The Man, The Trail, and The Wilderness Ideal
by Don Weiss
Fourth of July! My fireworks consisted of the rosy glow lighting up the Lyell glacier at 5:35. As always on cold mornings, it took a long time for me to get up, dress, cook and eat breakfast, and pack up. Then I lost the trail in the snow below the pass. By the time I reached the top I was too high and nearly a quarter mile east of the real pass.
I traversed the ridge, scrambling around boulders, stopping to photograph the flowers growing profusely wherever a little soil had formed.
The pass, the real pass, was surrounded by ice and rock. A snowfield led towards the peaks of the Lyell group. A narrow canyon threaded by a new-born stream dropped precipitously to the south. A set of signs warned northbound travelers:
- “Entering Yosemite Wilderness
- Wilderness Permit Required
- Pets And Firearms Prohibited
- No Wood Fires Above 9600 Feet
- Pack Out All That You Pack In
- Bear Habitat
- Proper Food Storage Required By Federal Law”
I was leaving the Yosemite National Park and entering the Inyo National Forest. Goodbye, for now, Park Service and the U. S. Department of Interior, hello Forest Service and the U. S. Department of Agriculture. Looking around, ahead and behind, the changes weren’t obvious.
The first time the U.S. government set aside a piece of land for the use and enjoyment of the nation, it was Arkansas Hot Springs in 1832. Yosemite was next when in 1864 Congress granted it to the State of California for a park. The first National Park, by name, was Yellowstone, established 1872.
From this meagre beginning, the park system grew into a combination of over 350 units covering 75 million acres and attracting close to 400 million annual visits. Much of the credit for this system must go to Muir, who wrote and lectured incessantly on parks and nature from 1889 to his death in 1914. Just as important, he inspired Teddy Roosevelt to create National Monuments, first by decree, then according to the provisions of the Antiquities Act. The latter allowed conservation-minded presidents to preserve important sites without waiting for Congress to move its ponderous bulk. Teddy Roosevelt used this power to save the Grand Canyon, the Petrified Forest, Zion and others places that later became National Parks. Jimmy Carter followed his example, saving much of the Alaskan Wilderness.
The early national parks were set aside for recreation. Frederic Law Olmstead wrote in the first plan for the development of Yosemite, “In the interest which natural scenery inspires there is the strongest contrast to [material concerns]. It is for itself and at the moment it is enjoyed… It employs the mind without fatigue and yet exercises it, tranquilizes it and enlivens it.” In this, he echoed Emerson’s statement about the value of walking in a natural setting, “The tradesman, the attorney, comes out of the din and craft of the street, see the sky and the woods and is a man again. In their eternal calm he finds himself.”
Forest reserves were set aside beginning in 1891. In part, they were designed to regulate stream flows and prevent flooding. But their main purpose was to supply timber for the ever-growing, ever-building nation.
Muir was initially a strong supporter of forest reserves, but he fell out with the founding director of the U. S. Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot, over the latter’s insistence that the forests were to be used for grazing as well as timber production. Pinchot co-authored Teddy Roosevelt’s first conservation message, delivered to Congress Dec. 2, 1901. The new President said, “The fundamental idea of forestry is the perpetuation of forests by use. Forest protection is not an end in itself; it is a means to increase and sustain the resources of our country and the industries which depend on them.”
Later, Pinchot went even further. The Adirondak State Park had been established by New York State primarily to regulate the water level in the Erie Canal and partly as the nation’s first self-consciously “wilderness” park. Logging was completely prohibited. Pinchot called this action “indefensible.”
After Pinchot left the Forest Service, the agency created the first national wilderness preserves, though not by that name. At the urging of two mid-level bureaucrats, Arthur Carhart and Aldo Leopold, thousands of acres were set aside as roadless areas. Logging, grazing and mining might someday be allowed there, the rules said, but not now.
This change in policy was part of an interagency struggle for land and power. When Congress or the President established a National Park or National Monument, they frequently took land away from the Forest Service and gave it to the Park Service. By establishing wilderness areas, the Forest Service won some preservationists away from the Park Service lobby and into their own. In the first seven years this policy was in effect, the Forest Service established five million acres of roadless areas.
But all this wilderness existed at the mercy of the Forest Service. Whenever someone came up with a plan for commercial use of an area, protection was withdrawn. By 1939 there were over thirteen million acres of Forest Service “wilderness” in the West, but only 300,000 of those acres were well protected. Meanwhile, the Park Service was constantly “upgrading” facilities and building new roads, making the parks increasingly accessible to the motoring public.
