The Man, The Trail, and The Wilderness Ideal
by Don Weiss
I got up early, surprised I hadn’t heard anybody shouting at a bear. I looked in the dirt around the bear box, but the only tracks I saw were human and deer, especially the latter. It looked as if a whole herd of deer had held a meeting in the open area around the bear box.
The deer, like the bear, is one of the great symbols of the natural world, but the deer means Innocence. Keith and Bierstadt sometimes included deer in their landscapes. This established the scene as one fresh from the hand of the Creator, unsullied by Man. For Ansel Adams, innocence meant no snakes in the sky, for Bierstadt, it meant deer at peace in the Garden.
Tourists always love to see deer. There have even been several of those Sociological Studies That Prove The Obvious that found that yes, if you ask people in natural areas what animal they would most like to see, more will say deer and rabbits than spiders and scorpions. (Poisonous snakes come in dead last.) Rangers in Yosemite always have a hard time convincing tourists from New Jersey not to try to pet the deer. Sometimes the deer panic and lash out with their hooves, injuring or occasionally killing. No bear has ever killed anyone in Yosemite; Bambi has.
The animals of Yosemite Valley are used to noise, confusion, and crazy tourists waving their arms at them as they try to nibble on a bush or rustle a discarded candy bar. The ones in the backcountry are more circumspect. Muir noted, “Nothing is more commonly remarked by noisy, dusty trail-travelers in the Sierra than the want of animal life– no song-birds, no deer, no squirrels, no game of any kind, they say. But if such could go away quietly into the wilderness, sauntering afoot and alone with natural deliberation, they would soon learn that these mountain mansions are not without inhabitants, many of whom, confiding and gentle, would not try to shun their acquaintance.” To this mode of travel, he contrasted, “The scenery habit in its most artificial forms, mixed with spectacles, silliness and kodaks; its devotees arrayed more gorgeously than scarlet tanagers, frightening the wild game with red umbrellas…”
I have spent many hours photographing the deer in Yosemite Valley. I found they spent most of their time within a few hundred yards of some of the busiest places in the Valley, and crossed the bike paths and roads with amazing confidence. They know that the cars will stop for them, the tourists will reach for their cameras. They seem to pause and pose, just after crossing especially busy roads, to reward those who let them by with a good “photo op.”
Thoreau, it seems, rarely saw deer in the wild. In his day, most men who went into the woods carried rifles, and seen deer were commonly dead deer. On his three trips to the Maine woods, every moose seen was shot at, though not by Henry.
Since then, the populations of animals protected from hunting in the National Parks have learned that people are no danger to them, and many people have had the pleasure of watching deer feed calmly in a meadow at dusk.
Sometimes, of course, the animals have become too habituated to humans, like some of the Serengeti lions that have learned to use tourist’s Land Rovers as moving blinds, to help them hunt. Bears, marmots, jays, and most of the Sierra squirrels have learned to get at least some of their food from tourist leavings or handouts–or outright theft. It is often suggested that the ultimate solution to the “bear problem” is to put the fear of humans back in the bear. An old bear hunter told Muir, “that bears were very shy, all save grim old grizzlies, and that I might travel the mountains for years without seeing one, unless I gave my mind to them, and practiced the stealthy ways of hunters.” If bears could somehow be convinced that all people were potentially hunters planning on killing and eating them, they would once again stay out of our way, our food and our tents.
The deer are another story. When two bucks came up from the lake and started picking their way through the camping area, browsing on the bushes as they went, I went and got my cameras, as did the others who were up and about. The deer were somewhat wary of the people they could see, never approaching closer than about 25 feet, but several times they walked right past tents, even tents with camera-covered faces sticking out the door. Finally I left the deer and the other campers, packed up and headed towards Glen Pass.
Glen Pass has a reputation for being steep and long, but I reached the top in just two hours, with photo stops along the way. Just below the pass I crossed the last bit of the winter snow. It had looked impressive from below, a broad swatch of white, gleaming amidst the gray rocks, but a well- worn set of footprints easily led me across.
There was a steady breeze on the top, a narrow edge of broken rock and piled boulders, and clouds rimmed the peaks further south. The prevailing winds in California are from the northwest, and it’s rare to see clouds in the Sierra at 9 AM. A storm was coming.
As I started down, I met two young guys coming up. They asked me about the fishing at the Rae Lakes. I referred them to Todd, who they would meet on the trail. I never actually met Todd. I suspect he was never in camp except to eat his trout.
A bit lower down I met two men walking slowly up. Both were grizzled veterans in their fifties. One walked in running shoes. He had a pair of massive old hiking boots tied to the top of his pack. The other was in black socks and brown leather sandals.
“Had some boot problems?” I asked.
