The Man, The Trail, and The Wilderness Ideal
by Don Weiss
I breakfasted with a hummingbird and a marmot. The hummingbird performed an aerial ballet, catching insects too small for me to see. It danced tirelessly but not tunelessly. It’s humming was the only sound within my tree-bordered nest except for the crunch of my teeth on granola.
The marmot ranged the rocks out where I had sat to watch the moon rise. He waddled purposefully, nipping some grass stems here, a few flowers there, stopping every minute or so to look over his shoulder and make sure I wasn’t trying to sneak up on him.
It was a rather slow pull up to Mather Pass, an hour and 40 minutes, with two short patches of old snow to cross. I reached it at the same time as a group of six coming up from the south. I sat on a rock next to a blond girl about 20 years old. Her hiking shorts revealed some of the most thoroughly tanned legs I’ve ever seen on a blond, though her hair color looked natural. She greeted me with the usual, “Had any bear problems?” and then launched into their own.
“We almost lost our one big pot. A bear grabbed it at Rae Lakes and started running off with it. We yelled and chased him and he dropped it. Or actually, maybe it was a her. Maybe bears make their women do the cooking too.”
“One almost-stolen pot doesn’t sound like much of a problem. Are you having a good trip, otherwise?” I asked.
“It’s fine now, but it started off a bit rocky. Linda got altitude sickness climbing Whitney and the mosquitoes have been downright carnivorous.” She examined my mosquito headnet, which I had tied onto the outside of my pack. “Care to sell it?” I shook my head. “Didn’t think so.”
“Didn’t you bring insect repellant?” I asked her.
“Sure. But probably not enough for the whole trip since it’s so warm and we’re in shorts practically all the time. We should have put some more in out re-supply boxes but we didn’t think of it.”
“Where are you picking up your stuff?”
“Well, the first time we re-supplied was at Vidette Meadows, we went down and got it from Cedar Grove. That’s why Glen Pass nearly killed us. It’s so long and steep anyway, and our packs were really full. Our next re-supply is at Muir Trail Ranch. Where else is there?” she asked.
“Lake Edison. Vermillion Valley Resort. It’s just a few miles off the trail, six bucks pick-up fee, and they can sell you insect repellant. And a steak dinner.”
“Wow. We’re paying twenty-four. Why doesn’t the guidebook mention it?” I shrugged. “Oh well, maybe we’ll go there too, for some more Cutters or something.”
She took out a brush and started smoothing out her waist length hair. I watched her briefly, then tore myself away and headed down from Mather Pass.
Steve Mather was an odd choice for the namesake of a backcountry pass far from the nearest road. He was one of the most active supporters of auto roads in the National Parks and, as the first director of the Park Service, he was in a position to encourage road building. He even gave the Tioga Road to the Park Service after buying it with money he raised from rich friends plus a few thousand from his own ample resources.
Mather made his fortune in Borax. Remember Twenty Mule Team Borax? He thought up the name. Later on in life he took up mountain climbing, joining the Sierra Club in 1904.
Mather was a friend of Franklin K. Lane, Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of the Interior. When Mather complained to Lane about poor management practices in the National Parks, Lane suggested he come to Washington and take over the Parks personally. He did.
One of his first official acts was to organize the Mather Mountain Party of 1915. He knew that politicians were more likely to support programs they knew, either directly or through important magazines, so he traveled through the Sierra in a huge mounted caravan with Gilbert Grosvenor (editor of National Geographic Magazine) and a dozen other important journalists and others who could help him help the parks. Mather was a dedicated fraternity and men’s club supporter. He knew how to show “the boys” a good time. Camp life was comfortable, the food was prepared by the Geological Survey’s best trail chef, and a good time was definitely had by all. Like Lyndon Johnson, years later, he organized nude swims–but these were not in a heated pool. They stopped repeatedly at waterfalls and lakes, stripped down and jumped in. The following April, National Geographic devoted a dozen pages to the beauties of our western parks (sans nudes), and a copy of the magazine was distributed free to every Senator and Congressman to speed passage of the Act creating the Park Service.
On a later trip, he and his companions got in trouble with their nude bathing. They were at a backcountry lake when a group of ladies rounded the corner and found them. Later, properly dressed, Mather went to the ladies and offered his apologies. They said not to worry, they had been nurses in the war and were unshockable. Years later, the official regulations for Sequoia/Kings Canyon Parks stated nude bathing was forbidden close to any road or trailhead. (In Yosemite, in the late thirties, men were actually required to wear undershirts or other chest covering when swimming.) Presumably women bold enough to enter the backcountry in Sequoia Park would have to take their chances.
Mather actually had little to do with the original choice of the route of the John Muir Trail, since it was a state-designated route, even though some of it ran through Yosemite National Park. At that time Sequoia Park didn’t include any of the High Sierra and Kings Canyon was still only a gleam in the eyes of the Sierra Club. Most of the projected John Muir Trail ran through the Sierra and Inyo National Forests.