The preservationists’ response was the Wilderness Act, first submitted to Congress in 1956 and finally passed in 1964. It declared as its basic policy statement:
“In order to insure that an increasing population … does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States, … it is hereby declared to be the policy of the Congress to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness.” The Act stated:
“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. … an area of Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation; (3) has at least five thousand acres of land or is of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition; and (4) may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.”
Both the Park Service and the Forest Service initially resisted the Act. They saw it as a limitation on their ability to manage their resources for the benefit of their primary clients. Now they both take a somewhat more positive attitude.
A few miles below the pass I found Sean resting on a rock. He had started earlier but stopped longer than I had. We walked down the trail together. At one point, seeing a reservoir off in the distance, the dam clearly visible, I quoted the Wilderness Act, “with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable…”
“Hey, if you want to look at it that way, I saw six satellites last night, so there’s no place on earth that’s a ‘real’ wilderness.”
“But if that’s okay,” I countered, “if it’s still a Wilderness even though you can see dams and satellites, even if they are bridges and even if the trail has granite staircases like the one just below the pass, then what is a wilderness anyway?”
“Well, I’ve got a friend who says a wilderness is where the animals can kill you.”
“Then what about rattlesnakes in the suburbs? Even if he meant where the animals can eat you, that would make West Yellowstone Montana a wilderness.”
We forded Rush Creek. As I was drying off my feet and Sean was filtering some water, a Forest Service Ranger came riding up the trail on a big, dark mule. His setter dog sniffed my feet briefly then splashed across. The mule drank from the stream a few yards below Sean and his water filter.
“Morning.” The ranger said. He was fifty, with a full beard heavily flecked with gray and a broad, smiling, deeply tanned face. “Which way you fellows heading?”
“South,” Sean answered. ” Had any problems with bears lately?”
“Nope. Not this year. Not yet. Did you guys by any chance see a mountain biker on Donohue Pass?” I shook my head, no.
Sean said, “I saw some tracks along Lyell Canyon but nothing up near the top. There’s still a few hundred yards of snow to cross on the other side.”
“We had a report from the park. I guess I’ll ride up and check it out.”
We extended our stop into an early lunch and wondered about the biker.
“You know,” I said, looking at the hoof prints in the mud by the creek, “I bet on some kinds of soils, bikes do less damage than horses.”
“Yeah, but you can’t have bikes in the Wilderness. I mean, I ride all the time, but that’s in the Bay Area. Up here, it’s different, it’s like going back in time. You look out at all this and, except where you can see a dam or a satellite, it’s just like it was a hundred years ago, or a thousand.”
“Maybe it looks that way, but you just filtered your water. I bet when Theodore Solomons came through in 1888 he didn’t filter his water. And he didn’t have this trail, or a decent map, or a rule about where he could build a fire, or any of that. Remember, Muir traveled light because he could burn thousand-year-old Whitebark Pine logs to stay warm above the regular timber line. These mountains aren’t the ones he knew.”
“Well, hey, Don, if you want a real old fashioned wilderness experience, come here in the winter. That’s the real thing, where if you make a mistake it can kill you.”
I really enjoyed talking with Sean. We had enough in common to understand one another but enough differences to make for a challenging argument. Mostly, though, we were silent spectators. The high moors between Donohue Pass and Island Pass are among the most beautiful and least visited parts of the John Muir Trail. When Congress created Yosemite National Park in 1890, encircling the original reservation of The Valley, this area was included. It was removed in 1905 because Congress was worried it might have to buy out some mining claims nearby.
On a narrow stretch of trail through a Lodgepole Pine forest we met a woman, young, early twenties. She wore her blond hair long and her hiking shorts short. She and Sean stopped two feet apart and eyed one another.
“Hi,” he said, “Long trip?”
“The whole thing. You?”
“Same. How’s it been?”
“Not very good. There was a hell of a lot of snow on the passes. I got caught in a whiteout on Muir Pass and had to spend the night in that damn drafty hut, sticking bits of crumpled paper into the chinks in the ceiling to keep out the snow.”
“Well, that’s what the hut is for,” Sean pointed out.
“Yeah, sure, but that wasn’t the worst. All the passes had snow. You know, down south it isn’t like this. This part of the trail is easy. Down south it’s all up and down, a pass a day, and the north sides were all icy in the morning and if you waited too long you broke through the crust. There were a bunch of us floundering up to our waists on Forester.”
I looked at her feet. She wore super-light boots with wide cordura panels on the top and sides.
“And it’s all the rangers’ fault,” she continued. “I phoned the Lone Pine Ranger station two weeks before I started. I asked if I would need an ice axe and they said ‘no,’ it was a light snow year. Idiots. I shouldn’t have trusted them. Where I live we had a cold spring. I should have known whatever snow was there wouldn’t be melted.”