“No, this is how we hike,” the one in running shoes responded. “It’s better for your feet. Been backpacking this way for years. No blisters, no overheated feet.”
John Sanroma has hiked in running shoes for years. He says the whole idea of encasing his feet in leather is anathema, a perversion of the natural way to walk. When I asked him if he didn’t think it was dangerous to backpack without ankle support, he said, “I think it’s more dangerous to backpack with your ankle semi-immobilized. Your ankle has a full range of motion. If you eliminate the possibility of lateral motion by wearing a boot, the lateral force of a fall will be shifted to your knee, which wasn’t designed for it. I’d much rather twist my ankle a little, like I did earlier on this trip, than to wrench my knee. Now that would be a problem.”
Muir basically agreed. He wore shoes, not boots, so he could better feel the rock when climbing and also for better balance jumping and running down a talus slope. And most of all, he took care of his feet. Merrill Moores wrote of Muir’s rules for feet in the 1938 Sierra Club Bulletin.
On these trips we learned from Mr. Muir that there were likewise three rules for tramping in the mountains: The first was–Always take good care of your feet; the second was–always wear heavy socks and good stout old shoes (never a new pair); and the third–Stop several times in a day’s walk and bathe your feet.
I stopped for lunch at noon in Vidette Meadow. Actually, there isn’t much meadow left. It’s one of those places where the natural succession from meadow to forest has probably been greatly accelerated by overuse from people, horses and maybe sheep. In 1920, the Sierra Club Bulletin printed a description of the John Muir Trail as it then existed and advised, “An excellent camp-site is to be found at Vidette Meadows. Here the prospect is full of charm, the fishing is good, and the animals may recuperate in good pasturage.” But in 1958 this was the first High Sierra meadow closed to all grazing. Despite the closure, the march of the forest into the meadow is now almost complete.
The bear box where I stowed my food bags while I ate was near a patch of meadow not much bigger than my brother’s back yard. A sign asked everybody to stay out of the meadow to allow re-vegetation to proceed.
As I ate lunch, I debated how far to go that day. I wanted to get up closer to Forester Pass, seven miles along the trail, 3600 feet higher. I was hoping to time my last few days so that I would have the option of spending a night in the hut on the summit of Whitney, as John had advised.
I found I had been thinking about John often these last couple of days, since I had spent the night in that tree- bordered “Muir Den” as he said he always did. His ideas about diet, shoes, and general approach to the wilderness had seemed a bit radical when we had talked, first in the car- choked campsite at Reds Meadows, then at Vermillion Valley Resort. Now, most of what he said seemed perfectly natural, a logical, consistent way of approaching the mountains. He was obviously far more in sync with how Muir traveled than I was, or would likely become. But I felt, looking at his ways, and mine, and the Scout groups, and the packers, that I was coming near understanding both the varieties of wilderness experience and the underlying themes uniting all those who go to the mountains. It was a subject I returned to a few days later, on the summit of Whitney.
At one the thunder started, close by, and the blue sky disappeared from over my head. I set up the tent and gathered some dry wood, spreading a plastic bag over it so I could have a fire later. My fuel was running a bit low, and I thought I would have to melt snow for water if I spent a night on Whitney. The thunder continued to boom from the peaks around me, but the rain held off a bit longer.
At two a thunderous series of rapid booms announced the start of the storm. Five minutes of vigorous hail gave way to a steady rain which beat on the tent like a snare drum. But the noise was mostly obscured by the thunder, which crashed and rolled, echoing from the cliffs, till the sound of each individual thunderbolt was merged into a general roaring and booming. It was like being in the midst of a convention of tympanists, each trying to overwhelm the other with his virtuosity and volume.
The lightening was vivid, flashing electric blue through the enveloping nylon of my tent. When I could count the time from flash to boom, it was generally about 5 seconds, a mile away. I was ringed by twelve to thirteen thousand foot peaks at a distance of about half a mile. Those summits were all about a mile away, as the crow flies , or the thunder peals.
Some of the lightening bolts must have been shooting out from clouds right above me to others a mile or two away or higher in the sky, because much of the thunder was the long, rolling kind. The initial sound must have been produced right over my head, but the sound from further along the path of electric current was increasingly far away. These rolling bursts of thunder were punctuated by short blasts, probably from lightning hitting the nearby peaks. Writing of summer visits to Yellowstone, and what non-mountaineers could do there to find some excitement, Muir said:
If you are not very strong, try to climb Electric Peak when a big bossy, well-charged thunder-cloud is on it, to breathe the ozone set free, and get yourself kindly shaken and shocked. You are sure to be lost in wonder and praise, and every hair on your head will stand up and hum and sing like an enthusiastic congregation.
