The Man, The Trail, and The Wilderness Ideal
by Don Weiss
“Why are there so many people?” I wondered, as I started out early, rested and strong. As soon as I rejoined the JMT I started passing groups, going and coming, talking happily or silently stalking along. It was like the trails starting up from Happy Isles or at Devil’s Postpile except these were all backpackers. There was one scout group of a dozen boys and four adults, several women’s groups of three or four, and couples, couples everywhere. By 11 o’clock I had seen about 50 people.
One of the women’s groups joined me in admiring some flowers by a trickle of water coming down and crossing the trail. There were four of them, all about 19 or 20, with new frame packs that looked lightly loaded. They were heading down. I asked one where they were going.
“Home. Home to my homework.”
“Nice trip?” I queried. She cocked her head and thought a bit. Then she smiled and nodded.
“Somewhere between fair and great. Mostly great, really, except last night.”
“Bears?” I asked.
“No, just cold. We were in Upper Evolution Valley, above timberline. It was cold and barren, kind of scary really, being up there where trees won’t grow.”
The trail here, below Evolution Basin, followed the San Joaquin River as it forced a passage through twisted granite canyons. The lower walls of the gorge were broken in shelves and on these shelves were planted the biggest, oldest, grandest Western Juniper trees I have ever seen. I always think of these trees now when I read Muir’s lines about trees gripping the earth. “It has been said that trees are imperfect men, and seem to bemoan their imprisonment rooted in the ground. But they never seem so to me. I never saw a discontented tree. They grip the ground as though they liked it…”
These junipers were particularly attractive, and well displayed. They were stout-trunked, with rich cinnamon- colored bark, largely devoid of branches. Some were perhaps seven or eight feet thick and only put out a few branches from the top two or three of their 20 or 30 feet of height. Their roots were partly exposed, twisting and curling around the granite shelves that they griped “as though they liked it.” They really did seem to grab these rocks with an almost savage intensity. Some reminded me of the Ents, or the old oaks and willows from the magic forests of The Lord of the Rings. But the light danced on them, on their rocky shelves above the singing San Joaquin, and their bark flamed in the sun, and the Golden Mantled Ground Squirrels hung on their trunks, waiting for a passing hiker to drop a peanut.
I crossed the river twice, both times on solid bridges. At the second bridge, just before the climb up into Evolution Basin, I stopped for lunch. Nearby was a sign telling me I was entering Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park. I was about 114 miles from Happy Isles and 97 from the top of Mount Whitney. The rest of the trip I would be in these two parks, administered as one.
Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove were set aside in 1864 for their natural wonders. Yellowstone Park followed in 1872 as the first true National Park. Sequoia, the third such reservation, was established in 1890 mostly at the urging of some citizens of Visalia, California, just downhill from the park. They wanted to preserve the high country for a respite from the summer heat which regularly tops 100 in Visalia. But even more, Visalia was, then as now, primarily a farming community. In the 1880’s it was becoming dependent on irrigation water from the streams that flowed out of the forests that blanket the western slope of the Sierra, especially between 4000 and 9000 feet. This included not only the Sequoia forests but also the Sugar Pine, Red Fir and Lodgepole Pines I had been walking in most of my 114 miles.
The idea that streams are dependent on forests was first proposed by George Perkins Marsh in his great work, Man and Nature (1864), which was later reprinted as The Earth As Modified by Human Action. This was probably the first book that set out what is today accepted as the idea of ecology, which is sometimes distilled down into the saying, “Everything is connected to everything else,” or, in Muir’s words, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything in the universe.”
Marsh explained how forests soak up water, assuring year-round stream flows and preventing floods. By 1885, this idea was so widely accepted that New York State established Adirondak State Park primarily to provide a constant supply of water for the Erie Canal. In 1891 they insured the perpetuation of the forest in a “natural” condition by adding a provision to the state constitution forbidding any logging activity there.
Sequoia Park was established not just because the farmers of Visalia wanted it. Muir had a hand in it too. In fact, as early as 1881 Muir was working with one of California’s senators, John F. Miller, trying to get park status for the canyons and Sequoia groves of the southern Sierra. The proposal died, but was reborn as the Act that created Sequoia National Park and General Grant National Park on September 25, 1890 (a week before the creation of the real Yosemite National Park surrounding the Yosemite Valley reservation).
