The Man, The Trail, and The Wilderness Ideal
by Don Weiss
I walked quickly down the trail. The forest was richly varied, with pines, spruce, hemlock, fir and some aspen, the first aspen I’d seen on the trip. The mountain hemlock were particularly impressive, planted massively on rock shelves cut into the cliff above my head like sumo wrestlers. They looked immobile as the mountains and as old as Time itself.
Following some carelessly scrawled signs, I marched down to the barren lakeshore, a scene of powerful desolation. The waters had receded, due to three years of drought. The shrunken lake was surrounded by a quarter-mile wide border of bleached granite boulders and tree stumps. The trees must have been logged off by the Forest Service when the reservoir was built in the twenties. I wondered how long the stumps would remain, alternately soaking in the captured waters of Mono Creek and bleaching in the sun.
The ferry arrived early, at 9:35, dropping off six backpackers. Nine of us got aboard, including the five husky guys from the preceding day. Two of them were now wearing LAPD teeshirts and that is exactly what they were, five LA cops on a backpacking holiday.
I started talking with three young guys, clean cut, scrubbed, looking very much ready to return to civilization. One of them had his right arm hanging limply.
“Had a problem?” I asked. He nodded.
“Yeah, I’ll say. My arm went dead. I just hiked a couple hours and it went dead, like when your foot goes to sleep, but it won’t wake up. I guess I’ll call the doctor when I get home.” And I had worried about a blister!
We lined up our packs down the center of the pontoon boat and paid our $6 each. The boat sped across the lake towards the store, resort and campground at Vermillion Valley.
I walked to the campground, just across a creek from the resort, and started in on my chores. First I washed all my clothes as most had just been rinsed briefly after each wearing. Unfortunately, the campground didn’t have anyplace to wash clothes. The only water tap had a sign that warned against washing clothes, dishes or anything else there. I laboriously carried all my waterbottles, full, from the tap to the picnic table at my campsite, washed one pair of socks in my cooking pot, carried more water to rinse, hung up the socks, then started in on the next item.
Meanwhile, the resort’s generator rattled the air from fifty yards away. It was both irritating and enticing. A half hour and three pairs of socks later I gave in to its siren song and checked in to the motel. For only $30 a night, I got a bathroom with shower, books to borrow, a light to read by and, not to be dismissed, a double bed. My wife was due to show up at noon the next day.
I quickly washed out the rest of my clothes, then showered thoroughly. After lunch, crackers and cheese as usual, I went to the cafe and ordered a chocolate chocolate chip ice cream cone. Not quite heaven, but damned close.
A pair of teenage girls were the cook and waitress. They reminded me of my own favorite waitress from the days I was the harassed, overworked owner of a place called Mom and Dad’s Coffee Shop. They were quick, cheerful, and impossible to top with a snappy retort. Impossible, that is, until the waitress asked one customer how he had liked his ham. His answer, “Pretty good, for dead meat.”
I talked with Katie Horst. She and her husband Toby owned and ran this modest motel and cafe that carried the grandiose name Vermillion Valley Resort. They got plenty of hikers from the John Muir and the Pacific Crest trails as well as hundreds of everyday sort of fishermen, hikers, and horsepackers. Katie shook her head sadly, thinking about some of the hikers she had seen.
“Some of those poor boys doing the John Muir or the Pacific Crest, why its terrible to see! They’re all emaciated and starving. Some had bears steal their food. Others just ran out. Sometimes they’ll order a big steak, drink two glasses of milk, have an ice cream cone and then get sick all over themselves cause they’re not used to all the fat. Some are just so thin and pitiful I could cry. And then there are the ones who buy a case of beer and drink it all in a day and a half. But you’re being careful, just one ice cream. That’s smart.”
I explained I’d only been on the trail nine days and had resupplied on day 3. “And I haven’t even seen a bear so far on this trip.”
“Oh, you will, count on it. Just you keep hanging your food every night. Why we’ve got three of them living in this little valley. They come around every second or third night. It’s all those campers. The ranger tells them not to leave out their ice chests but you just can’t tell somebody from Fresno that his sixty dollar ice chest is like a potato chip bag to a bear. That’s why we stock ice chests in the store.”
It felt so familiar at the motel and cafe, like my old coffee shop, or a hundred modest resorts on a hundred different lakes in Maine, Canada or upstate New York where my father and I went to chase bass. I sat for a long time, talking with Katie and the waitress.
Eventually Toby came in, finished for awhile with his chores. Toby, tall and slender, dresses like a cowboy in boots and jeans. He has the cowboy’s slow, thoughtful way of answering a question that makes you think it was developed when every man packed a gun and a hasty answer might get you shot, or at least warned, “When you call me that, smile.” I asked him about the backpackers, horsepackers and fishermen he meets all summer long. He meditated a bit, sipping his coffee and staring out the window at the trees, then answered leisurely, reflectively, weighing each statement as if he knew I was going to quote him.
“Well, the first thing you’ve got to remember is this, it changes from year to year. When we started in here, everybody was backpacking. It was the whole back-to-nature sixties thing. But gradually, all those people graduated from college. It was a college thing, for the most part.
