I fell in love with our national parks when I was twelve after visiting the Grand Canyon and Petrified Forest. Over the years, my family and I made repeat visits to many of the parks at different seasons of the year. All three of my daughters worked at the parks during their college years. Our youngest, Cory, returned from Glacier vowing never to buy clothes she couldn’t hike in a for a few miles. She has changed her position on that, though.
John Muir emigrated from Scotland to New England in the late nineteenth century. He had a religious upbringing, began his working life as a mechanic where he lost an eye, and went to California where he explored many of the country’s most beautiful areas, wrote about them, originated the Sierra Club, and was a prime mover in establishing out national parks. A renowned author, he attracted the attention of President Theodore Roosevelt and encouraged him to add more parks for the nation’s enjoyment. Yellowstone was the first, Yosemite the second.
Two years ago, I began working on National Parks. It was a dystopian satire about what happens when an inept Congress tries to bail out a bankrupt country by selling our national parks to the highest bidders.
I wanted to include a couple of chapters about John Muir—to establish context for development of our national treasure. One was a carefully researched retelling of a three-day trip to Yosemite where Muir guided Roosevelt through the heights and valley and talked about his vision for the country’s use of its natural splendors.
Alas, my editor thought the chapter detracted from the rest of the novel—and it was cut.
Now I have my blog, where I can recycle that chapter. It is, after all, one of my favorites. I hope the three and a half people who read this will agree. I copied the writing style of the period, gleaned from reading newspaper reports of the visit. It’s a bit ornate, but it seems that’s the way people talked back then. Here it is.
Forest ranger Leonard unstrapped the waxed canvas tarp covering the wool blankets secured to the pack mule’s back and shouldered the pile, carrying it across the campground to the place designated as the President’s sleeping area. Roosevelt rejected any notion of sleeping in a tent.
“It promises to be a fine clear night,” the President said. “I do not want to deny myself the pleasure of sleeping in the darkening aisles of this great Sequoia grove, surrounded by these majestic trunks, beautiful in color and symmetry, rising round us like the pillars of a mightier cathedral than ever was conceived even by the fervor of the Middle Ages.”
The two rangers, more accustomed to John Muir’s simple but rhapsodic, sometimes biblical, descriptions of his mountain surroundings, were overwhelmed by the President’s well-honed oratorical style. They had read in the newspapers that the President was renowned for talking – and finding it very difficult to stop. They exchanged smiles in the dusk, a silent comment on Roosevelt’s “high falutin’” language, and continued their work. They were honored that Muir selected them to guide President Roosevelt on his first visit to Yosemite by the Merced River but, now that they were in the presence of the hero of San Juan Hill, they became somewhat cowed.
Ranger Leonard prepared the President’s sleeping arrangements: forty thicknesses of wool heaped on boughs of sequoia redolent of pitch. A thick Indian blanket, reminiscent of the tribes that formerly inhabited the splendid valley, covered the top of his bed and a roll of cotton covered wool was his pillow. The rangers hitched the riding mules thirty yards away, downwind of the sleeping area. A jug of cold water and a basin stood nearby. The President, like the other three in the campground, used the great outdoors as his bathroom.
They arrived at the grove, located at the southernmost leg of the park, in late afternoon, and the President and Muir walked among the giant trees, unsullied by the commercial interests seen in the valley. Leonard and Ranger Leidig, who was a cook as well as guide, set up the first night’s site to accommodate the different tastes of the two famous guests. Muir could be happy sleeping under a single blanket on a glacier, pillowing his head in the crook of his arm. Roosevelt was accustomed to the privileges of an Army officer, with orderlies available to tend to his needs. He enjoyed roughing it, but savored some of the comforts of home.
Muir asked Leidig to accompany them because of his reputation as an excellent wilderness chef. He specialized in creating fine meals using food items found in their surroundings — mushrooms, roots, herbs, and wild vegetables, along with numerous small furry creatures and fish that inhabited the coursing waters of the valley. On this excursion, however, that skill would not be needed. Leidig and Leonard managed two pack mules weighed down with all manner of supplies and provisions to avoid any discomforts on their three-day trip.
As Roosevelt and Muir sat on logs facing a huge fire, Leidig added mysterious ingredients to a stew pot suspended from a chain over burning timbers. At last light, the travelers feasted on venison stew, sourdough bread, boiled okra, and red wine from one of the new vineyards in the Russian River valley.
“Delicious, “said the President. “Just delicious! This is camp food at its best.”
President Roosevelt removed his spectacles and polished them with the bandana he customarily wore around his neck. Muir noticed the indentations on the bridge of his nose where the pince-nez fitted. Polishing and speaking as though to himself, the President said,
“Cursed eyesight! Without my spectacles, I can’t even make out my own children. Now, you, Muir are simply a blur and the arboreal cathedral in which we sit is a dark green expanse.”
