blue “hiking tights.” Others shouted critiques of the “dweebs” across the isle. Teenage “Valley Girls” –San Fernando, not Yosemite–showed their sophistication by pointedly ignoring the sublime views out the window. Teenage boys, in the presence of girls, just thumped each other and howled. Parents shouted in a vain attempt to keep order. The bus engine roared in sympathy with the cacophony.
A short, noisy eternity later, the bus disgorged a dozen of us at the start of the piney lane that led 200 yards to Happy Isles. Suddenly silence prevailed. Like a spell of mystical power, the arching, towering, sunlight-filtering crown of trees hushed the crowd. The babies, the teens, and the parents, all were stilled. As my ears became accustomed to the quiet, I heard a murmuring through the trees. It was the Merced River coursing over its granite bed, singing the song of the Wild.
In retrospect, the crowds weren’t as bad as they might have been. This was the start of a four-day Fourth of July weekend, with piercing heat in the cities of California’s Central Valley and the L A basin. Yosemite has had to adopt “negative advertising” –an unending series of press releases warning of traffic, crowds, limited accommodations, and all the other civilized ills that people have brought to the mountains. The mountains they go to when they want to flee civilization.
As early as 1874, Muir wrote to his friend and mentor Jeanne Carr, “I live only to entice people to look at Nature’s loveliness.” Still later, he wrote a book called Our National Parks, “with a view to inciting the people to come and enjoy them,” and he succeeded. “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home…” Home, in some cases, with a satellite dish on the roof of an RV Home, where you can play tennis beneath the awesome cliffs that moved early visitors to tears. Home, where traffic jams spew exhaust into the air of what Muir called “a paradise that makes even the loss of Eden insignificant.”
My wife was walking the first few miles with me. We stopped for a picture at the sign that said “John Muir Trail, Mt. Whitney 211.0 miles, 340 km.” Then we started up the trail together. Our boots thumped on the rocks. My walking stick, a ski pole, clacked on fragments of blacktop. The Park Service used to try to protect this trail and make it more accessible by paving the first mile or so. Now they just let it crumble, overwhelmed by inadequate budgets. Or perhaps the state of the trail is intentional, a message to the public, “If you want a better trail, write your Congressman.” Steve Mather, first director of the Park Service, often used this tactic to convince important Senators that he needed bigger budgets for roads. He would drive VIPs at high speed over corrugated dirt roads in the parks, sometimes with another vehicle just ahead to stir up the dust.
Though the trail is abysmal, the surroundings are sublime, and appreciated by many. We passed three old ladies in “sensible” shoes. They walked slowly, placing each foot carefully between the rocks, stopping to look around at the trees, the river and the falls. We passed a group from our bus. There were four adults and six children. They almost seemed to be conducting a class. Father Number 1 led Child Number 3 in a catechism of,
“What kind of rock do you think this is?”
“Good! But how do you know?” etc.
Mother Number 2 made sure The Little Ones saw every bird and squirrel. The oldest boy, all of 14, was wearing jams (beach shorts) the color of neon vomit and a tee-shirt showing a death’s head skateboard. His name was Jason. He repeatedly ran off the trail, shouting, only to be called back. I figured he was looking for rattlesnakes. I hoped he would find one–suddenly.
I’ve hiked this trail seven or eight times since that first rainy trip in the spring of 1971. Each time I like it better. The first time I only really paid attention to the waterfalls. The next time I noticed the river, and heard it singing among shattered fragments of the cliffs above. On other trips I saw the trees, the mushrooms, or the animals.
This time, I experienced it less visually than through other senses. I smelled the spiciness of the Douglas Fir and Incense Cedar. I felt the crunch of the gravel and the poking of the rocks through my boots, and that feeling flowed on to my fingertips, where it merged with the vibrations of my walking stick striking the rocks. The sounds of my boots and the metal point of the ski pole punctuated the all- encompassing sound of the river as it murmured and gurgled, swished and roared, thundering through the canyon. Together, the sounds, feelings, and smells established a connection, as everything is connected to everything else, and I was the connection.
There were views, too, of elegant Liberty Cap and towering Half Dome, but this day they seemed merely pretty. Sometimes I think I look at too many pictures to appreciate views as I should. Views are the raw material of my craft. It’s often difficult to suspend my critical faculties long enough to let a scene move my soul. As I walked the first mile of my summer’s journey, it was the sound of the river that called me to attention. The sound of the river began the 25-day process of attuning my spirit.
