“Only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness. All other travel is mere dust and hotels and baggage and chatter.” - Letter to wife Louie, July 1888, Life and Letters of John Muir 1924
For seminal naturalist and author John Muir, “The more savage and chilly and storm-chafed the mountains, the finer the glow on their faces.” The words might describe the man himself who cared so little for creature comforts and found such joy in the wild world. Cold, avalanche and animals untamed were but opportunities to witness the power of nature. Instead of shrinking from its blast, Muir found in the wind a symphony and “an exhilaration of motion.” His idea of preparing for a trip was to “throw some tea and bread in an old sack and jump over the back fence.”
Muir went out to meet nature with a boldness impressively unmatched by the modern outdoorsman, he who relied on hydration packs, GPSs, and battery-warmed overcoats. Compelled to scrabble his way up the sheer face of an ice cliff or position himself behind a waterfall on a ledge that would scarcely hold a teacup, Muir put himself in places that no other person had been. The explorer didn’t photograph canyon walls – he felt them.
It was by untold hours of observation, and making use of every sense that Muir developed his belief that glaciers formed Yosemite. If the man didn’t fear nature at its most violent, neither did he cower before academic strongholds. While credentialed scientists poked fun at his amateur findings, Muir held fast to his convictions and was ultimately proved right.
We don’t really know what called Muir to the wild places. His travels didn’t get him a stamp on his National Park Service passport folder, but we do know there was scarcely anything that could keep him from mystery and the journey.
Ingenious inventor and self-taught engineer, he had no trouble making money managing his family ranch. But he did struggle to stay put. Not even the love of a wife and two daughters could keep him home. His own wife Louie insisted “A ranch that needs…the sacrifice of a noble life or work, ought to be flung away.” And off her husband went to climb Mt. Shasta when climbing season was past. Time and again he was drawn to Alaska and the wonders of Glacier Bay, risking freezing or falling to get close. Once, paddling between two masses of ice, he noticed the passage narrowing and barely slipped the canoe out of the channel before the two icebergs came together with crushing force.
Although he achieved it, it wasn’t literary fame that drove John Muir’s exploration. While he couldn’t help but record the color and music of the “ice-land prairie” or “darkling woods“ in journals or letters to family and friends, writing for publication was a chore. Able to tell stories worthy of the name and with descriptive powers a travel writer would walk on coals for, Muir had to be prodded to write for the Overland or Atlantic Monthly. As he realized the power to persuade, he was more willing to do the work.
Muir wasn’t afraid to go toe to toe with the mayor of San Francisco, or Gifford Pinchot, head of the US Forest Service. Other important men were more supportive. He camped for several days with a kindred adventurer – President Theodore Roosevelt. Another luminary, Ralph Waldo Emerson, was a less hardy soul, but one who ranked high on Muir’s list of friends. It was on railroad tycoon E.H. Harriman’s dime that Muir travelled to Europe and Australia.
The image of the mountain man with wild beard isn’t wrong. Muir would be in his seventh decade before he ever dressed in a tuxedo and for the first meeting with his wife-to-be’s family, he showed up looking exactly like he’d come 250 miles along the coast of California in a leaky boat. He shrugged it off when told that gathering plants and flowers wasn’t a man’s work.
What was no doubt harder to ignore was the influence of his father. Daniel Muir told his son the best thing he could do with the book he was writing was to burn it. John’s father, a severely religious man, administered thrashings for offenses real or imagined. Hard work and heavy responsibility had its payoff, though. Physical toughness, resourcefulness, the perseverance to coax crops out of worn-out soil equipped John for his calling. Looking back, Muir marveled that he hadn’t suffered injury or death while climbing amid the ruins of Dunbar Castle or sneaking out at night to scamper about on the steep slate roof of the house.
A familiar story is told of John Muir’s climbing a fir tree and riding it mechanical bull style while it whipped and swayed in a windstorm. What pity he would have for us who grumble and run for cover instead of lifting our faces to the rain.