Originally, the park, or rather parks, consisted of much of what is now Sequoia National Park, plus the tiny General Grant National Park just covering the Grant Grove of Sequoias. Muir promptly wrote an article for Robert Underwood Johnson, “A rival of the Yosemite, The Canon of the South Fork of King’s River, California,” calling for essentially the combined parks as we know them today. This proposal went through a series of variations and was batted about the halls of Congress until 1940, when Harold Ickes finally pushed it through. The park was to have been named for Muir, but the rumors about his possible affair with Elvira Hutchings were dragged out as an excuse to deny him that honor.
Kings Canyon National Park, as finally enacted, was one of the first intended as unde-veloped “wilderness” –the Park Service’s answer to the Forest Service’s Roadless Areas. Actually, until 1965, the lower part of Kings Canyon itself and Tehipite Valley (still the least visited of the Yosemite-like canyons of the Sierra) were not included in the park. They were considered too valuable as potential reservoirs, in the tradition of Hetch Hetchy. Eventually, reason prevailed.
My first hour in the grand wilderness of Kings Canyon National Park, as I sat near the stone bridge over the San Joaquin, I was surrounded by flies. Aki, who had started later than I, caught up and passed me while I ate. He slapped at a fly on his forehead, cursing the horses for bringing the flies.
Soon I followed him up the switchbacked trail that left the San Joaquin and climbed the 700-foot step up to Evolution Basin. It was hot, hard work, climbing steeply with my heavy pack, especially right after eating, especially in the mid- day heat. John Sanroma had told me one of the reasons he fasts frequently along the trail was that 40% of your blood supply can go to digesting food, so by fasting you have more blood available for muscle replenishment and cooling. It was something I thought about very seriously as I stopped to rest and cool off in every tiny pool of shade.
Just below the top I spotted Aki. He was laying on a flat rock out at the edge of Evolution Creek, recovering from his climb. A few minutes later he passed me again as I stopped to photograph a flower-filled patch of meadow sliced in two by the trail. It was the last time I saw him on the trip, though not the last I heard of or from him.
At the beginning of Evolution Basin I forded Evolution Creek where it ran, swift and shallow, over a bed of rounded cobbles. I crossed easily in my Aquasocks. As I was drying my feet on the far bank, a man came up the trail, scouted the crossing, took off his boots and socks, and started to wade across. He seemed to be having a lot of trouble, stumbling, slipping, weaving back and forth, searching for a smoother path. Even before he reached the rock where I sat, I could hear him cursing over the rush of the water.
“Goddamn Sonofabitch. Ow! Shit! Damn river!” The tirade ended when he reached dry land and sat near me, panting, holding his feet, rubbing them with both hands. After a couple of minutes he looked up and smiled ruefully.
“Does your map show this ford?” he asked. I nodded. “Well, it wasn’t here when I did the trail before.”
“When was that?” I asked, “Same month?”
“Yeah. Mid-July. It was in ’72.”
“Maybe that was a dry year,” I suggested, not wanting to make the other suggestion, that he was then about 25 years old, and probably thought it fun, not painful.
Soon his companion showed up and went through the same agony, which he prolonged by stopping three or four times in mid-stream, perhaps to catch his breath. I thought about trying to throw him my Aquasocks, but the river was too wide and I was afraid I might miss him. When he finally made it across without needing to be rescued, I put on my boots to leave.
“You doing the whole John Muir?” the first man asked.
“That’s the plan,” I replied. “Is that what you did in 1972?”
“No. I’ve never had time for the whole thing. I never get more than two weeks. I used to do lots of loops, but the last ten years or so I’ve mostly been riding my bike. But I’ve seen most of the trail, one time or another.”
“What’s Muir Pass like?” I asked.
“Scary. I mean, it’s kind of beautiful, in a way. But it’s beautiful in a dead way, like the moon. There’s just nothing alive there, you’re way above the trees, and it makes you think you’d better get the hell off the mountain before you’re as dead as everything else.” I waved goodbye and headed up the trail into Evolution Basin. As before, I continued to meet people, singly and in groups, in surprising numbers. This was obviously one of the most heavily-used parts of the John Muir Trail.
In 1938, Bob Marshall, guru of the wilderness movement, founder of the Wilderness Society, Forest Service bigwig, asked the Sierra Club to study what I like to call the “underuse/overuse dilemma.” Parts of the John Muir Trail, like the section from Bear Ridge to Blaney Meadows, are used by a handful of people per day. Other parts, like nearby Evolution Basin, are used by ten times as many, as I saw the following day.
The report, prepared by Prof. Joel Hildebrand, later President of the Sierra Club, suggested there was basically nothing wrong with this. People who wanted solitude could get it, those who wanted companionship could also be accommodated. Adverse impacts in specific areas such as trashed campsites and overgrazed meadows could be alleviated by education and enforcement of rules. The report also suggested a very limited number of new trails, to insure that many areas would remain trail-less and wild.