“Well, when those backpackers graduated from college and started in at jobs, they just kind of gave up on backpacking. Some of them must have married and had kids. The rest were all making careers for themselves. They didn’t have the time and backpacking sort of died.
“Now it’s coming back a bit, but horsepacking is what’s really growing. The college kids are in their thirties and forties now, like you I guess, and they aren’t as much into carrying a forty pound pack as they were at twenty. So you know what’s getting big? Spot packing. You hire a packer and have him load your camp gear up on a mule or two. Then you walk in with him to a campsite, someplace good for fishing or day hikes, and he leaves you there. Then, in a week, he comes back and picks you up. Horsepacking, well that’s growing a bit too, but spot packing’s the big deal these days.
“Of course, most of our business right here at the lake is from fishermen, though business is way off this year because of the drought. The fishing’s still good, but people see in their papers the lake’s down 70% and they figure the fish are gone too instead of just being easier to find because there’s less lake for them to hide in. You saw our giant trout?”
I certainly had. Over the cash register hung the biggest trout I had ever seen except for a couple of local record Lake Trout at Canadian resorts. It would have been the state record if it had been caught. But it was found floating, dying, and brought back to be photographed and stuffed.
“I don’t mind the fishermen. They’re my living, after all. But I have to be fair. Fishermen are the messiest campers in the mountains. Some fishermen, anyway.”
I asked if he and Katie went backpacking or horsepacking. He smiled broadly and squeezed Katie’s hand.
“Every year in September we head up into the mountains. You know, most backpackers got into the habit in college, on summer vacation, so they think they have to go in the summer. But the fall’s better. The crowds are gone, there aren’t any dangerous stream crossings, and the aspen…” He sighed, an eloquent sigh, speaking of the buttery color of aspen leaves in fall, twisting ethereally in the breeze.
I left them to their chores and wandered back to my room. The heel blister that had appeared the day before had grown bigger and more tender, the worst blister I had ever had. I laid back on a lounge chair in the sun, airing my feet, writing in my trip journal, and just generally dreaming and vegetating. Like Muir, that day I felt, “transcendental dreaming seems the only sensible and substantial business one can engage in.”
This dip back into civilization was very much in the tradition of Muir, and I pondered his need for contact and comfort versus my own.
Loneliness is the eternal companion of solo travelers. In 1867, on his Thousand Mile Walk To The Gulf, Muir wrote to Jeanne Carr, “I am very lonesome and hunger terribly for the communion of friends.” He returned to this theme repeatedly. In 1870, he wrote her from Yosemite, saying, “Our valley is just gushing, throbbing full of open, adorable beauty, and I feel that I must tell you about it. I am lonely among my enjoyments; the valley is full of visitors, but I have no one to talk to.” Two years later, he confided to his journal, “There perhaps are souls that never weary, that go always unhalting and glad, tuneful and songful as mountain water. Not so, weary hungry me. In all God’s mountain mansions, I find no human sympathy and I hunger.”
Gradually he spent more of his time in the wilderness with other people, friends he made in California. He still sometimes went on his own, but once fully embarked on his glacial and ecological studies, his time alone was filled with activity and purpose. He complained less of loneliness, though he still often mentioned the joys of returning, periodically, to civilized comforts. After freezing his feet on a late-season climb of Shasta in 1874, he wrote, “It is a stormy day here at the foot of the big snowy Shasta and so I am in Sisson’s house where it is cosy and warm.” … “For two days and a half I had nothing in the way of food, yet suffered nothing and was finely nerved for the most delicate work of mountaineering, both among crevasses and lava cliffs. Now I am sleeping and eating.”
The problem of food in the mountains, “the bread line,” constantly preoccupied Muir. Common portraits of his travels show him going off for weeks at a time with only a bit of dried bread and some tea, a myth he did much to perpetuate. In describing a good excursion of two to three weeks that any strong hiker could make in his book The Yosemite, he said: “Long ago I made these Sierra trips, carrying only a sackful of bread with a little tea and sugar and was thus independent and free, but now that trails or carriage roads lead out of the valley in almost every direction it is easy to take a pack animal so that the luxury of a blanket and a supply of food can be easily had.”
His letters reveal a preoccupation with carrying enough food, and he mentions taking dried meat, oatmeal, dried fruits, and a variety of other foods on excursions of more than a few days. Once he asked Jeanne Carr to look into a product called Leibig’s Meat Extract, thinking it would enable him to carry a summer’s supply of food on a single pack animal.
It seems he usually did take at least one horse on longer trips. His letters repeatedly mention pack animals. Merrill Moores says that when he visited Muir in 1872, he found that: “A misguided admirer of John Muir, named Eaglesfield, who had a ranch in the San Joaquin Valley near Merced, and bred fine horses, had sent Muir seven saddle horses, which he kept in a corral near our locus dormi, in which he also kept the disreputable nag he owned and rode on his frequent trips through the mountains.”
