The Man, The Trail, and The Wilderness Ideal
by Don Weiss
In October 1872 Muir, just back to The Valley from Lyell Canyon, ran into some artists Jeanne Carr had sent him. They hoped he would guide them to a grand vista that they could paint.
“They inquired whether in the course of my explorations in the adjacent mountains I had ever come upon a landscape suitable for a large painting. … I led them out of the Valley by the Vernal and Nevada Falls, thence over the main dividing range to the Big Tuolumne Meadows, by the old Mono trail, and thence along the upper Tuolumne River to its head. … At length, toward the end of the second day, the Sierra Crown began to come into view, and when we had fairly rounded [Potter Point], the whole picture stood revealed in the flush of the alpenglow. Their enthusiasm was excited beyond bounds, and the more impulsive of the two, a young Scotchman, dashed ahead, shouting and gesticulating and tossing his arms in the air like a madman. Here, at last, was a typical alpine landscape.”
The superb view up the canyon became ever more grand as I trudged eastwards, alone again. As I passed the next campsite I saw a short man with a grizzled beard toss out half an inch of bacon grease from a frying pan. A quarter mile along the trail I saw bear tracks heading towards his camp. They were fresh, a few hours old. They looked enormous in the muddy trail. Of course, I’ve never seen bear tracks that didnÕt look enormous.
My pack was up to its full weight now, 50 pounds plus camera gear. I felt like Wordsworth’s peddler:
“An irksome drudgery seems it to plod on,
Through hot and dusty ways or pelting storm,
A vagrant merchant under a heavy load
Bent as he moves and needing frequent rest;
Yet do such travellers find their own delight.”
— William Wordsworth “The Excursion”
I wasn’t exactly rushing around, waving my arms in delight like Muir’s artists, but my efforts felt more like good hard work than “irksome drudgery.” After a rest stop I found a good rhythm and started feeling stronger. My pace quickened, my stride lengthened. My eyes spent more time looking at the “typical alpine landscape” and less at the muddy, rutted trail at my feet. I was finding “my own delight.”
One of these artists, William Keith, became Muir’s best friend. Keith’s view of Lyell, “Crown of the Sierras,” painted from sketches made on that trip, is an example of that Claudian landscape esthetic of grand views. Such paintings speak to a universal desire to gaze across a flat area, preferably one with water, to an upward thrusting mountain or monument. It’s a pattern deeply embedded in the human psyche. The Hindu symbol of the phallic lingam rising from the flat, feminine yoni; the ancient Egyptian proto-pyramid, the ben-ben, rising from the line of the horizon; the Washington Monument soaring, an engorged shaft of limestone above the green of the lawns around it–all these are equivalent to Lyell Peak rising above the green grass meadow of Upper Lyell Canyon. They are one of the archetypes that resonate in the unconscious.
It was impossible to feel alone walking up the canyon. I met hikers coming down every fifteen or twenty minutes. There was a man my age with his ten year old daughter. She carried a red backpack that looked suspiciously light and wore pink-framed sunglasses. I thought of all my friends who used to go backpacking until they had children eight or ten years ago. Would they be here in a few years?
I met lots of young couples. Perhaps, for some, this was their first weekend really alone together. Maybe some of them were neighbors of mine. The local entertainment weekly’s “personals” column indicates that a fondness for backpacking is one of the most looked-for tastes in a mate.
One couple seemed a bit bizarre. The man was well over a foot taller than his female companion. His pack was three times the size of hers, accentuating the contrast. He was dressed completely in camouflage gear from his slouch hat right down to his jungle boots. She wore jeans and a wool shirt, and walked with a slight limp. I looked down and saw she wore one hiking boot and one running shoe.
“Hi! Had a bit of a boot problem?”
The woman smiled ruefully and sat down to rest on a rock. Her companion answered.
