The Man, The Trail, and The Wilderness Ideal
by Don Weiss
As I left I ran into Ranger Erica. She was sweeping out the bathrooms. Like the ranger at Little Yosemite Valley, she seemed impressed and envious that I was hiking the John Muir Trail.
“Gee, I wish I could do the whole trail. I hardly ever get to go backpacking anymore. I used to go a bit, back in the early ’70’s, but it was a lot more crowded then. It must be wonderful now that you can go for miles and not see a soul.”
“Actually,” I admitted, “I get lonely sometimes.”
“Then you should have been here ten or fifteen years ago. There were people practically living in the mountains. It got pretty rough, sometimes. Some people lived off others. They’d hang around a campsite and when somebody’d leave things unguarded they’d steal enough food to last them until the next victim came along. A variation on `living off the land’. One year someone broke into my cabin and stole all the food, so when I came up to get ready for the season I had to go and buy more.”
“Sounds like the campers were worse than the bears.”
“You better believe it. Now, of course, it’s the bears. There should be one or two bears in this valley but we’ve got ten, just because people don’t believe how persistent they can be. They get high-value people food and bears are one of those creatures that, when they’re well fed, have more babies. Then they teach their young to eat our food and it just gets worse. We’re going to change these dumpsters to bear-proof ones, but we have to do it gradually. They’ve found when you start taking the garbage away from bears they get aggressive and the last thing we need here is aggressive bears like some of the ones further south. Have a great trip, I really envy you.”
Sean had warned me the trail south of Reds Meadows was composed of “pumice dust and horse shit.” He was right. Each footstep stirred up a light powder that quickly drifted to my lungs. I coughed and sniffed as the trail led southeast. The route ascended gradually towards Red Cones, with occasional views across the valley.
When I started out that morning, I passed one of the signs that was becoming so typical of entrances to the wilderness:
Welcome To The Backcountry
Enjoy It – Preserve It
Shortcutting Trails Causes Erosion
Carry Out Your Trash
Drown Your Fires
Yield Trail To Pack Animals
Take Only Pictures, Leave Only Footprints.”
The only thing they left out was the warning on the sign at the Gates Of Hell, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
Just below Red Cones I heard a hollow pounding. Three horses galloped up the trail towards me in a cloud of pumice dust. I moved aside and held my bandana over my nose. Three women in jeans and checked shirts bounced by on three huge stallions. They gave me big grins as their horses stirred up the dust.
An hour later I found John 1 and Matt sitting on a log. Matt had blisters on both heels. John was cutting elaborate “saddles” out of athletic tape and moleskin to protect the blisters and allow Matt to continue walking. The day before, he had cut similar saddles for Matt’s shoulders. The combination of Matt’s pack straps and tank top straps had given him blisters on his shoulders. I offered to wait for them so we could hike together today and camp together tonight. John considered a moment, then said,
“No, this will take a while and you shouldn’t really stop unnecessarily for us. We’ll catch up with you at Deer Creek. Or if we miss you, camp at Purple Lake, uphill to the left. It’s a great place. We’ll find you there.”
I went on. Matt seemed very subdued. I figured John planned a little pep talk and didn’t want an audience.
At Deer Creek crossing I stopped for an early lunch, washing away all the pumice dust coating my mouth with two liters of lemonade. Cicadas chanted in the hot, still air. It wasn’t music today but an irritating, animal whine, like a battalion of thirsty mosquitoes.
At noon I noticed a few puffy cumulus clouds building up to the south. By twelve-thirty they had doubled in size. It looked like Sean’s prediction of unsettled weather ahead was panning out. I thought about staying put and camping, it was a safe place, down in a valley. But it was too early. I hadn’t come far enough to call it a day and, besides, I had a poncho. It would keep me dry.
I filled two water bottles, treating them lightly with iodine. My guidebook warned of a lack of drinking water the next six miles. Except by the stream I had seen few mosquitoes today. But lots of flies seemed happy to leave the piles of horse dung on the trail and lap up some of the sweat that coated my forehead and dripped down into my eyes.
I pushed on. The trail rose gradually and started traversing a steep slope. Through the trees I could see clouds. They continued to build up ahead of me, to the south and east. Unfortunately, it was now after noon, and the sun shone fiercely in a clear part of the sky, to the south- southwest. Sweat dripped from my forehead, my shirt was soaked down the sides under my arms. Watching the clouds continue to build, I started singing “Blue Skies” as a mantra.