She was gorgeous, but Sean was obviously a bit put off by her anger. We went south, she went north. A few yards down the trail I called back to Sean, who was behind me, “Okay, you can put your tongue back in your mouth now.”
He smiled and said, “I noticed you weren’t exactly immune to those legs yourself.”
“I was looking at her boots.”
“Yeah, I wondered about that too. I can see going without an ice axe, especially in a light snow year, but all this super-de-dooper-deluxe light weight equipment must be putting people in jeopardy sometimes.”
I mentioned I had once read that, back east, lug soled boots were considered un-ecological because they tore up the trail.
“That may be fine there, where the trail’s mostly soil. Here it’s almost all granite, and I want boots. You know, talking about boots and horses and bikes and trails, I wonder who actually does the most damage?”
“I think,” I said, recalling his water filter, “that the worst damage is what you can’t see, the pollution. We’re petty, you know, worrying so much about our esthetic appreciation of the mountains when we’re trashing the biological environment. Most hikers hate horses, right?”
“Sure. Who wants to walk in horse-shit all day?”
“But which is worse, morally, the horse shit on the trail or the human feces polluting the streams, every stream and lake?”
Our next stream crossing summed up this part of our conversation. There was a pack train, six or seven “dudes” and two packers with over a dozen horses and mules. The mules stopped to drink from the stream. As they left, each mule in turn urinated into the water and then deposited a pile of manure on the bank. A little dog running at the end of the train rushed up to me and then darted away, yipping excitedly. The last two “dudes” stared silently from under their new black Stetsons, then rode on.
I thought to myself, Why didn’t I like them? Here I was, having a nice time, there they were, ditto. It wasn’t just the horses polluting the stream. Most of my Himalayan travels have been with pack animals that behaved just as these had done. With over 50 pounds on my back, I could really appreciate the comfort of horse packing.
It was the hats that gave me the answer. I resented their play acting. Wister’s heroic cowboys were their models. With the hat came the persona, so whatever happened on their trip, they were partaking of the simple nobility of this American icon.
“Daring, Laughter, endurance–these were what I saw upon the countenances of the cowboys. …something about them, and the idea of them, smote my American heart…” — Owen Wister The Virginian
But it went deeper, back beyond the cowboy mystique. I thought of Francis Parkman and his rollicking summer of adventure on the Oregon Trail in 1846. It was all play acting in the wilderness, as if certain kinds of games can only be played where “the imprint of man’s work is substantially unnoticeable.”
Backpackers resent that sort of play acting. It is a desecration of their “sacred space” which is how many people view Wilderness. And of course it’s very easy to see horse packing as a desecration when the horses do what comes naturally, peeing in the streams and shitting on the trails.
The Angry Young Woman we met was also play acting. Nothing else would explain why she still seethed with anger a hundred miles beyond the difficult southern passes. Her anger had become part of her trip, making a Faustian experience of what Muir would have called a “saunter.” It was almost as if she resented the easiness of this part of the trail as much as her earlier difficulties. Her trip was a test. She pitted herself against obstacles, real, imagined or remembered. She was on a kind of heroic quest, a wilderness adventure.
Her quest engrossed me as I tried through it to understand my own. Sean forged on ahead as I sat on a rock above Thousand Island Lake and thought about goals, quests and heroic adventures; my wife’s comment about pain being part of the trip; Muir’s line about tourists having to labor for beauty as well as for bread.
Across the lake rose the dark, thrusting peaks of Mt. Ritter and Mt. Banner. Ritter was unclimbed until Muir came here in October 1872, leaving Keith painting the view of Lyell. His essay, “A Near View of the High Sierra” is a classic of mountaineering literature. He felt, as he neared the mountain, that he should not risk the climb, he might be caught by a storm, he should wait for the following summer.
“But we little know until tried how much of the uncontrollable there is in us, urging across glaciers and torrents, and up dangerous heights, let the judgement forbid as it may. … I thus made my way into a wilderness of crumbling spires and battlements… The situation was becoming gradually more perilous; and [I] began to be conscious of a vague forboding of what actually befell. After gaining a point about halfway to the top, I was suddenly brought to a dead stop, with arms outspread, clinging close to the face of the rock, unable to move hand or foot either up or down. My doom appeared fixed. I must fall. There would be a moment of bewilderment, and then a lifeless rumble down the one general precipice to the glacier below.