Vernal Falls, Muir wrote, is, “a staid, orderly, easy- going fall, proper and exact in every movement and gesture, with scarce a hint of the passionate enthusiasms of Yosemite or of the impetuous Nevada.” Nevada Falls, on the contrary, was, “one of the most wonderful in the world” in its stirring rush to fill the air with spray and noise.
Yet the top of Nevada Falls is one of the most serene spots in the park. Muir’s advice to those “so time-poor as to have only one day to spend in Yosemite,” was to allow, “an unmeasured hour or so” just sitting on the smooth glacial pavement, absorbing the lessons of the river, the trees, the canyon, the animals and the sky.
We had lunch there, my wife and I. Crackers and cheese, fruits and nuts, and powdered lemonade mixed with water from the river. If all went according to plan, I would see her twice, briefly, during the trip, and then again at the end. Other than that I would be alone. I was ready. I thought.
A mile upstream I came to Little Yosemite Valley Campground. A notice board, brown wood, silver metal, red and white paint, was an announcement of the presence of civilization as clear as Poussin’s painting of a grave in Arcadia, the one with the title, “Et In Arcadia, Ego.”
“Please Read: You are entering Little Yosemite Valley, the most heavily used and one of the more fragile areas of the Yosemite Backcountry. Help preserve this area by camping only at existing campsites beginning at the Ranger Station .3 miles ahead on the Merced Lake Trail.
- Use Only Existing Firepits
- Pack Out All Trash
- Treat Drinking Water
- Secure Food – Bears Frequent
- Camping Areas
- Prevent Pollution – Use Chemical Toilets
- Stock Users – Check At Ranger Station”
I tried to prevent pollution but the portapotty was out of order. Nearby, a ranger was playing with a shovel, a wheelbarrow, and some trash.
“Hi!” I called out. “You look like you’re having fun. Say, I don’t know if this is your job, but the chemical toilet over there is dry. Or at least, it’s out of blue chemicals or whatever you use here.”
He looked at me briefly, speculatively. Then he raised his eyes heavenward and sighed.
“I just filled it. It leaks. I guess I’ll have to shut it down. Again.” I made some sympathetic gestures, suggesting wordlessly that he must work very hard against very long odds to try to maintain this overly-popular campsite, five-and-a-fraction miles from the shuttle bus stop.
“You know, these things don’t really work worth a damn, even when they work, which mostly they don’t anymore. Even when they do, we have to shovel them out and let the shit dry in the sun on canvas. The liquids, all that mess that’s stewed together, some of it leaches into the soil and the river is just a few yards away. We tried to get the front office to do a coliform count on the river but they won’t. They’re scared. If it’s as high as we think it is, they’d have to close the campground. Of course, if the front office knew what they were doing, they’d see how badly we need money here. We should have some of those Clivus Multrum composting toilets. And we desperately need some landscape rehab, and a couple more rangers to explain to all the first time backpackers why we don’t have hot showers in the backcountry and that yes, bears do so eat freeze dried food still in the foil package.”
I used to dream about being a Yosemite Backcountry Ranger. Living with Yogi Bear and Bambi, no traffic, clean air, no loud stereo next door. Spreading out sewage to dry in the sun so it could be packed out on mules sort of did in that dream. I filed it away with my earliest ambition–to be a fishing guide in Maine, living in a cabin with Haley Mills who, like me, was much younger then.
We talked a bit more. When I said I was doing the whole JMT he grinned and shook his head.
“God, I wish I could do that. I love backpacking. But I’m here all summer.” Stuck here, I thought he almost said. Stuck in Eden, but wishing for the Wilderness, not the Garden.
Eventually we said farewell. He left to close down the leaking portapotty. I climbed nine hundred vertical feet in a mile and a half to the Half Dome Trail junction. Years ago, when I was new to hiking, I climbed Half Dome from Happy Isles by this trail. It’s a 16-mile round trip with a vertical mile up and down. Smart people stay at Little Yosemite Valley Campground, making it only a five mile round trip, 2800 feet up, 2800 feet down. That’s why most of the people I saw coming down this stretch wore just shorts and a tee shirt and carried not much at all. Some had small day packs that might have had four or five of the famous Ten Essentials for Hiking. Some had fanny packs. A few guys were bare chested, sunburned, and totally unencumbered. Maybe they had carried a few beers for liquids and threw the empty cans off the top. They looked it.
As impossible as it looks, Half Dome was one of the first Sierra domes to be climbed. But it was strictly aid climbing. As Muir told it, in 1875, George Anderson, “an indomitable Scotchman … resolutely drilled his way to the top, inserting eye-bolts five to six feet apart, and making his rope fast to each in succession, resting his feet on the last bolt while he drilled a hole for the next above.”