I always sing to myself. Most of my waking hours, all the time if I’m hiking, jogging, driving, or doing anything else that occupies less than my full attention, I always have music running through a portion of my brain. Earlier in the trip it had been Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, John Denver songs, folk music, some opera, and a bit of everything else. Now, with the prospect of rain and lightning, I hummed one of the first songs performed when movies were given a voice. While the clouds built up and the sweat dripped down, I sang and hummed, over and over, about how blue skies were all I saw.
After an hour I stopped for a pint of water and half a chocolate bar. I sat on one of the few downed but uncharred trees and thought about what I would do if the storm broke suddenly. I looked at all the blackened trees around me and they registered on my brain as hundreds of individual lightning strikes. John 2’s story of his experience with lightning on top of Whitney was still fresh in my mind. I
I sang “Blue Skies” –softly, hopefully, and pushed on.
I was still two weeks away from the big storms that would herald the end of my trip. This was just a warning, like the signs at the trailhead, a hint of the real dangers I would later face.
After 2 1/2 hours, I rounded a corner and suddenly the pumice ended. I was back on solid granite. The dust was gone, and I once again felt the satisfying thump of my boots and walking stick on solid rock. It made me recall the trail starting out from Happy Isles, the beginning of my journey. Five minutes later, I reached Duck Creek and washed the sweat and dust from my face and arms.
I decided to wait an hour, to see what the weather would do and to give John and Matt a chance to catch up. The storm clouds had built up massively to the south, but still I sat in the sun.
While I waited, I was joined by a horse packing group, eight dudes on horses, a wrangler, a packer and four loaded mules. One of the women in the group had a bandage around her left ankle. Seeing me stare, one of the men explained, “Her horse rolled. She jumped clear but hurt her ankle.”
The dudes joined me by the stream. The horses and mules drank deeply, then the wrangler tied the horses to a tree a few yards away while the packer led the mules on towards their campsite. I turned to the man who had told me about the bandaged ankle.
“Had a nice trip?”
“I tell you, it’s been great. Maybe the best vacation of my life. A week up in these mountains, nobody but us… I feel twenty years old again.”
He looked 45. He was 59, a Navy veteran of “2 1/2 wars” from the occupation of Japan through Korea and Vietnam. When he retired in 1970, he went to work as a carpenter, taught high school shop one year, liked it, and decided to get a teaching credential.
“So how does a sailor end up spending a week on a horse without an ocean in sight?”
“I saw a colleague’s pictures. She went on a trip with these folks last year and raved about it. I decided to see for myself. In a week out here, we’ve seen only about a dozen other people, most of them on the first day out from Reds Meadows. And Joe over there has caught a thousand trout.”
“How many?” I asked.
“Well,” Joe said slowly, “maybe three hundred. On the Fourth of July I must have caught a hundred, but that was really exceptional.”
“Not really. A few twelve or fourteen inchers–nothing bigger than that. Mostly around five to seven inches. Takes half a dozen to make a meal for one. I’ve thrown nearly all of them back. They bring along all the food you need on these trips.”
I camped there at Duck Creek near the pack group. I hoped in vain someone would invite me to their campfire, but at least I figured I would be safer from bears with a dozen horses and mules nearby. When I asked the wrangler if she would mind if I camped close by she mumbled something through thin, tight lips, I took it to mean she wouldn’t sic the dog on me. The ex-sailor had told me that she had spent a whole night calming down the horses when a bear came near their camp a few days earlier–maybe she was just tired.
Joe spent the afternoon fishing. I watched him as he worked his way upstream, dipping his fly in each pool in succession. He caught a trout every five minutes, but put them all back. He was totally absorbed in what he did, the image of the “real” fisherman, the kind for whom fishing is an Art, not a way of stocking the table.
Forty-three percent of the people who spend one or more nights in the John Muir Wilderness fish, but only 6% go primarily for this reason. [U. S. Forest Service] Yet for these 6%, or the 43%, many of the lakes in the Sierra are stocked periodically by low-flying airplanes that bring in young trout from hatcheries of the California Department of Fish and Game.
The High Sierra was nearly barren of fish when Muir first knew it. Only at the southern end, where the glaciers had vanished first, had the native Golden Trout made their way far upstream. But even in Muir’s day, enterprising men were stocking the lakes and streams with a variety of American and European trout species to provide sport. In some areas, the Department of Fish and Game has also introduced tiny freshwater shrimp, since many of the lakes were short on potential trout food. Still, most of the trout in High Sierra lakes appear stunted from lack of food.
