The Man, The Trail, and The Wilderness Ideal
by Don Weiss
I started out late, about 7:30. Just after I re-joined the John Muir Trail, a day hiker passed me, striding uphill towards Cathedral Pass.
“Morning,” I said.
“Morning,” he replied. “Your wife was worried about you.”
Fifteen minutes later I ran into another day hiker, this one with more of a message. “You must be Don. Your wife is at the trailhead. She’ll be along in an hour or so.”
Fifteen minutes later I met her coming up. We headed down together, comparing notes.
“I was worried your knee had given out completely. I spent three hours yesterday at Upper Cathedral Lake in this awful cloud of mosquitoes!” she said.
We kept our recriminations to a minimum, debating who had misunderstood which of the Cathedral Lakes was to be our rendezvous. I asked where she had slept.
“In the car.” We have a VW Beetle, not much of a place to sleep. “The back seat was out so I moved all the junk aside and stretched out. I was worried all the time a ranger would come by and give me a ticket for illegal sleeping and make me drive out of the park. All the campgrounds are full. Anyway, you should have heard the traffic. It just went on and on, till 11 at least. I don’t know where all those people thought they were going!”
Soon we were down at the road. I accepted her offer to drive my pack to the Tuolumne Meadows trailhead while I walked through the meadow.
As I walked out into the meadow, I found it hard to believe this was the Fourth of July weekend and traffic had streamed by last night while my wife huddled in the car. I was in the middle of five square miles of lush grass almost totally devoid of people. I saw a few deer grazing peacefully a quarter mile away. Beyond, the domes and peaks of the High Sierra rested in equipoise between earth and sky. Where was Bierstadt?
It wasn’t always like this. In 1870, when Joseph LeConte came here with the University Excursion Party, there were about 18,000 sheep in the area. The summer before, Muir had been here with Pat Delaney’s flocks. Sheep continued to use the meadows until 1891.
Later, in the 1920’s and 1930’s, a July day would have seen dozens of camps set up as families came to spend the summer feasting on trout planted in the river that ran in a classic serpentine through the middle of all this grass. It was only in 1958 that the new Tuolumne Meadows Campground was established at the edge of the forest, so the meadow could return to a more natural condition.
In the middle of the meadow I crossed the Tuolumne River and saw I wasn’t really so alone. Fishermen stood along the bank, one every 100 yards or so. I looked down into the river and saw half a dozen small trout. They were staying well away from the nearest fisherman.
I turned east at the unmarked junction with the Glen Aulin Trail. Just ahead was what used to be “downtown” Tuolumne Meadows, back when the Sierra Club used to have its summer gatherings here.
In 1900, Club Secretary Will Colby envisaged a mass outing for the Sierra Club, to introduce as many people as possible to the wonders of the mountains. The following summer, 1901, ninety-seven “Sierrans” including Muir and his two daughters assembled in The Valley and trekked to Soda Springs for a month of hiking, peak climbing, campfire entertainment and education. One woman wrote of the trip:
“Muir, the prince of mountainlovers, was guide and apostle, and his gentle, kindly face, genial blue eyes, and quaint, quiet observations on present and past Sierra conditions impressed us unforgettably with the ‘sermons in stone, books in the running brooks,’ he knows so well.”
These outings became an annual affair, and evolved into the Club’s current schedule of dozens of trips all over the world. Periodically, the Board of Directors reminds the membership that the outings were not the reason the Club was started. Will Colby himself wrote, in the January 1904 Bulletin, that membership was up to nearly 800, “mainly due to the annual Club Outing. … Our members should not, however, lose sight of the fact that this feature of the Club’s life is but a minor part … of the worthy objects for which the Club was incorporated … the preservation of the forests and the natural scenery of our mountains.”
What Colby didn’t realize was just how important these outings were to the 50% of the participants who were women. He thought of the trips primarily as recruiting drives for hard core activists, most of whom were men who, in their younger years, were active in the Club’s climbing activities. But the women participated fully in all but the very hardest pioneering climbs. They clearly got a sense of their relative athletic equality when they saw that they could walk as far and climb as high as their male companions. The point was made repeatedly, in the reports of the outings, published in the Sierra Club Bulletin, that these were not pale flowers, suitable only for the parlor.
1901 – “Nearly all the women in the party were Berkeley or Stanford girls, and their vigor and endurance were a revelation to all of us.”
1901 – ” … twenty-seven miles of tramping in one day, which many ladies accomplished.”
1902 – Climb of Mt. Brewer; 49 climbers, inc. 17 ladies.