More recent management directives have leaned towards dispersal of use. That’s the main reason the permit system was initiated. In practice, however, the permit system, at least in the Sierra, is structured to allow many people to use the popular trailheads and few people to use the less popular ones, thus reinforcing uneven use patterns rather than achieving dispersed use.
In order to disperse use, Yosemite has recently posted a map in the main Visitors’ Center showing roughly how many people and stock animals use each backcountry camping area and trail. As a further incentive for dispersed use, the map also shows where bear encounters are most and least common. Naturally, they are most common where use is heaviest.
All this is consistent with a series of “scientific” studies done in the ’70’s which, “demonstrated the feasibility of dispersing use and suggested additional opportunities for behavioral modification through instruction.” In other words, the study proved that if you let people know where they can find solitude and where they are less likely to be bothered by bears, some of them will go there. In fact, some of these “scientific studies” suggested managers take a “negative advertising” approach. Just as Yosemite National Park sends out press releases warning people of crowded conditions on holiday weekends, the Park Service and Forest Service emphasize the problems and crowding of the wilderness. Among the recommendations of one of the studies were the following:
“Lower trail, sign, and map standards at and within wilderness boundary.”
“Emphasize wilderness conditions that would be perceived as negative by potential users, such as frequent rainfall, lack of signs, poor trails, toxic plants, noxious insects and reptiles … and so on.”
Thus all the signs at the trailheads warning about bears, giardia, and plague. Thus the sign at Reds Meadows that warned “There are hazards in the mountains that usually do not exist in the city.”
I made camp about 4 P.M. I’d only gone about 10 miles and I wasn’t too tired but I found a campsite with a view I simply couldn’t resist. A dry meadow led 200 yards from the trail down to where Evolution Creek fanned out into a little lakelet. Beyond the water, tree-clad slopes led up, on either side of the valley, to a converging line of bare granite peaks, the Evolution Group.
Mts. Darwin, Haeckel, Wallace, Huxley, etc. were named by Theodore Solomons when he was scouting this area in 1895. He failed in an attempt to climb Mt. Darwin, highest of the group. Muir probably climbed it in 1873, though his diary is rather sketchy–he merely mentioned that he climbed the highest peak in the area and described the view. Typical.
As I was setting up my tent, I heard a series of low rumbling booms. Distant thunder. The tops of some thunderclouds were visible to the northeast, towering above Mt. Darwin, but Evolution Basin itself was peaceful, with trout making the only ripples on the still waters of the slow moving creek.
I was camped near a group I had met briefly earlier in the day. A young couple, about 25, accompanied by two other young women, both heavily loaded. One of them, while passing me as I was bent over my tripod, had called out, “Make way for the pack mule!”
I saw ample evidence of real pack mules on the ground under some trees near the edge of the creek, piles of manure in various states of decay. I hung my food from a tree while trying to be gentle in my criticism of how my neighbors were hanging theirs. They had it suspended from a branch 4 inches thick.
“You know, actually,” I said, “That branch is really a bit too thick. A bear could crawl out and get your stuff.”
The pack mule shrugged. “Maybe, but we have so much, it would break a thinner branch.” Maybe she hoped they would lose their food and lighten her load.
It was still warm so I filled all my waterbottles and went off, uphill, to have a thorough wash behind some trees. I got so much into the spirit of the thing that I ended up washing my hair and all my clothes. I had an early dinner, watching a Beldings Ground Squirrel pick delicately at a selection of grasses, flowers and radish-like greens twenty feet away. Then I put on my mozzie headnet and went down by the water to take the first of a series of pictures. The thunderheads were dissipating, but they punctuated the sky beautifully with their fluffy white tops. As they disappeared, the moon rose. I tried to figure out where I would be for the full moon, four days in the future. I decided to try to find as good a spot, and get one of those spectacular and highly marketable “Sierra Full Moon Rising” pictures. I’d taken a few grand views already on the trip, but most of my photography had been of details in the landscape–flowers, trees, people, rocks, some close-up, some in their setting. I needed all these things to express the totality of my trip, but especially I needed grand, sunset views.
I have an affinity for grand views. Most people do. Everyone seems to react to the details of nature in different ways, but we all like a grand vista, especially with water in the middle and a mountain behind.
