In 1903 President Theodore Roosevelt camped in the Sierra Nevada Mountains on the south side of the Yosemite Valley at a place called Glacier Point. Three years later he signed a bill creating Yosemite National Park (above). It was to be approximately three-quarters of a million acres in protected wilderness. With Roosevelt on the camping trip was naturalist, preservationist, and co-founder of the Sierra Club, John Muir.
I wanted to learn more about John Muir, so I traveled to California. After all, Muir seemed to embody so much of what America offered – he was a Scottish immigrant, grew up on a midwestern farm, and did great things with his life that are still being felt today; he was a driving force behind the establishment of the national parks, in particular Yosemite National Park.
“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”
I read that nearly a year ago in the back of a book about the national parks and I wanted to learn about that man. More importantly, I wanted to learn about the area that influenced him. I wanted to travel to the San Francisco Bay area and the Sierra Nevada Mountains, if only briefly.
California Highway 1 wrapped around the side of Mount Tamalpais, reminding me of the drive I took into New Zealand’s Fiordland National Park over three years ago. The thick fog that descended on the hillside, masking everything not within my immediate vicinity, also gave it the feel of Ireland on steroids; everything was a thick, lush green. This was a welcome sight after my drive over the more than 7,000 foot high Donner Pass on the east side of the state near Reno, Nevada. Snow there was blowing, truckers were chaining up their tires, and cars were being loaded onto flatbed tow trucks after nasty accidents that cleaved off a portion of the vehicle. It was white-knuckled driving at its finest.
None the worse for wear, I arrived at the Muir Woods National Monument; located just a short drive north from San Francisco, it’s a popular daytrip escape from the city.
In 1905 the area that now encompasses the national monument was purchased by Congressman William Kent and his wife for $45,000. Of the 611 acres, he donated 295 to the federal government and in 1908, just two years after he signed the bill for Yosemite National Park, President Theodore Roosevelt declared the area to be a national monument. And at Kent’s request, the area was named after conservationist John Muir.
Under the canopy of the redwoods I stood simply in awe. It is not known if John Muir ever traveled to the area, but he was making one hell of a first impression on me nonetheless. Trees which live upwards of 3,000 years and have been on the planet for more than 100 million years towered over me as they reached for the heavens.
I strained my eyes looking up. Occasionally the tops weren’t visible as they were blanketed in a fog that actually helps them survive the dry summers. It settled down to me on a boardwalk below as a fine mist. It wasn’t wet, but the moisture hung in the air creating an otherworldly atmosphere I had yet to experience.
I could not move. I was transfixed. I was in love. For the first time in my life I wanted to walk right up and hug a tree out of sheer and indescribable joy. And as I walked amongst them, deeper into the forest so only the voices of the most interested could be heard, I almost felt like weeping. While I was in a state of euphoria, I was also amazingly saddened because this area, according to biologists, once held over two million acres of these magnificent redwoods. And now all that survives is this small grouping of trees which are 260 feet in height – the tallest being greater than the Statue of Liberty at 375 feet tall – at an age of 1,200 years old; only middle-aged in comparison.
I plunged deeper into the forest because I did not want to stop exploring. But, time was running short and I needed to continue to San Francisco. I cursed myself for booking a hotel in advance. It seemed the smart thing to do so I wasn’t wandering the streets of San Francisco late into the night looking for a place to stay. In hindsight, I would have preferred a place near the Muir Woods so I could have seen it in more detail for another day.
The Golden Gate Bridge was blanketed in fog like the forest and hills to the north of San Francisco. I was halfway across the bridge before I realized I was on it. The fog was so dense that all I could see were the cables disappearing into the gray sky. It was enchanting and mysterious, as I had the surreal feeling I was on a road to nowhere.
And then I paid the $6 cash toll.
Staring out at the Golden Gate Bridge, I stood next to Fort Point Historic Site. I was disappointed it was only open on the weekends and felt a bit cheated I could only see it from the outside. I enjoyed the views, the bridge spookily lost in the fog, but also wanted more. I wanted to explore the inside of the old Civil War fort which helped protect the harbor from both international and Confederate attack.
I walked back along the bay and through the Presidio of San Francisco toward my car, which was parked at the Warming Hut – a small souvenir and coffee shop where rangers are stationed to offer information to lost tourists like myself. Well, I wasn’t lost at that time, but I was only hours before as I drove the winding maze of streets trying to find my way to Fort Point and the base of the Golden Gate Bridge. It was easier said than done, since my map was as useful as a paper napkin.
I paused momentarily to listen to a seal barking near the fishing dock by the Warming Hut. I could not see it from the rocky beach, though, so I climbed into my car and drove off. Two days later I was in the town of Martinez in the east bay area. It was here that I would tour John Muir’s home away from Yosemite and see what family life was like at what is now the John Muir National Historic Site.
I felt like a welcomed guest as I approached the home, which sat atop a hill surrounded by small orchards bearing pears, apricots, walnuts, cherries and other fruits and nuts. Muir married into the fruit ranching business in 1880 and was able to support his wife and two daughters for the rest of his life from five years of work on the 2,600 acres he managed in the area. Later, after handing off the operation, John Muir would write the notes and books that would make him famous. He did this in his “scribble den.”
Quietly I walked through the home, exploring its various rooms, so as not to disturb a young school group who was on a field trip. I literally bumped into a ranger who was walking into the scribble den (above) from Muir’s study annex. Apparently I had arrived just in time to experience a very rare opportunity that is likely not to happen again in my lifetime. I picked the one day to visit John Muir’s home and at the exact time when rangers and curatorial staff would be photographing his wife’s, Louisa’s, 1880 wedding dress.
The ranger explained to me that the dress was so fragile that they were actually worried it would fall apart while it hung on the dressing mannequin. So, in order to preserve it and document its beauty, the group delicately positioned and photographed the dress. It was a patient and laborious process that I felt priviledged to witness, knowing full well that it would likely not be put on public display ever again.
Since I was the only one in the house other than the school group, I was allowed to watch the process and take my own photographs. The time I had felt like both an eternity and the blink of an eye, since I knew the door would be shut on me as soon as the school group approached. So I savored my time as best I could, knowing this was a truly personal glimpse into John Muir’s life; it was at this moment that I was able to connect with a friend I had only know before in words.
I said my good-byes to my new friend and left to explore the orchards and nearby Martinez Adobe house. Wanda, Muir’s eldest daughter, lived in the house with her husband, but it was initially built and owned as part of a 17,000 acre Spanish land grant which stretched all the way to the shore of San Francisco Bay, nearly eight miles away.
After a short stop in the adobe, I began to feel the urge and realized, just like John Muir, “the mountains are calling and I must go.” It was time for me to continue my drive east to what John Muir likened as a cathedral. It was time to go to his other home, Yosemite National Park.