“Yeah. It’s her first time backpacking, see, and we rented all her gear. The boot gave her a bruised ankle. Something with the damn scree collar. We’ll be buying her some boots of her own so she can break them in right before we go again. It’s been a great trip, though. Have a nice day!” We went our separate ways. I wondered what she thought of his assurance that she would go backpacking ever again. My wife, after all, was halfway home by that time.
Since I was used to a companion keeping step with me and since my walking stick clicked and thumped with the rhythm of my steps, I decided to call my red ski pole “John Muir” and let it be my companion and guide.
At home, I have a walking stick from a Japanese Buddhist pilgrimage, The 88 Temples of Shikoku. Those walking sticks personify Kobo Daishi, the 8th-9th century Buddhist saint who inspired the pilgrimage. Each night on reaching his lodgings the henro, the pilgrim, is expected to wash the mud and dirt of the trail from the bottom of the staff and lay it reverently aside. My ski pole lacked the elegant finish and red-and-gold hand grip of that Japanese “Kobo Daishi” but Muir himself was certainly a far rougher character than the scholarly Japanese monk.
The trail too got rougher as it climbed the headwall of the canyon. It was noon when I started up and only four miles to Donohue Pass but I had no plans to go that far. I planned to camp at the highest good campsite I could find, probably around the 10,000 foot level.
The headwall of the canyon was heavily forested. When I got to the top and came out into the sunlit basin below Lyell, it was like entering a fresh new world. Except for a few scattered stands of Whitebark Pine, the forest stood below and behind me. I stepped into a world of rock, water and ice.
Muir repeatedly said that he no longer envied Adam having lived in the dawn of creation. He had discovered that the Sierra, too, was a land newly made. This was the kind of place he meant. The glacier had retreated, leaving behind it scooped-out basins, filled now with a dozen small lakes. Shattered pieces of the mountain peaks lay scattered about the smooth granite pavement. The lakes and streams of the basin were devoid of fish. Probably a few young tadpoles were there that would sing in a frog chorus to late-summer hikers. It was like some vision out of Milton, the Brave New World awaiting the fecundity that time, and perhaps global warming, could bring.
I crossed two streams, swollen with melting snow. I had brought along some new “Aquasocks” for these crossings, but I found that with my boots and camera gear added to the pack, the load was almost more than I could manage. The pain of my feet pressing on the sharp rocks of the stream bed combined with the pain of the cold water hurried me across so I could fling off pack and dry my feet. I was out of breath from the cold and the weight and the rush. And then I had to do it again for the second stream.
I camped near the next-to-last clump of Whitebark Pines, between two narrow channels where water from the snowpack on the pass ran down to meet the meltoff from the glacier across the way. Some dwarf willows by the stream were just budding. The snow must have just melted off. I was supposed to camp at least 100 feet from any lake or stream, but the whole basin was flowing with newly released streamlets, so I justified it to myself.
I was nearly alone in the basin. Across the way I could see three tents in scattered locations. It’s amazing how well “hunter orange” nylon stands out in such a setting.
I put a teabag in a full water bottle on a rock warmed by the sun. In fifteen minutes I was sipping tea while the rock warmed my seat. Muir, I knew, would have slept in one of the little groves of pines. He slept in one near here on that 1872 trip with Keith. It was like the one closest to me, an oval five feet by ten. In the center, six inches of pine needles covered the rock, the accumulation of centuries. I set up my tent in the open. I expected to be a bit cold by morning with my 15 year old sleeping bag, there at 10,500 feet.
Soon I had a visitor, Sean. Like me, he planned to do the whole trail, solo. He seemed to know the Sierra well, so I asked about the store at Reds Meadows, near the trail two day’s walk south.
“Oh, yeah, they have a bit of everything. Fuel, chocolate, beer, all the essentials. There’s also a cafe where I plan to eat the biggest cheeseburger they have, maybe two.” He camped in the next grove of pines, 200 yards uphill. I offered him some tea. He nodded. “Great. But after sunset.”
