The Man, The Trail, and The Wilderness Ideal
by Don Weiss
John left about 7 A.M. He was shivering in hiking shorts and a windbreaker–it was probably about 25 degrees. He jogged off–he always likes to run down the 11 miles to Whitney Portal, like Muir: “jumping from rock to rock, feeling the life of them, learning the songs of them, panting in whole-souled exercise, and rejoicing in deep, long-drawn breaths of pure wildness.” Just one of their similarities.
We had talked into the night. Much of the time, about music or art, or religion, or our trip. Now I understood why John does the trail every year. It is his annual pilgrimage, an extended communion that fixes his Self in harmony with the Earth, makes it Gaia to him, and allows him to live in peace even in San Francisco, where he must take a bus to run on the beach.
“A few years ago I met a group who had come to the mountains just to find as many species of wildflowers as possible. One woman I talked with said, ‘I’ve been here just two days and already I’ve identified 86 species of, no, wait, there’s another, 87 species of wildflowers.’ I’m not like that, not at all. I know a few of the flowers, and most of the trees, but basically I know them in relation to the birds. I know the birds well, but by well I mean not just their names, but their place in the environment. That’s what’s important to me–the relationships, the ecology of it. The “Web of Life” if you will.”
I sat on the highest rock of the mountain. John had left and I was alone on the summit. Thinking about my trip and all I thought I had learned, I realized that my early disappointment at not being able to identify the plants and birds was merely a sign that, like John, I comprehended the natural world from only one perspective out of many possible viewpoints. I was concerned with the relationship between People and Mountains. I could get interested in certain details of the natural world, but of even greater interest to me was how people viewed that world. The different ways of John and the Angry Young Woman, of Muir and Roosevelt, of Ranger George and the noisy Valley Girls and Guys on the shuttle to Happy Isles, 211 miles behind me.
Muir also devoted his deepest speculations to the proper relationship between people and mountains, and to the multitudinous intertwinings of their sometimes-separate lives. In August 1875, he sat by a stream near Fresno Dome, just south of the current boundary of Yosemite, and mused on the Man/Nature matrix.
Dawn. Morning comes again, hallowed with all the deeds of night. Here it is six or seven thousand feet above the sea, yet in all this tranquil scene we feel no remoteness, no rest from care and chafing duties because here they have no existence. Every sense is satisfied. For us there is no past, no future. We live in the present and are full. No room for hungry hopes, none for regrets, none for exultation, none for fear…
I often wonder what man will do with the mountains–that is, with their utilizable, destructible garments. Will he cut down all the trees to make ships and houses? If so, what will be the final and far upshot? Will human destructions like those of Nature– fire and flood and avalanche–work out a higher good, a finer beauty? Will a better civilization come in accord with obvious nature, and all this wild beauty be set to human poetry and song? Another universal outpouring of lava, or the coming of a glacial period, could scarce wipe out the flowers and shrubs more effectually than do the sheep. And what then is coming? What is the human part of the mountains’ destiny?
In my mind, I turned his question around. I wondered, What is the Sierra’s part in the destiny of the people who “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings?”
After the first day hikers arrived, I headed down. I walked slowly, though I took few pictures. I was beginning to come down from my “mountain high” and, like Muir, felt ready for food, companionship, and love:
“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.
“Ten days ago I came down from the ice to get a supply of the Two Breads, but, alack, I found only one!”
I made camp among all the other people who had come to Trail Camp on their way to or from the summit of Whitney. I had a small lunch. I was nearly out of food.
There is a new building at Trail Camp with a row of Clivus Multrum toilets, but in this narrow canyon at 12,000 feet they can’t handle as much liquid as the hundreds of people provide, so they bear signs saying, essentially, “Go pee behind a rock!”
After lunch I headed down the trail to meet my wife, and soon did. I took her pack and we went back up the trail, together. She had met John when she was just leaving Whitney Portal. He had fallen, running from rock to rock, and cut his knee. We had tea and crawled together into the little tent I had carried and waited out another afternoon thunderstorm.
The next morning we climbed Whitney together. We went slowly but steadily, and soon reached Trail Crest. Just before that point I turned, I guess I had heard something. I saw, hovering in the air, the tiniest hummingbird I have ever seen or imagined. It was pale green, less than two inches long, and seemed to pause a few feet from my face as if trying to decide if I had any nectar on me. Then it zoomed off in search of the alpine flowers that grew abundantly out of the broken rocks.