The route was chosen by William F. McClure, California State Engineer. He followed the existing trails and the notes of Theodore Solomons, Joseph N. LeConte and others who dragged mules and pack horses through the canyons and over the passes.
The Act creating the trail and allocating $10,000 to begin construction was signed into law in May, 1915. By August, a route had been chosen and work was under way. Four additional $10,000 grants from the State, plus generous assistance from various Federal agencies and the Sierra Club, were sufficient to complete work on the basic, original trail. By contrast, the Woods Creek foot bridge was built in 1989 at a cost of about $80,000.
There have been many minor changes in the route of the JMT over the years. Perhaps the most significant was the change from the Snow Creek Trail up from Mirror Lake to the trail up the Merced Canyon and the shoulder of Half Dome for the first segment. But for the most part it is still as it was laid out in 1915. The only other major change was the use of Forester Pass. The original route swung east in the basin below Forester and crossed first Junction Pass (13,200 feet) then Shepherd’s Pass. Not many people regretted moving the route away from the latter. Though only about 12,000 feet it is described in a recent guidebook as, “One of the more dreadful eastside approaches to the range. The ascent from desert to alpine zone is an interminable ordeal of steepness and dryness. A 500-foot descent midway is a classic destroyer of morale, regardless of the direction one is traveling.”
The JMT has twice been re-routed where it passes through Devil’s Postpile National Monument, once to move it away from the auto-accessible campsites along the river where I had crossed in deep water and again to move it away from the Postpile and its crowds.
Minor route changes, to avoid crossing a wet meadow or to reach a new bridge or ford, are made by the management of the jurisdiction through which that trail segment passes, though the Forest Service and Park Service managers in California get together every fall to discuss plans and coordinate strategy.
However, there isn’t really much overall guidance given through a recognized system of public input. I often felt, along the trail, that the people who use it most, the backpackers, have the least influence on management practices. Muir once wrote that, “the true ownership of the wilderness belongs in the highest degree to those who love it most.” By that standard, the owners have little to say about the management of their holding.
The management of the JMT, as part of three national parks, one national monument, and two national forests, is controlled by the Park Service Act, the Forest Service Act, the Wilderness Act, and various other laws. But it is most profoundly influenced by two quite separate factors–budgets and the wilderness concepts of the managers and the groups that try to influence them. When Steve Mather ran the Park Service, the auto-driving middle class, the Sierra Club (then a tiny group numbering only hundreds), the National Federation of Women’s Clubs, and a few other groups with similar interests were his most vocal supporters, so the parks developed along the lines of ease of access and a full spectrum of facilities, from luxury hotels to wild but readily accessible backcountry areas. Muir himself had proposed a loop road in Yosemite Park from the head of The Valley up to Tuolumne Meadows, down the Tuolumne canyon to Hetch Hetchy and back to The Valley; all in the interests of improving accessibility.
Mather pushed through road-building projects in all the parks. There were even two different plans for highways across the central part of the Sierra. As late as 1938, the Sierra Club supported plans for a trans-Sierra highway at Mammoth Mountain. This was in keeping with their early idea that only by making it possible for thousands to visit the mountains would they be preserved. The original statement of “The Purposes of the Club” included the phrase “to render accessible” the mountains of the West Coast. In 1951 that statement was dropped. The thousands had become millions. Accessibility, the Club felt, had gone too far, at least as far as auto and RV driving mobs were concerned.
The Forest Service, of course, had a different agenda from the Park Service or the Sierra Club. They earned their budget by selling off timber, so they were more inclined to listen to the big lumber companies than the “long haired men and short haired women” who wanted the forests protected.
Yet the Forest Service established Wilderness, or at least “Roadless Areas” long before any such action by the Park Service. Bob Marshall and Aldo Leopold started this quiet revolution from within the Forest Service bureaucracy.
But in all of this, there has never been a voice speaking for the John Muir Trail users as a group. It is always within the context of some Sierra Club program, or the Wilderness Act, a law national in scope. Many of the hikers I met were Sierra Club members, but they were rarely active in the Club’s major campaigns. So the major campaigns concentrate on the California Desert, or Alaska, or Old Growth Forests, or Tropical Rain Forests. That leaves the JMT essentially to the professional managers of the Park Service and Forest Service. Managers who rarely hike the trail, preferring to ride a horse, or occasionally a helicopter. No wonder there were so many dangerous stream crossings!
From Mather Pass the trail descended steeply and then gradually a total of 2,000 feet to the South Fork of the Kings River. It was another hot, still day. The trail followed a long, fairly straight lateral moraine, the track of a vanished glacier. Even when I got down to timberline, the trees were so far apart that there was little shade. When I found a shady spot by a rushing creek, I gratefully stopped to soak my feet in the icy water. The contrast from the hot sun to the cold water was painful yet sweet.
