The Man, The Trail, and The Wilderness Ideal
by Don Weiss
When I started out on the John Muir Trail, I didn’t think I was on an intellectual quest. I thought of myself as just another 40 year old American male humping a heavy packthrough the mountains for the fun of it. But the contemplative habits of the city and the study are slow to change, and I found that much of what I learned on the trail was an extension of subjects studied at home and during my travels. Most of all, I learned that the legacy of John Muir extends well beyond the trail named for him.
Muir became the guiding spirit both of my hike and of my subsequent researches. He said once, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything in the universe.” This made for fairly diverse research as I delved into Transcendentalism, management for wilderness recreation, Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious, and other fields related to Wilderness. In condensing this material into a single volume, I have followed the example of Thoreau and of Aldo Leopold, building my arguments above the firm foundation of my own trip on the John Muir Trail.
I have dwelt at length on the people I met along the trail because they were both my inspiration and my test cases. Theories about Wilderness are useful only insofar as they explain the specific behavior and beliefs of actual individuals who go into the mountains.
My main purpose in writing this book has been to put forward a theory of Wilderness that is basically psychological. Wilderness, in my view, is not something external. It is the way an individual may look at his or her surroundings, a way conditioned by an internally-held archetype. Wilderness, in this view, is the venue of testing where “the hero” achieves a new, higher level of being, mentally, physically, or especially spiritually.
If I am right about this, much of the debate about Wilderness Management that preoccupied me during the first half of the trip is largely irrelevant. However, it was an essential part of my journey towards a deeper understanding of the true meaning of Wilderness. Therefore, I will lay out the arguments against horses and “overbuilt trails” as they were roused in me. Though I now see these as secondary issues, they can lead to the heart of the matter and they are, as Muir said of rattlesnakes and mosquitoes, important in themselves.
In 1868, a tramp came to Yosemite and changed the world. John Muir was 30 that summer. He hadn’t yet done much with his life. Until he was 11, he lived in Dunbar, Scotland, a wild, out-doors loving boy who also studied French, Latin and Greek. Then he spent 11 years in Wisconsin, clearing the forests and working 12 to 16-hour days on his father’s farm. In pre-dawn hours stolen from sleep, he read every book he could borrow and tinkered with machines. He made clocks from pine boards, wonderfully inventive clocks. When he was 22, he hoisted some of his inventions on his back and took them to the Wisconsin State Fair. His skill brought him his first independent job. It also brought him to the attention of Jeanne Carr, who was destined to be the great mentor of his life.
Muir had the unusual ability to conceive in his head intricate machines, all the parts working together towards a desired end. Translated into the world of Nature, this ability gave him his first great insight to the workings of the natural world. It’s only a short step from this to his famous line, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything in the universe.”
His talent with machinery nearly blinded him. A file slipped and pierced his eye. He recovered full sight in a few months. But this accident brought him a revelation. “God has to nearly kill us sometimes, to teach us lessons.”
He would be a wanderer, a tramp, a “poetico-trampo-geologist- bot. and ornith-natural, etc., etc., !-!-!” as he later put it. He would develop and use what Jeanne Carr called his, “eye within the eye, to see in all natural objects the realized ideas of [God’s] mind.” He was converted to Nature, and started on his wanderings.
Like a classical hero, his route led through the waste and wild places of the earth, and through the loneliness and fears of his own mind. Eventually, he arrived in San Francisco. He walked to the Sierra Nevada and discovered at last his place of destiny, his Hidden Valley, his Shambala–Yosemite.
It seems odd that on his first visit he stayed only a week. Odder still that he wrote little about his first impressions. Other early visitors were less reticent.
Lafayette Bunnell, the first non-Indian to see the Valley, wrote, “As I looked, a peculiar exalted sensation seemed to fill my whole being, and I found my eyes in tears with emotion.”
