John Muir’s Yosemite

The father of the conservation movement found his calling on a visit to the California wilderness

“Everybody needs beauty... places to play and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike,” wrote Muir (c. 1902). (Corbis)
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The naturalist John Muir is so closely associated with Yosemite National Park—after all, he helped draw up its proposed boundaries in 1889, wrote the magazine articles that led to its creation in 1890 and co-founded the Sierra Club in 1892 to protect it—that you'd think his first shelter there would be well marked. But only park historians and a few Muir devotees even know where the little log cabin was, just yards from the Yosemite Falls Trail. Maybe that's not such a bad thing, for here one can experience the Yosemite that inspired Muir. The crisp summer morning that I was guided to the site, the mountain air was perfumed with ponderosa and cedar; jays, larks and ground squirrels gamboled about. And every turn offered picture-postcard views of the valley's soaring granite cliffs, so majestic that early visitors compared them to the walls of Gothic cathedrals. No wonder many 19th-century travelers who visited Yosemite saw it as a new Eden.

Leading me through the forest was Bonnie Gisel, curator of the Sierra Club's LeConte Memorial Lodge and the author of several books on Muir. "Yosemite Valley was the ultimate pilgrimage site for Victorian Americans," Gisel said. "Here was the absolute manifestation of the divine, where they could celebrate God in nature." We were in a cool, shady grotto filled with bracken fern and milkweed, as picturesque a place as fans of the drifter who would become America's most influential conservationist might wish. Although no structure remains, we know from Muir's diaries and letters that he built the one-room cabin from pine and cedar with his friend Harry Randall, and that he diverted nearby Yosemite Creek to run beneath its floor. "Muir loved the sound of water," Gisel explained. Plants grew through the floorboards; he wove the threads of two ferns into what he called an "ornamental arch" over his writing desk. And he slept on sheepskin blankets over cedar branches. "Muir wrote about frogs chirping under the floors as he slept," Gisel said. "It was like living in a greenhouse."

Today, Muir has become such an icon that it's hard to remember that he was ever a living human being, let alone a wide-eyed and adventurous young man—a Gilded Age flower child. Even at the Yosemite Visitor Center, he's depicted in a life-size bronze statue as a wizened prophet with a Methuselah beard. In a nearby museum, his battered tin cup and the traced outline of his foot are displayed like religious relics. And his pithy inspirational quotes—"Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine into trees"—are everywhere. But all this hero worship risks obscuring the real story of the man and his achievements.

"There are an amazing number of misconceptions about John Muir," says Scott Gediman, the park's public affairs officer. "People think he discovered Yosemite or started the national park system. Others assume he lived here all his life." In fact, says Gediman, Muir lived in Yosemite off and on for only a short but intense period from 1868 to 1874, an experience that transformed him into a successor to Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Later in life, Muir would return to Yosemite on shorter trips, burdened with his own celebrity and the responsibilities of family and work. But it was during the happy period of his relative youth, when he was free to amble around Yosemite, that Muir's ideas were shaped. Some of his most famous adventures, recounted in his books The Yosemite and Our National Parks, were from this time.

"As a young man, Muir felt he was a student in what he called the ‘University of the Wilderness,'" Gisel said. "Yosemite was his graduate course. This is where he decided who he was, what he wanted to say and how he was going to say it."

When he first strode into Yosemite in the spring of 1868, Muir was a scruffy Midwestern vagabond wandering the wilderness fringes of post-bellum America, taking odd jobs where he could. In retrospect, visiting Yosemite might seem an inevitable stop on his life's journey. But his later recollections reveal a young man plagued with self-doubt and uncertainty, often lonely and confused about the future. "I was tormented with soul hunger," he wrote of his meandering youth. "I was on the world. But was I in it?"

John Muir was born in Dunbar, Scotland, in 1838, the eldest son of a Calvinist shopkeeper father. When John was 11, the family immigrated to the United States, to homestead near Portage, Wisconsin. Though his days were consumed with farm work, he was a voracious reader. By his mid-20s, Muir seemed to have a career as an inventor ahead of him. His gadgets included an "early-rising bed," which raised the sleeper to an upright position, and a clock made in the shape of a scythe, to signify the advance of Father Time. But after being nearly blinded in a factory mishap in 1867, Muir decided to devote his life to studying the beauties of Creation. With almost no money and already sporting the full beard that would become his trademark, he set off on a 1,000-mile walk from Kentucky to Florida, intending to continue to South America to see the Amazon. But a bout of malaria in Florida's Cedar Key forced a change in plans. He sailed to San Francisco via Panama, intending to stay only a short time.

Muir would later famously, and perhaps apocryphally, recall that after hopping off the boat in San Francisco on March 28, 1868, he asked a carpenter on the street the quickest way out of the chaotic city. "Where do you want to go?" the carpenter replied, and Muir responded, "Anywhere that is wild." Muir started walking east.


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