When Muir first gazed on the High Sierra across the abyss of Yosemite Valley, he said, “Never before had I seen so glorious a landscape, so boundless an affluence of sublime mountain beauty. The most extravagant description I might give of this view to anyone who has not seen similar landscapes with his own eyes would not so much as hint its grandeur and the spiritual glow that covered it. I shouted and gesticulated in a wild burst of ecstasy.”
I had found one of these grand vistas when I camped at Lower Cathedral Lake and again walking past Thousand Island and Garnet Lakes, near Ritter and Banner. This time, however, the mountains were on either side, with a low point as the focus of the whole composition. It served to emphasize the sky, both above and as reflected in the water, and acted as a meditation aid, with Light as the theme.
Meditating in and on Nature is one of the great human universals, one of those themes that runs through all religious traditions at all eras in human history, from fire and cave-bear cults to a Plains Indian on a “spirit quest” to a Zen adept to a troubled teen on an Outward Bound trip.
“The only true wisdom,” Igjugaijik said, “lives far from mankind, out in the great loneliness, and can be reached only through suffering. Privation and suffering alone open the mind of man to all that is hidden to others.”
— Joseph Campbell
When I behold a rich landscape, it is less to my purpose to recite correctly the order and superposition of the strata, than to know why all thought of multitude is lost in a tranquil sense of unity.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson Nature
Walk away in any direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer. Camp out among the grass and gentians of glacier meadows, in craggy garden nooks full of Nature’s darlings. Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.
— John Muir
People who come here ought to abandon and forget all that is called business and duty, etc.; they should forget their individual existences, should forget they are born.
Standing on bare ground, –my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space, –all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; … In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature.”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson Nature
The immersion in Nature, especially in Wilderness, what the shaman called “the great loneliness,” is sometimes explicit in religious quests, sometimes implicit. In the religious traditions of Japan, the explicit use of Nature for personal enlightenment is the dominant tradition. Kobo Daishi, the founder of the Shingon sect of Buddhism, was renowned as a poet of Nature, but only in the sense that Nature, like Art, like formal religious practice, was a means to an end, the realiza-tion of the true nature of the universe. When he achieved this realization, he said, “From that time on, I despised fame and wealth and longed for a life in the midst of nature.” Muir, once he found his spiritual home in Yosemite, said much the same thing. “I have no fixed, practical aim, but am living in constant communion with Nature & follow my instincts & am most intensely happy.” Probably at about the same time he wrote thus to his brother, he penned an undated note that sums up this feeling in one of his finest expressions of his understanding of Life, Nature, and his place in the world:
“The remnants of compunction–the struggle concerning the serious business of settling down–gradually wasted and melted, and at length left me wholly free–born again!
“I will follow my instincts, be myself for good or ill, and see what will be the upshot. As long as I live, I’ll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing. I’ll interpert the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm and the avalanche. I’ll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near the heart of the world as I can.”
The Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition is often charged with a rejection of Nature and an identification of Wilderness with an absence of God. By this tradition, humans were first put in a garden called Eden, which means “delight.” Then they were exiled, for disobedience, and the thorns and thistles of the world were blamed on them. Later, after the testing in Egypt, they were exiled to the wilderness for 40 years–a whole generation of punishment.
It was to the Wilderness that Jesus went to confront the Devil, and Muhammad contrasted the delights of heaven with the howling wastes of the desert.
But there’s another strain running through this tradition. Though exposure to the wilderness can be a test, it is only by taking and passing such a test that a prophet can achieve his proper station. Psalm 104 depicts all the world as the work of God, not just the gardens and pastures of men, but also:
The high hills are a refuge for the wild
goats, and the rocks for the conies.
… The young lions roar after their prey, and
seek their meat from God.
… There go the ships: there is that leviathan,
whom thou hast made to play therein.”
St. Francis took this message and made it the cornerstone of his philosophy, preaching to the sparrows as children of God. Religious mystics of all ages have left the cities for the purity of the desert so that, in that pure land, that “great loneliness,” they can themselves achieve the purity of the deer, the dove, all the wild animals that symbolize purity because they are of Nature, of God, and not the sullied works of Man and Civilization.
The key to this Christian mysticism, especially in light of its non-Christian parallels, is a feeling of identification with God by equating the Self with all other works of God. Consider these quotes from two Medieval European mystics. “Every visible and invisible creature is an appearance of God.” [John Scotus Erigena, 9th century] “The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me.” [Meister Eckhart, 13th century.]
This tradition was kept alive in Germany, though it received short shrift in England and among the early American colonists. There was too much emphasis on being on “an errand into the wilderness” to erect The City of God to stand “as a city upon a hill.”