Muir wasn’t thrilled about this ropeway, now elaborated into a pair of cables with wooden cross-bars to ease the strain on your feet. But he wasn’t especially annoyed at what some might have thought of as a desecration of the Valley’s grandest monument.
“For my part I should prefer leaving it in pure wildness, though, after all, no great damage could be done by tramping over it. The surface would be strewn with tin cans and bottles, but the winter gales would blow the rubbish away. … Blue jays and Clark crows have trodden the Dome for many a day, and so have beetles and chipmunks, and Tissiack [Half Dome] would hardly be more ‘conquered’ or spoiled should man be added to her list of visitors.”
It was hot, hard climbing, coming up from Little Yosemite Valley to the shoulder of Half Dome, and I was glad that the gradient eased after the turnoff to the climbing cable. Half a mile down the trail I found a cool rock by shady Sunrise Creek. I took off my boots and drank a liter of water. As I refilled the water bottle, I watched half a dozen little trout trying to escape the presence that loomed over their little pool. I thought of the saying, The French don’t drink river water–fish piss in it. In the backcountry, people do too. I iodined the water.
I hadn’t taken many pictures yet, but I made up for it in that next hour. I hunted around for perfect lilies, snow plants and other wildflowers along the stream and in small patches of afternoon sunlight scattered about the forest floor.
I was in the Red Fir belt now. It was a forest particularly silent and solemn. The trees stood decorously apart, converging above in a solid canopy of intersecting foliage. The ground was littered with broken branches and plates of bark fallen from dead, standing trees. I walked along the trail in near silence, the trees absorbing the sound of my boots and my walking stick. The trail skimmed the top of a thick mat of dry, crumbled bark, softer and more yielding than the softest carpet. It was a complete contrast to the earlier, granite, step trail.
By 4 o’clock, every potential campsite looked good. I had climbed 3400 feet. I felt ready for tea, dinner and sleep. I camped 50 yards uphill from the trail, away from the creek. I hoped this would put me well off the bears’ highway (the trail) and away from the mosquitoes’ home (the lush creek border). However, I soon found the mozzies were ubiquitous and the broken cords hanging from tree limbs made me less than certain about my freedom from bear worries.
Bears hadn’t been one of my major concerns planning the trip. I had faced down a black bear once, with the help of my niece. That bear had seemed more scared of her five foot tall, thin-voiced body than my six feet and bellow. She explained that it was because she’s a vet, used to handing cows and horses. When she wants a large animal to obey, she projects a mental image of her hand inserted into one of the animal’s bodily orifices, her fist firmly grasping a kidney. The bear got the message and left our camp.
I enjoy the routine of making camp. I take pride in pitching my tent on the best available spot, with a minimum number of rocks and roots to disturb my sleep yet not disturbing the environment. I try to follow the credo, “Take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints.” Making camp relaxes me even after a rare, unpleasant day in the wild.
This day, my mood needed no help, it had been extremely pleasant. A shady trail had balanced the warm weather. My pack was heavy but manageable. The surroundings had been superb.
But as I sat after dinner, my reverie gradually took an uneasy turn. I thought of the Indian saying, “Not a leaf falls in the forest but the eagle sees it, the deer hears it, and the bear smells it.” Uneasiness set my brain on edge. I found myself looking around, wondering if a bear might be snuffling along the trail, smelling my Beef Curry Rice on the evening air. It had smelled wonderful to me–and wonderfully strong.
From odors wafted on the evening air, my thoughts led me to the weather. Sierra thunderstorms are famous. They strike in scattered locations many afternoons, soaking the unlucky hikers on that part of the trail, shattering trees. What if a thunderstorm came up overnight? Was I close to the tallest tree around–the local lightening rod?
And what about my knee? Now there was a real worry. I had trained hard and foolishly for this trip. A week before I left I developed tendonitis. On the way to Yosemite I almost turned around and went home, the pain was so bad.
And now I was alone, very alone. After three o’clock I hadn’t seen another human, just birds, squirrels and one deer which only looked up briefly as I went by. In this unaccustomed solitude I had to cope with any bears that crossed my path. I had to endure whatever pain my knee generated. I had to stay dry in storms and avoid lightening. Most of all, if this wasn’t to be a complete waste of time, I needed to have fun, maybe learn something, and take some great pictures. It was a lot to think about as I lay there, trying to go to sleep while every rustling leaf sounded like the step of a bear. There was no American Express office, no quick 747 home. And no companion to cheer me up, cajole me to go on. I was alone.