Twice, with no warning, I was buffeted by strong gusts of wind out of the unclouded sky. It suggested a change in the weather but for several hours nothing happened. The sky remained clear, the air was still, and I had to rest frequently from the heat.
After crossing the South Fork of the Kings twice, the second time on a log, the trail started ascending again. At about three o’clock I met a couple coming down the trail. I suddenly realized that I hadn’t seen another human being since the group on top of Mather Pass at 9:30 that morning. I felt a bit like Burgess Meredith in an old Twilight Zone episode, where he thinks he is the only survivor of a nuclear holocaust, and is glad, because at last he has the time to read all the books he wants. I spoke only briefly with the couple, who were almost a carbon copy of the couple I had met just below Muir Pass–young, bursting with happiness, casual about the bears, storms, mosquitoes and other problems of the trail. They were doing about half the California segment of the Pacific Crest Trail. The guy waved his arm at the view around us, this deserted valley in the heart of the Sierra. “Look at all this. This is the real Earth. Untouched by Man. Just as it was a thousand years ago!”
I camped above Lake Marjorie, next to a clump of Whitebark Pines. As I was setting up my tent, the guys from Sacramento appeared. They waved a greeting, then threw down their packs and started fishing in the lake. After the heat of the day I wasn’t very hungry. Good thing, since my stove decided to go on strike. I took it apart, cleaned what I could reach, and then fired it up for tea and a light dinner of Cup-A-Soup with a bit of pasta and instant oatmeal thrown in plus some trail mix and chocolate on the side.
I also had to sew three patches on my pants. While I did that, I noticed that the sole was starting to separate from one of my boots. I tried to repair it with Crazy Glue but of course the boot was far too greasy from years of rubbing silicone boot dressing into the leather. I wondered what would start breaking down next.
In some ways this campsite was even more spectacular than the one the night before. I was in a basin of high meadows, with a deep blue lake below and the red rocks of Crater Mountain across the way. It was the first big area of red I had seen since the Red Cones, as I was leaving Reds Meadows, and the color seemed particularly vibrant. It was, as the last person I had spoken with had said, a scene untouched by Man.
Except, of course, I was on a trail, constructed by men with tools made in factories, paid by money appropriated by the State of California. A trail maintained by money appropriated by the U. S. Government. And in the next valley I would cross a suspension bridge reminiscent of the Golden Gate Bridge, and talk with rangers who never went anywhere without walkie talkies. And I, of course, was using a hi- tech stove that ran on white gas, a product, perhaps, of Alaska North Slope crude, or maybe oil from Saudi Arabia.
It’s difficult to know how important these compromises really are. I was in the Wilderness, but I had brought Civilization with me, and some of what made my trip possible, or at least made it easier, were other tendrils of Civilization. Yet for so many people, Wilderness is defined by what they see from the trail. It is a visual standard, and one that is blind to certain sights.
But that very visual standard is what prompted the provision of the Wilderness Act that outlaws mountain huts such as are found in most of the world’s mountain ranges. If we could accept huts, we could dispense with some of the other bits of civilization we bring with us, and maybe have a more pleasant time, with lighter packs and less pollution.
On the other hand, the rituals of camp life have a certain value. Ritual in general is a way of affirming a relationship between the individual and the set of rules by which he chooses to live. The ritual of using a stove, like that of building a camp fire, re-enforces certain values, such as a willingness to carry extra weight so that the wood of the mountains can decay slowly, naturally, providing animals with homes and food, and building the soil. The ritual of choosing and setting up a campsite requires a certain discipline, refraining from damaging the chosen spot, yet using the available trees and rocks to provide shelter but allowing for inspiring views. By their stone tables, iron grills, and horse-trampled meadows, as well as their more obvious Stetson hats, the horse travelers are enacting their ritual identification with the cowboys, the conquerors of the Old Wild West. By their MSR stoves, freeze dried eggs, and no-impact campsites, backpackers are affirming that their models are Muir and Thoreau, not Buffalo Bill. Thoreau wrote:
The poet’s, commonly, is not the logger’s path, but a woodman’s. … there are spirits … to whom no simplicity is barren. There are not only stately pines, but fragile flowers, like the orchises, commonly described as too delicate for cultivation, which derive their nutriment from the crudest mass of peat. These remind us, that, not only for strength, but for beauty, the poet must, from time to time, travel the logger’s path and the Indian’s trail, to drink at some new and more bracing fountain of the Muses, far in the recesses of the wilderness.
— Henry Thoreau The Maine Woods
I watched the light fade on the red cliffs of Crater Mountain. Then, because I hadn’t used it at all in about a week, I turned on my flashlight. The bulb blew. When I went to change it, I discovered that two of the three extra bulbs I had brought were slightly different. They would turn on, but they wouldn’t turn off without taking the flashlight apart. Stove, pants, boot, flashlight–what next?