Muir never fished or hunted on his High Country excursions. He criticized fishing in Yosemite Valley. He said, “to play in the Yosemite Temple, seeking pleasure in the pain of fishes struggling for their lives, while God himself is preaching his sublimest water and stone sermons!” Or again, “But when thoughtless childhood is passed, the best rise the highest above all this bloody flesh and sport business, the wild foundational animal dying out day by day, as divine, uplifting, transfiguring charity grows in.”
Yet sometimes he’s ambivalent. Writing of a hunt for bighorn sheep, he says, Savageness is natural; civilization, at least in this stage of the play, is strained and unnatural. … In the wild exhilaration raised by the running of the game … we could have torn and worried like mastiffs…” He saw hunting as a return to man’s origins, a reminder of how far we have progressed from our “savage” past, and how far we still had to go to feel our proper kinship to all our “fellow mortals.”
Fishing, beyond the aspect of “seeking pleasure in the pain of fishes struggling for their lives,” he felt also could have positive aspects. It drew people to the mountains, to be enveloped by the spell of Nature:
“Catching trout with a bent wire is a rather trivial business, but fortunately people fish better than they know. In most cases it is the man who is caught. Trout fishing regarded as bait for catching men, for the saving of both body and soul, is important, and deserves all the expense and care bestowed on it.”
Muir understood how intense concentration on the act of fishing could attune the fisherman to Nature, like the chase and the stalk of the hunter, or like the hard work and perception of danger experienced climbing mountains:
“In climbing where the danger is great [the climber] is thoroughly aroused. … The mind and body remain awake for some time after the dangerous ground is passed, so that arriving on the summit with the grand outlook–all the world spread below–one is able to see it better, and brings to the feast a far keener vision, and reaps richer harvests than would have been possible ere the presence of danger summoned him to life.”
Danger, fishing, hunting, all these can be means to a similar end. Climbers, in trying to justify their dangerous pursuit to scoffing friends and relatives, often talk about feeling “really alive” when they climb.
These activities also share similar concepts of personal limits and the rules of the game. Lito Tejada-Flores, in the most-influential essay yet written on climbing, “The Games Climbers Play,” makes the point that climbers are not primarily interested in making it to the top. After all, there’s an easy trail to the top of Yosemite’s greatest wall, El Capitan. The idea is to work within a set of rules and succeed. Just as a fisherman like Joe will float a hand-tied fly above a trout too small to bother eating. Just like, as Aldo Leopold says, a hunter will take pains to obey hunting laws in the total absence of a game warden. Just as he will use a light rifle or even, in some cases, a bow and arrows, requiring hours of stalking for a slight chance at a good shot. The deer, the trout, the name in the summit register, at some point these pass from being the goal to merely acting as a way of keeping score and beyond that to a kind of active meditation–like archery or flower arrangement used in Zen as a path to enlightenment. Or, as I suggested earlier, as a way of accessing “right brain” sensibilities.
Game playing can easily be overdone. Mark Twain satirized James Fenimore Cooper’s depiction of “The Art of the Forest” in an essay sprinkled with the most extreme examples of Cooper’s faith in the ability of those fully in tune with Nature to plumb her secrets.
“Chingachgook (pronounced Chicago, I think), has lost the trail of a person he is tracking through the forest. Apparently that trail is hopelessly lost. Neither you or I could ever have guessed out the way to find it. It was very different with Chicago. Chicago was not stumped for long. He turned a running stream out of its course, and there, in the slush in its old bed, were that person’s moccasin tracks. The current did not wash them away, as it would have done in all other like cases–no, even the eternal laws of Nature have to vacate when Cooper wants to put up a delicate job of woodcraft on the reader.”
— Mark Twain Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses
Climbing, fishing, hunting, archery, ikebana–all these games can create an intensity of experience. Backpacking is another such game. It has its rules– “Take only photographs, leave only footprints.” It has it’s self- imposed limits, like John 2 fasting one or two days each week. It has its ritual campfires, specialized equipment, and technical jargon. Perhaps most of all, it has a hierarchy of initiation and experience. Faulkner’s boy in The Bear was initiated into hunting by having his face smeared with blood warm from his first buck. Wilderness experience courses like NOLS and Outward Bound teach participants to live on their own in the Wilderness for a day or two or even three. And for those who have passed beyond such early initiations, who are already Journeymen of the Mountains, there’s always the test of a long solo trip dodging bears and storms, testing personal limits, providing the venue for a meeting with yourself and with Nature–a test like the John Muir Trail.