“When this final danger flashed upon me, I became nerve-shaken for the first time since setting foot on the mountains, and my mind seemed to fill with a stifling smoke. But this terrible eclipse lasted only for a moment, when life blazed forth again with preternatural clearness. I seemed suddenly to be possessed of a new sense. The other self, bygone experiences, Instinct, or Guardian Angel, –call it what you will, –came forward and assumed control. … I found a way without effort, and soon stood upon the topmost crag in the blessed light.”
He described the views from the summit–the lakes, mountains, forests, glaciers and rivers. Then he drew a lesson:
“generally, when looking for the first time from an all-embracing standpoint like this, the inexperienced observer is oppressed by the incomprehensible grandeur, variety and abundance of the mountains rising shoulder to shoulder beyond the reach of vision; and it is only after they have been studied one by one, long and lovingly, that their far-reaching harmonies become manifest. Then, penetrate the wilderness where you may, the main telling features, to which all the surrounding topography is subordinate, are quickly perceived, and the most complicated clusters of peaks stand revealed harmoniously correlated and fashioned like works of art…”
Muir’s experience during the crisis of the climb sounds exactly like the “right brain” –that non-verbal, intuitive part of our brain–taking over. This is, in fact, something he spoke of frequently, as when he called on Jeanne Carr, “to read these glorious lessons of sky and plain and mountains, which no mortal power can ever speak.” Objects, and truths, can be perceived by the “right brain” but this “right brain” cannot process language, so a truth perceived here cannot be spoken by mere mortals, though they can try, through the rational, logical “left brain.”
Muir called on all people to “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings,” by, “Jumping from rock to rock, feeling the life of them, learning the songs of them.” “Good tidings” –he means a gospel, a creed; “feeling” and “songs” –both expressions of “right brain” activity. He is saying, here and elsewhere, repeatedly, that the true message of the mountains can only be perceived by immersing yourself in Wild Nature to such an extent that your intuitive faculties take over and learn the lessons “that no mortal power can ever speak.” But then, of course, it’s okay to think about what you have done and what has happened to you.
Muir pitted himself against the challenges of Ritter and won. But what he won was a better understanding of himself and his abilities combined with a better understanding of the geological structure of this part of the Sierra. It was typical of him to combine the two into one narrative, as if to emphasize the relationship between internal and external knowledge, or “left brain” and “right brain” perceptions. He spent the years 1867 to 1880 developing these two kinds of knowledge. Later he used this wisdom for “enticing people to look at Nature’s loveliness,” both for their own good and for the preservation of Nature.
I hoped that was why I was here. I wasn’t planning any great adventure like a solo climb of Ritter, just a simple saunter along the John Muir Trail. I wondered if something so straightforward, so relatively easy, would yield the fruit of knowledge, either type.
That night in camp I was miserable. I wanted to go further, push on a bit more, but by the time I reached Emerald Lake I was too tired. I searched uphill from the trail, looking for a spot without too many mosquitoes, but every place I looked was either too steep or too soggy. I found a well-used camping area–there was even a big iron fireplace grill next to an old ring of thoroughly-blackened rocks–and then spent an hour deciding exactly where to pitch my tent and hang my food. I knew I had to be careful of bears. Sean had filled me with lots of bear stories. I considered the variables of tent position and good branches for hanging the food. All the while I was reminded myself, “You’re hot, tired and thirsty. Drink. Set up the tent. Then deal with the food.” And all of this was through a cloud of mosquitoes so thick I inhaled them through my nose.
I finally set up the tent, then discovered there was a flooded meadow thirty feet away. Angry at myself, I shoved all my gear in the tent, crawled in and zipped up the screen. In ten minutes of furious swatting I killed all the mosquitoes that had followed me in, then sipped a liter of water, gradually calming down. It was only four, I had lots of time for camp chores.
The next two hours were terrible. I settled into a depression compounded of mosquito bites (one on each lip, dozens elsewhere), tired muscles, sore knee, and self-anger at choosing so poor a campsite. My main hope for this night had been a view of Ritter and Banner and that was exactly what I didn’t have. I was well into the trees, and when I hung my food, the bags were so heavy the rope came off the branch. I emulated Achilles at the siege of Troy and sulked in my tent.
I lay with my head just inside the screen. I could see half a dozen mosquitoes perched just inches from my face. As an experiment, I placed a finger close to the screen. They crawled over, thrusting their proboscises towards the blood, so near, so far. By denying them my blood I was denying some of these mozzies a chance to breed. Good.
The heat of the afternoon abated, and I ate some chocolate and nuts. Once I dashed out, braving the mosquitoes, and filled all my waterbottles at the flooded meadow. After another liter of water and some more chocolate (Ah, sugar, ah, caffeine) I finally noticed that the evening bird chorus was already in full swing. The crisis was over.