Yet in the writings of the last great Puritan intellectual, Jonathan Edwards, the beauties of the natural world were seen as the manifest expression of the Ultimate Beauty that expressed his conception of God. He sometimes equated the ability to appreciate natural beauty with the capacity to open the individual soul to identification with divine beauty. When he first heard about the girl he would later meet and marry, he wrote: “They say there is a young lady in New Haven who is beloved of that great Being who made and rules the world. … She will sometimes go about from place to place singing sweetly … She loves to be alone, walking in the fields and groves, and seems to have someone invisible always conversing with her.”
Ever since the time of Edwards, the combined themes of going to the Wilderness to find God and the purity of the natural world, unsullied by Man, have become American leitmotifs. One of the most popular American poems of the early nineteenth century goes like this:
To him who in the love of nature holds
Communion with her visible forms, she speaks
A various language; for his gayer hours
She has a voice of gladness, and a smile
And eloquence of beauty, and she glides
Into his darker musings, with a mild
And healing sympathy, that steals away
Their sharpness, ere he is aware. When thoughts
Of the last bitter hour come like a blight
Over thy spirit, and sad images
Of the stern agony, and shroud, and pall
And breathless darkness, and the narrow house
Make thee to shudder, and grow sick at heart;-
Go forth, under the open sky, and list
To Nature’s teachings
— William Cullen Bryant Thanatopsis
This theme is expressed powerfully in Emerson, Thoreau and Muir. It profoundly influenced the movement to establish city parks. It has become one of the wellsprings of Environmentalism. The Wilderness Act defines Wilderness as, “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man … with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable.” Every area proposed for Wilderness designation, in fact, every bit of undeveloped land left in America, is termed by its supporters “unique” and “unspoiled” and, therefore, “beautiful.” We have taken this tradition, universal in origin, through the teachings of Edwards, Emerson, Thoreau, Leopold and Muir, and made it a modern creed.
Though we want the Wilderness “untrammeled” we still want to use it. We want to go to the Wilderness, “for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation.” Why? For the same reason as Bryant, or the shaman Igjugaijik or Kobo Daishi, to have our minds open to the Great Truths. Or like the horsepackers, to transform ourselves, through the costume and the milieu of a hero, into The Hero. It is, in a sense, the same quest. To become better than we were, to be reborn, because every attempt to remake ourselves, to achieve enlightenment, is a re-birth, and every Hero’s Journey is a conscious, physical, re-birthing process.
Joseph Campbell identified the elements of the Hero’s Journey as: Separation, Initiation, Return. Separation from the safety and security of our womb-like, protective, unenlightened, everyday existence. Initiation, through trials in a place where the rules of everyday life are reversed, a dreamland of struggle and testing, where the monsters of our own, unenlightened thoughts must be defeated, often by simply recognizing their true nature. And Return, to bring to our everyday life and the rest of unenlightened society the message, the wisdom attained.
This journey is everywhere described, metaphorically, as a re-birth, just as initiations are re-births. The earliest initiations that we can trace, imperfectly, in the pre-historical record, were enacted in the caves of Paleolithic Europe. When the ice sheets covered Northern Europe, Neanderthals crawled into the womb of the earth, celebrated the creation of the animals that fed them by drawing those animals on the walls of that earth-womb, and then crawled forth, squeezed in their limestone-tunnel birth-canals out into the light of day. Muir said he was reborn in the Wilderness. So are we all.
“Significant images render insights beyond speech, beyond the kinds of meaning speech defines. And if they do not speak to you, it is because you are not ready for them.”
I sat on the only available log and shot my series of sunset pictures. I was enveloped by my headnet. Looking intently, I could see at least a dozen mozzies crawling on the mesh, searching patiently for a way in, a chance to suck up a few millionths of a liter of my blood to fertilize their eggs. Out in the stream, innumerable trout dimpled the surface, feeding on mosquito larvae.
It was as quiet a place as I have ever known. I could hear the trout as each one fed, sucking in air and water and insect. I could hear, every minute or so, what I took to be a Mountain Chickadee cheeping in its nest. My neighbors spoke little, but I could hear their murmuring voices when they did speak, 100 yards away. My pen, too, scratched fitfully as I set down my thoughts in my journal. Each sound was distinct, equal in clarity.
The light warmed in tone. The sky, both above and in the water, seemed to brighten as the trees faded, blending into an indistinct mass. Gradually the scene distilled into a pair of almost-intersecting curves, nearly meeting at the vanishing-point of the horizon. Soon I got cold and went to bed.