As I sat quietly sipping my tea, rehydrating, I spotted a marmot moving towards me. He came in little dashes of three or four feet, each move separated by a minute of watchful waiting. I sat very still, hardly blinking. He came within thirty feet then ran away full speed and disappeared into the pines. I looked on the rock where I sat and saw a few marmot turds. It was one of his lookout rocks. I wondered which puzzled him more–me or by my boots, perched marmot-like on the highest part of the rock, airing in the sun?
I chose my campsite with a view to a view, the view of Lyell. As the sun slipped lower and the light warmed to amber and then pink, I took a series of pictures of the snow-covered glacier nestled below the summit rocks. Some hikers came by as I was eating dinner and, seeing my attention drawn to the peak, told me they had climbed it that afternoon and basked naked in the sun on top. I wondered if they had burned any of the flesh that didn’t usually get exposed.
Alone, as the sun set, I suddenly heard music, faint harmonies, tonic and dominant, connected by the slow notes of a simple melody, like something by Victor Herbert. It seemed to come from the streams. Or perhaps it was an internal song, released from my inner self by the air, the light, the feel of the rock beneath me and the fading sun on my cheek. When I tried to catch it, to analyze it, it faded away like Sullivan’s “Lost Chord” that “trembled away to silence, as if it were loathe to cease.” I heard it once more on the trip, much later.
After sunset, Sean came down from his own rock perch for tea and company. He seemed a poetic sort of soul, and our talk of Shakespeare and Thoreau hardly went with his football stories. But I’m also a contradictory character to many I meet. I’m a quiet, scholarly type, a typical “nice Jewish boy from the Bronx” who likes nothing better than to sit for hours on icy feet in a Himalayan monastery for a mid-winter enactment of selected scenes from the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
There’s probably no such thing as a “typical” John Muir Trail hiker, but we weren’t really unusual. Most “wilderness users are urban, college-educated males. One study found that fully a third had graduate degrees. Probably the majority of JMT hikers are conversant with Thoreau, Shakespeare and, of course, the works of Muir himself. But what best characterizes JMT hikers is simply the love of hiking in the High Sierra.
That’s how the trail got its start. In 1884, Theodore Solomons conceived of a “crest parallel trail” the length of the Sierra. He explored the northern half of the route. Others, especially Joseph N. LeConte, sought out the ways through the southern half of the Sierra in the nineties and the first years of this century. Then, in 1914, a discussion on the annual Sierra Club High Trip caught the imagination of the right person, Meyer Lissner, the political manager of the powerful Governor of California, Hiram Johnson. With the Governor’s backing, a bill passed the California Legislature to appropriate $10,000 to begin construction. The route was scouted out by the State Engineer, William F. McClure. Improvement of existing trails and construction of bridges and new trails began in August 1916, though the trail wasn’t completed until 1938.
Sean headed back to his eyrie after dark. I put all my food inside the tent and crawled in.
I lay there awake on the mountainside below the first high pass. This was where I had first seen the John Muir Trail as a Question and a Possibility. Those people I had seen crossing the pass years before, they knew what lay beyond. They had been there. What would I find? What experiences awaited me? Would storms batter my tent on an exposed mountainside like this one? Would a bear take my food? When I crossed the pass, I would enter a place that was, for me, The Unknown.
How much more of the songs of the mountains I might hear I didn’t know. From all my Buddhist studies I was grounded in theories and explanations of Enlightenment, Satori, Nirvana, Numinous Experience–would I come back from this changed, better, more complete, Enlightened?
Faulkner’s boy-becoming-man in “The Bear” had to lay aside his rifle and compass to see the bear; he had to accept the wilderness in his heart on its own terms. How would I fare, with my camera, compass, all this gear and food that surrounded me in my tiny tent. He had a guide, a mentor. I was alone. Except for my walking stick. My red cross- country ski pole that I had christened “John Muir.” I grasped the handle of my guide and drifted into a troubled sleep.