When Muir didn’t take horses, or when he went off alone for a few days, he normally did travel with just his proverbial sack of bread and tea–but not always. Keith wrote an article about a trip he took with Muir in 1874. They travelled to Hetch Hetchy with horses and camped for the night:
“The next morning we sent all the horses back to Yosemite with the packer, and told him to be there in twelve days from that time. Then we made mules of ourselves. My pack was so heavy I couldn’t lift it to my back but had to get one of my companions to do it for me… About noon we stopped by the side of some chaparral and lunched, tired out. My pack was lead and weighed tons. I derived much satisfaction when stopping, in dragging it behind the bushes and having a war-dance over it.”
We don’t know how often Muir went with a heavy pack, how often with horses (though certainly all his longer trips were with animals) and how often he abandoned all civilized comforts except for fire. But his intense early days in Yosemite, tramping nearly all summer and much of the spring and fall, this couldn’t last. Starting in 1871, Jeanne Carr and others encouraged him to write, to bring the fruits of his mountain researches to a wider audience. Mrs. Carr enlisted her heaviest gun in trying to bring Muir down from the mountains when, in 1871, she directed Emerson’s footsteps towards Muir’s sawmill in the valley. Emerson wrote to Muir later, saying, “I have everywhere testified to my friends, who should also be yours, my happiness in finding you–the right man in the right place–in your mountain tabernacle,” but he also tried to entice Muir to come to Concord and fulfill what Emerson saw as the basic mission of The American Scholar, “to bring your fruits so rare and precious into waiting society.” Muir didn’t come. He chose instead to follow the advice Emerson gave in “The American Scholar.” “The true scholar grudges every opportunity of action passed by, as a loss of power. It is the raw material out of which the intellect moulds her splendid products. A strange process too, this by which experience is converted into thought, as a mulberry leaf is converted into satin. The manufacture goes forward at all hours.”
Despite his continued work guiding tourists and his constant researches, Muir did start writing and, to his surprise and delight, he found major magazines as well as various California newspapers quite happy to pay him top dollar for his articles. This income gave him the freedom to abandon the sawmill, where his relations with Hutchings had reached the breaking point anyway. As the seventies wore on, he traveled widely, up and down California, east through the Great Basin, and north to Alaska. But he always gravitated back to Yosemite in the summer and the San Francisco Bay area in the winter where he boarded with friends and wrote incessantly.
As he became a professional writer, a public figure, his writing changed. The ecstatic passages that enlivened his earlier letters and journals were muted. Earlier he had written, “I have spent every Sabbath for the last two months in the spirit world, screaming among the peaks and outside meadows,” and, “O Mrs. Carr, that you could be here to mingle in this night moon glory!” . But later on such emotional flights are absent. He was maturing, finding his calling in “enticing people only to look at nature’s loveliness” and preparing to marry.
He married a woman Jeanne Carr picked out as a suitable bride, the intelligent, musical daughter of an intellectual doctor who owned most of what is now Martinez, California. When Muir married Louie Strentzel on April 14, 1880, it was the start of a decade when he would do little travel and less writing. He leased half of Dr. Strentzel’s ranch in his own name and ran the whole operation. He was so successful the railroad built a station at the border of his property, making it even easier for him to ship his fruit with a minimum of bouncing in a wagon.
The ranch gave little scope for his love of nature and only a bit more for his mechanical talents. He found Bartlett pears and Tokay grapes the most profitable things he could grow, so he specialized in them. He invented a sprayer to coat his orchards with a fine mist of arsenic, keeping his crop in bugless condition, and he supervised a staff that numbered up to thirty.
Joseph LeConte had said in 1870 that he thought Muir would pine away in any conventional job. He was right. Muir never lost his love of wild nature, and his occasional trips to Yosemite or further afield just served to remind him of what he was missing.
Louie, his wife, encouraged him to spend more time away. In 1888 he took a trip to the Pacific Northwest with Keith for a book he was editing, Picturesque California. While he was away, Louie wrote, “A ranch that needs and takes the sacrifice of a noble life or work ought to be flung away beyond all reach and power for harm…” She suggested they sell or lease some of the land since they were now financially secure. His marriage to Louie was firm, but his marriage to civilization was about to undergo a revolution.
Civilization has its attractions. After dinner I had a piece of Katie’s home-made apple pie a la mode with a tall, cold glass of milk. A blackboard set up in the dining room kept a tally of Katie’s pies. “Katie’s Pies This Year …… 169
Katie’s Pies 12 Years ……. 8217”
The men who had harassed the waitress at lunch were at it again. They were engineers, getting ready to head off for a week’s backpacking and fishing. They tried to talk the waitress into coming along to serve their coffee. She asked who would carry her pack. When one man volunteered, she then asked who would carry her.
I watched the whole scene in a happy glow of apple pie, ice cream and milk, a heavy dessert after a day’s dip back into civilization. When I realized I was falling asleep where I sat, I went off to bed. It was 8:30, and not yet dark. I fell asleep right away. Sometime later I woke up and thought to myself, “Hey, I’m in a bed!”