Another early visitor went even further. “We did not so much seem to be seeing from that crag of vision a new scene on the old familiar globe as a new heaven and a new earth into which the creative spirit had just been breathed.”
No doubt Muir was similarly impressed, but one of his first reactions was of fear. It was all too much. He couldn’t take in such grandeur. It was only the following year, herding sheep in the adjacent High Country, that he accepted this as his spiritual home, and a life in the mountains as his calling.
My first trip to Yosemite Valley was on a rainy weekend in April of 1971. My wife and I camped in an ancient canvas tent with 2 x 3 inch wooden poles for a frame and a plastic drop cloth for a floor. The famous cliffs and waterfalls emerged from the clouds, when I could see them through the rain on my glasses. We hiked with a ranger as far as the Vernal Falls bridge. Then we returned to camp, broke our “Unbreakable Plastic” tent stakes out of the mud and went home. It was less than thrilling.
We came back three years later, this time for Washington’s Birthday. My former college roommate Mike came along. I remember huddling, shivering, miserable in our van while Phyllis and Mike cooked over an open fire–I had forgotten the stove and open–fire cooking wasn’t something nice Jewish boys from the Bronx knew how to do. The next day, clear, cold and bright, we walked up to the top of Vernal Falls and forced a broken cork into a bottle of red wine which we shared out with the other brave, hardy souls who had tiptoed up the icy Mist Trail. I hardly noticed the views or the forest or the river, but at least I wasn’t cold or wet. Like Muir, on his first trip, I wasn’t ready for Yosemite or the mountains, not yet.
Two years later, my wife and I returned with Pat, a fellow slave in the vast federal bureaucracy. It was again a cold Washington’s Birthday. This time, heavy winter snows had paved The Valley white. We walked and drove, stopping to take innumerable pictures.
The picture taking helped me. It made me spend so much more time looking at each view, each cliff, each tree. It taught me about light and its qualities. Eventually, because of this weekend, I left the bureaucracy and became a photographer.
That winter weekend, one of the things we did was to walk part way up the Yosemite Falls Trail. We stopped on a rock in a small pool of sunlight amidst the trees for lunch, photography and painting. I left the others sitting there and, alone, I walked higher.
When I was young, I spent a month or two of every summer in the Maine woods, fishing, playing, or just roaming. Perhaps it was childhood associations, but as I walked, as I climbed that trail, I felt increasingly light, increasingly strong, increasingly happy. I wasn’t experiencing The Valley as some great numinous revelation, but I sure felt good. When I returned to my wife and her painting, “Half Dome Through The Trees”, I said, “Let’s take up hiking.”
We did. And cross country skiing, to see the mountains in winter. And adventure travel, trekking in the Himalaya, walking a Buddhist pilgrimage in Japan, climbing mountains in Africa. But always we came back to the Sierra, to Yosemite.
One year, we backpacked from Tuolumne Meadows up the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River. We camped at the head of the great U-shaped canyon and, on a day hike, scrambled up to the rocky basin at the foot of Mt. Lyell. Water filled a hundred little tarns scooped out by the receding glacier. Boulders, carried from above by the ice or deposited by avalanches, dotted the basin like the debris from some monstrous construction project.
Light flooded the scene. Each rock, cliff and ice field exuded a presence. Each was impressively There.
Looking around, I saw three small figures outlined against the sky. Though far away, I could see them perfectly, three tiny humans coming over the ridge. I checked my map and discovered that they were standing on Donohue Pass. They must have stopped briefly to look down at the scene. In a moment they disappeared, heading south over the pass. I looked at the map again. A thin, dotted line led to the edge of the map. A small note in the margin said, “John Muir Trail South, to Mt. Whitney.”
I wondered what was there, off my map. Were the mountains even higher, the views more grand, the meadows yet more green? Was it something I could do, or was I too soft, too fond of a comfortable bed, not sufficiently skilled in the mountains? How long was it? How many days? How many miles? I envied them their adventure, and wondered if I might one day follow them over that pass.