At Trail Crest we ran into the Scout group I had met just below Forester Pass, the one that had a pack torn up by a bear the first night of their trip. Right behind us came the other fathers, meeting the group. One of them was the owner of the torn pack, and he seemed a bit giddy at seeing his son and learning about the adventures he hadn’t been around to share.
Half-way between Trail Crest and the summit we ran into Sweetpea, coming down. We talked very briefly. He shook his head when I told him I had stayed on top during a storm. (Comming down we met Sean at the same spot, when he was heading up. His reaction was the same.)
A few minutes later we passed Pigpen and his group, who were walking very slowly, together with two women. I talked with one of Pigpen’s friends. It was the same one I had talked to on Forester, who had told me that unsettled weather was predicted. They had been on top when the storm blew up the day before. They tried to rig a lightning rod on the hut. But since that seemed inadequate, they ran down to a point just off the edge of the summit plateau and crouched down on their foam sleeping pads. There was a lightning strike a couple of yards away. Pigpen was briefly knocked unconscious. One of the women, who was leaning against a rock, got burned on her back. They were all clearly shaken.
After I got home, I learned about the other person who I heard had been hit in the big storm a week before. It was Aki of the White Gloves. He wrote and told me he was in the hut and was knocked out for twenty minutes, but was able to walk down. His letter said he had an interesting souvenir of his hike–a hole in his head!
By 10:30, we were on top. My wife had never wanted to hike the John Muir Trail, but she had always wanted to climb Whitney. We had both achieved longstanding ambitions. With us, that day, we saw 80-year-olds, a boy of eight, and dozens of others in between. All of us were up here for reasons that seemed good enough to justify the exertion and the danger.
For some people, Whitney, or the JMT, is primarily a physical challenge. They think of themselves as “conquering” the mountain, proving their mastery over Nature. For some, going to the mountains, going out into nature, is an opportunity for poetical communion. For some, it is an overtly religious communion. For others, going to the mountains is a job, but a job they have chosen over others, despite the lower pay.
For all of these, the Wilderness is a place of opportunity. It is where things can happen that are perceived to be harder or impossible in the midst of civilization.
What are these things that can happen only in Wild Nature, or at least, are perceived to be possible only where, “the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man?”
All these people were going to the mountains, to wild Nature, as part of a process of personal transformation. Muir compared himself with John the Baptist with perfect accuracy. He wanted to convert people to his religion of nature not just on the external level, of winning new converts for forest and park preservation. He wanted everyone to experience, as he had, what Jeanne Carr called, “the pure and deep communion of the beautiful, all-loving Nature.”
Perhaps most people who go to the mountains would feel uncomfortable with such a poetic description of their goal, but it is fundamental to the whole Wilderness experience. Even the horsepackers in their Stetson hats were taking on a hero’s persona. Even the fishermen were trying to become part of the natural cycle of the earth, hunting for and trying to outwit fish. (But often it is the fisherman who is caught, Muir said.) Even the racers, who try to run the JMT in three or four days, dashing over the rocks by the light of the full moon, even they are trying to become better than they were, trying to become heroes in the Ancient Greek, laurel-wreath-winning way.
“The tendency nowadays to wander in wilderness is delightful to see. Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservation are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life. Awakening from the stupefying effects of the vice of over-industry and the deadly apathy of luxury, they are trying as best they can to mix and enrich their little ongoings with those of Nature, and to get rid of rust and disease. Briskly venturing and roaming, some are washing off sins and cobweb cares of the devil’s spinning in all-day storms on mountains; sauntering in rosiny pinewoods or in gentian meadows, brushing through chaparral, bending down and parting sweet, flowery sprays; tracing rivers to their sources, getting in touch with the nerves of Mother Earth; jumping from rock to rock, feeling the life of them, learning the songs of them, panting in whole-souled exercise, and rejoicing in deep, long drawn breaths of pure wildness. This is fine and natural and full of promise. So also is the growing interest in the care and preservation of forests and wild places in general, and in the half wild parks and gardens of towns. Even 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, –even this is encouraging, and may well be regarded as a hopeful sign of the times.”
— John Muir Our National Parks