Not really a very safe thing to do. I preferred to stay warm, dry and safe, like Thoreau in Maine:
As we lay huddled together under the tent, which leaked considerably about the sides, with our baggage at our feet, we listened to some of the grandest thunder which I ever heard, –rapid peals, round and plump, bang, bang, bang in succession, like artillery from some fortress in the sky; and the lightning was proportionally brilliant. The Indian said, ‘It must be good powder.’ All for the benefit of the moose and us, echoing far over the concealed lakes.
It is remarkable with what pure satisfaction the traveller in these woods will reach his camping ground on the eve of a tempestuous night like this, as if he had got to his inn, and, rolling himself in his blanket, stretch himself on his six feet by two bed of dripping fir twigs, with a thin sheet of cotton for a roof, snug as a meadow-mouse in its nest. Invariably our best nights were those when it rained, for them we were not troubled with mosquitoes.”
Muir was constantly going out in storms, to see what he could learn, to feel the surge of power unleashed by wind and rain. His greatest account of a storm is his smallest book, Stickeen. It was one of those times he walked out into a storm to see what he might learn. He learned one of his greatest lessons, though it was not on the subject he had planned to investigate that day:
The wind was blowing a gale from the north and the rain was flying with the clouds in a wide passionate horizontal flood … when I heard the storm and looked out I made haste to join it; for many of Nature’s finest lessons are to be found in her storms, and if careful to keep in right relations with them, we may go safely abroad with them, rejoicing in the grandeur and beauty of the works and ways.
He went, followed by Stickeen, a mutt belonging to his missionary friend Samuel Hall Young. He tried to send the dog back to camp. “That a man should welcome storms for their exhilarating music and motion, and go forth to see God making landscapes, is reasonable enough,” but not a dog.
Stickeen, however, followed Muir, and they spent the whole stormy day exploring an Alaskan glacier in a storm. When it came time to head back to camp, they lost their way and became stranded on the glacier, surrounded on all sides by crevasses hundreds of feet deep. Their only way out was across a long, sloping, knife-edge of ice. With great care, Muir crossed and, eventually, after much wailing, Stickeen followed. Through Stickeen’s fear of their danger and joy at their successful traverse of the crevasse, Muir learned a lesson in compassion for all fellow mortals. As he wrote his book about that day, twenty-nine years after the fact, he concluded:
“Nothing in after years has dimmed that Alaska storm day. As I write it all comes rushing and roaring to mind as if I were again in the heart of it. Again I see the gray flying clouds with their rain-floods and snow, the ice-cliffs towering above the shrinking forest, the majestic ice-cascade, the vast glacier outspread before its white mountain fountains, and in the heart of it the tremendous crevasse, –emblem of the valley of the shadow of death, –low clouds trailing over it, the snow falling into it; and on its brink I see little Stickeen, and I hear his cries for help and his shouts of joy…. Our storm battle for life brought him to light, and through him as through a window I have ever since been looking with deeper sympathy into all my fellow mortals.”
The storm eased twice. The first time, as I laid in my little tent with my head out, I watched a doe cross the little meadow 50 yards away. She tiptoed delicately, nervously, stopping every two or three yards to look around, swiveling her ears in every direction. When she was nearly across, a tiny fawn appeared, skittering along in her wake. The fawn, the smallest I’ve ever seen, bounded erratically, in exaggerated imitation of its mother’s movement, and ended by skidding and bumping into her rear legs.
At the next break in the storm I went out and started a fire to cook dinner. Just as I finished eating, the clouds that had hung around the peaks quickly lowered, settling down into the valley, and began a long, steady rain. I sat on a log, my poncho protecting me from the worst of it, and watched the water stream down out of the clouds, colliding with pine needles in the air, setting the branches to dancing.
A couple walked up to me out of the rain. The woman was young, smiling, with a blue poncho. Her companion was somewhat older. She had a soft voice, his was even softer. They had been on Forester Pass when the storm broke. I asked what it was like. The young woman said, “Glorious.” The man added, “But kinda scary.” We talked for awhile, then they left, headed for Kearsarge Pass.
Alone again, as I had been most of the day, I moved back into my tent. The rain finally stopped about eight. I hoped it had been enough of a storm to clear the air. I expected to reach Forester Pass about the same time of day as this storm had broken. I didn’t want to find out whether I would find it, “Glorious” like the young woman or “scary” like her companion. Clear weather would be glorious enough for me.
I went to bed early and got woken up about ten by the sound of horses’ hooves and a bell passing down the trail. They were followed soon after by human footsteps, running. Looking out, I saw a flashlight bobbing down the trail. Five minutes later, they all passed me again, walking uphill. Later, much later, the hoof-beats returned, with the bell, and they settled in the meadow. I was awake for hours, listening to the hoof-beats and the incessant clank of the bell.