Perhaps even more important, women generally appreciated Muir on a different, more personal level than men, and he seems to have affected them more deeply. To men he could be a hearty companion or a wonderful raconteur. Women were more in tune with his emotionalism. Furthermore, those “girls” of Berkeley and Stanford became the mothers and grandmothers of the next two generations of intellectuals and lovers of wilderness. Galen Rowell’s mother went mountain climbing in the 20’s. How many more, now prominent in conservation or climbing, were inspired by grandma’s tales of campfires at Soda Springs, and the re-told stories and lessons of an old man with a gray beard and “genial blue eyes?” Marion Parsons, one of the few women leaders of the early Sierra Club, answered Colby in her own article in the 1904 Bulletin:
“The Sierra Club has great and noble purposes, for which we honor it, but besides these its name has come to mean an ideal for us. It means comradeship and chivalry, simplicity and joyousness, and the carefree life of the open.”
Thirty years later, twenty years after Muir’s death, another woman wrote of her own experiences on a High Trip. “Never had I really understood John Muir’s ecstasy until I wandered through this little valley.” That “ecstasy” was exactly what Muir found most lacking in California, even among his fellow “preservationists.” “The love of Nature among Californians is desperately moderate; consuming enthusiasm is almost wholly unknown.” It was this ecstasy in Nature that distinguished Muir from most other preservationists and it was this very emotionalism that made him so attractive to the women he met as well as others who weren’t embarrassed by their emotional response to Nature.
Over the years, Muir developed from a guide for select individuals to a guide for the Sierra Club to a guide for the whole nation. Not just to Yosemite or any other specific place, but to the inner regions of the emotional response to Nature, especially Wild Nature.
The emotional attachment to Nature, this Ecstasy in Nature, this was his real theme. In 1870, when he was still new to Yosemite, he complained about the “blank, fleshy apathy” of the majority of tourists. Even when writing of his father’s religious fanaticism, from which he suffered most of his youth, he was able to consider it a positive trait when looked at as a search for enthusiasm. He said his father was:
“an enthusiastic believer and upholder of the gospel. He belonged to almost every Protestant denomination in turn, going from one to the other, not in search of a better creed, for he was never particular as to the niceties of creeds, but ever in search of a warmer and more active zeal among its members…”
His own zeal was what so endeared him to women. When compiling his letters into the classic , William Frederic Bade commented, “The preponderance of letters addressed to women correspondents is partly explained by the fact that Muir’s men friends did not preserve his letters as generally as the women.” Of course not. His letters to men never approached the emotional heights of his correspondence with Dear Friend Emily, Dear Sister Sarah, or especially Dear Mrs. Carr. One woman wrote of his letters that they, “are poems of great and exquisite beauty–worthy to be written out of a heart whose close communion with nature springs to a perfect love.” He was the perfect Wilderness interpreter.
Since Muir’s time we have seen the birth of a new kind of wilderness interpreter, the Ranger Naturalist. One of the first of these, Carl Sharsmith, is still at it. Three generations have followed him across Tuolumne Meadows learning the ways of glaciers, flowers and squirrels, and how they all fit together. As hikers trooped by me reading the interpretive signs, I wondered how many of them thought of Muir, Joseph LeConte, Ranger Carl and all the others who made the mountains their classroom. I thought of the family I had seen starting out from Happy Isles. Those parents with their catechism of the rocks and birds; to their own children, they were John Muir.
By noon I was tired, really tired, and I trudged into the trailhead parking lot wondering why three miles without a pack should be such a strain. Then I drank two liters of lemonade and ate a huge lunch and remembered–not much dinner or breakfast, and I had forgotten to make my usual hourly stop to drink. I added 12 pounds of food to my pack, my wife shouldered her own pack (with another 10 pounds of food for me) to accompany me a bit further along the trail, and we headed east together, up Lyell Canyon.
We had hiked this trail together once before, on that trip to the base of Mt. Lyell. It was all familiar, and all beautiful. The great, U-shaped valley with bright green grass down the center and dark green trees cloaking the sides, the light spilling in and engulfing all. The trail wound back and forth, from the trees to the meadow, and sometimes along the river. Fishermen, here as elsewhere, exercised in vain, though we could see lots of trout in the clear water.
We stopped to rest on a rock, up from the river and open to the slight breeze, keeping the mozzies at bay. I rolled my head around to loosen the cramped muscles of my neck.
“Hurt?” she asked.
“Yeah, a bit.”
“Well, isn’t that the point?”
I thought a bit, then answered hotly, “No, it isn’t. Not at all. The point is the pleasure of being here, seeing all this. Lunch on a pass.”
“Oh, I thought it was one of those macho things, like beating your head against a wall because it feels so good when you stop. Or backpacking at forty to prove you can still do it.”
I wasn’t sure if she was teasing or not so I let it drop. It wasn’t the first or the last time I would question my motives in being here, doing this.
In the last few miles we had passed twenty backpackers heading towards Tuolumne Meadows. The universal greeting was, “Hi! Had any bear problems?” Everyone, it seemed, had a story of bears stubbornly trying to get their carefully hung food or “bluff charging” to get a meal still in the pot. When I had gotten my Wilderness Permit I had asked the ranger, “Are there any places along the trail where there arenÕt any problem bears?” I didn’t rouse a smile, just a tired-sounding “No.”
We camped at Potter Point. We hung our food very carefully, set up the tent and then sluiced off our sweaty bodies behind a large boulder. The campground was right along the trail, in a open stand of Lodgepole Pine. Lyell Canyon, like the rest of the Tuolumne Meadows area, is clothed with almost pure stands of Lodgepole, a straight, orderly tree I find curiously unmoving. A hundreds yards away, the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne ran rushing over a granite pavement flattened and polished by the vanished glacier. The inevitable fishermen waved their wands over the water but no magic ensued. As I filled the water bottles I looked down onto a pair of six inch trout. They were about two feet from me. Obviously they knew a water bottle from a fishing rod.
As usual, we didn’t build a campfire. While we cooked and ate our dinner of pasta and cheese plus fresh fruit (my last fresh anything for awhile) we were passed by a seemingly unending stream of jeans-clad campers, each carrying a bundle of sticks or dragging a massive fallen branch or log. By the time our dishes were washed and we were communing over cocoa, they were sitting around a huge campfire. There were actually only seven people in the group, but they had each made so many trips to the woods that their fire was six feet across with flames eight feet high. The firelight danced on the trees overhead and the sound of cracking flames, hissing logs and exploding sap filled the woods.
When I was growing up, my family spent part of every summer living in a cabin on a little lake in the Maine woods. Once a week, all the families from the “bungalow colony” would build a big fire in a stone fireplace near the lakeshore. Pots of boiled lobster would be followed by steaks, burgers or hot dogs, and then the real point of the evening would begin. Guitars were tuned (more or less), recorders and flutophones searched out, and we would eat marshmallows and talk and sing and trade songs until the embers glowed their last.
Our neighbors at Potter Point weren’t very musical but the feeling was right–the heat, light, and smell of the fire, the camaraderie, the spirit of the night.
Sierra Club High Trips were renowned for their campfires, with learned lectures, stories, poetry contests, Muir and his reminiscences, and even some amateur “Floradora Girls.”
Muir loved big campfires. When he camped out at Glacier Point with Theodore Roosevelt, “When the dark was well advanced, Muir rose up quietly and set fire to a tall dead pine in the meadow. Soon the tree was a roaring tower of flame. ‘Hurrah!’ yelled the President. ‘That’s a candle it took five hundred years to make. Hurrah for Yosemite!'”
Prof. LeConte wrote about another of Muir’s big fires. While he and his group of students from Berkeley sheltered under a tree during a sudden thundershower at Soda Springs, “Hawkins and Mr. Muir had scraped up the dry leaves underneath a huge prostrate pine, set fire and piled on fuel, and already, see! –a glorious blaze! … With a shout, we all ran for fuel, and piled on log after log, until the blaze rose twenty feet high.”
Or again, on a trip to Mt. Shasta with the famous botanists Asa Gray and Sir Joseph Hooker, “At night, Mr. Muir would make immense fires to display the beauties of the silver fir, which in the glow … assumed the appearance of enormous pagodas of filigree silver. Mr. Muir would wave his arms and shout: ‘Look at the glory! Look at the glory!'”
Campfires have been with us a long, long time. Since the first person dared to grasp the cool end of a still- burning branch, fire has awed and inspired ten thousand generations. A few modern religions try to ignore the magic of fire, but it comes in anyway in its role as the bridge between the worlds of flesh and of the spirit. Fire frees the soul from the body in Hindu rites that harken back to the earliest Vedic home altars to Agni. Sabbath candles and the ritual menorah of the long-departed Temple in Jerusalem are symbols of the Spirit just as much as that symbol that burns on the grave of JFK, The Eternal Flame. For the past 400,000 years, since the time of Peking Man, groups like our neighbors of that night have sat around fires, talking, singing, and watching the living, incorporeal entity that is flame.
Twice I have been a part of one of the oldest campfire circle traditions on earth. Once in 1985 and again soon after I completed this trip, I visited and photographed the Zu/wasi, a group of Kalahari Bushmen, the people introduced to the West in the movie The Gods Must Be Crazy. I sat with them around a little three-stick fire that lit up the faces of the women as they sat, clapping and singing, while their children tumbled into sleep in their laps or on the dirt.
I remember one old lady in particular. The last time I was there she was getting terribly feeble, but the first time, she was the instigator. She would suggest a song, mumbling the words tunelessly, cajoling the others until they gave in and sang along with her. They sang of mongongo nuts, or hunting, or of the life beyond life. Meanwhile, the men danced around in the dark, just out of the light of the fire, and the night was kept at bay. With the help of campfires, this little community grew closer in the vast wilderness of the Kalahari Desert.
That night in the Kalahari was the first time I truly felt the power of a campfire. Before that, campfires had been memory or warmth. Since then I think I have understood what others feel, watching the flames with their friends in Lyell Canyon, or at the Western Wall on Hanukah, or in a cave of the paleolithic era.