He replaced his glasses and smiled, toothy grin caught in the firelight. Ranger Leidig poured a bit more wine into the tin cups Muir and the President held, and the men sat quietly, absorbing the silky stillness of the giant trees, full and content. When the moment passed, Muir began a poetic inventory of their surroundings, rolling out the words in a soft scotch burr that made them lovelier and engaging.
Muir had promised himself to seize the opportunity of the President’s visit to do some forest good in talking around the campfire. However, it seemed too soon to remind his guest of his concerns about the future of Yosemite. He had a few more days to assess the President’s mood, interests, and inclinations. Meanwhile, he would share with Roosevelt his joy of the mountains and the valley stretching out to the north, sprinkled with some of the facts he had already learned fascinated the man smiling at him as he finished the wine in his cup.
The founder of the Sierra Club stretched his slender frame and rubbed a hand across his chin, combing his scraggly foot long white beard. The lower hairs of his untrimmed mustache moved as he spoke.
“The monster just behind us to your right is the Grizzly Giant, and the rangers say it is the largest tree in the park. Leonard here would have us believe it is the largest tree in the country but there are men in Oregon who challenge that notion. However, we are sure the sequoia is two hundred and ten feet tall, a true skyscraper, with a circumference of ninety-two feet. Professor Savage studied many of these trees and calculates the Grizzly Giant to be at least nineteen hundred and probably twenty-four hundred years old.”
The President whistled.
“Just think of it—a tree that was here when the son of our dear Lord was born. A Methuselah tree. We must examine it more closely in the morning, Muir.”
It was close to ten—time to end a long day. They found their blankets and rustic pillows and quickly fell into the arms of Morpheus.
Looking refreshed, the President woke before seven to the smell of coffee prepared by ranger Leidig. Muir soon joined him and suggested the day’s itinerary.
“I propose we ride north up the Wawona Road and follow the road toward Glacier Point to Sentinel Dome. At about eight thousand feet, it lies on the south wall of the Yosemite Valley and offers a complete view of the valley and all surrounding countryside. I understand there are some patches of snow along the way. Do you think that would impede us, Leonard?”
The ranger gave the question grave consideration.
“A week ago, there were patches of eight-foot deep snow along the way—nothing one couldn’t get around. There have been snow squalls since then, but our mules can manage.”
“I see only blue skies and cumulus clouds,’ said the President. “Let me first partake of this excellent meal that Leidig is preparing and I will be eager to ride to the crest of the valley.”
He moved toward the campfire where Leidig was pouring batter onto an iron skillet.
“Flapjacks! My morning is complete. Delightful!”
They rode along the southern crest of the valley, Roosevelt now completely attuned to his riding mule, but Muir still sitting stiffly. It occurred to Roosevelt that this man of the mountains favored shanks mare, preferring the security of his own legs and the ability to wander where horses and mules could not go. Muir looked frail, he thought, but he was all sinew and muscle, propelled by inner fires fed by the glories of nature and belief in his God.
Like many in the nation, the President had read The National Parks, in which Muir made the case for the establishment and preservation of the glorious places found in his adopted country. He wrote “Everybody needs beauty…places to play and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike.” That sentiment struck a responsive chord in Roosevelt and prompted him to seek out this passionate naturalist.
Together they rode close to the rim of the valley’s crest, rising gradually from Mariposa Grove, past creeks, and meadows, following the trail selected by the rangers. The President asked Muir many questions that engendered careful answers and many stops along the way. Muir pointed out the numerous peaks that rose to the north and east, naming each one and telling little stories about his personal experiences in their vicinity. Roosevelt was a good listener and seemed to absorb Muir’s information eagerly. Whereas the day before he had seemed tired and worried, today he was refreshed, cheered by the solitude, happy to be riding toward a new adventure. Leonard through he heard the President humming a little tune as he turned his mule’s head eastward and spurred him to a canter up the trail.
By midafternoon striated clouds began to obscure the crystalline skies above the southern crest of the valley. Ranger Leonard watched the movement of the clouds and sniffed the air.
“Be snowin’ before nightfall,” he offered, and the President released a happy grunt.
Muir was beginning to understand this complicated man, realizing he thrived on challenges. The prospect of braving a spring snowfall in the Yosemite was like offering antelope meat to a lion. Roosevelt jammed his faded campaign hat tightly on his head and searched the horizon, staring across the valley below at Yosemite Point and North Dome. Ominous clouds were now apparent in the northwest, gray half-mile wide boulders rolling across the darkening sky toward the valley. The President and Muir guided their mounts around five-foot-deep patches of snow from the last storm, prevalent mostly in the lee of south facing slopes. The President reached down to collect a handful of crusty snow, squeezed it into a ball and threw it at a nearby evergreen, dislodging a western grey squirrel that scolded its tormentor. Moments later large fluffy snowflakes began to float over the travelers, swiftly turning into wind driven pellets that found their way into openings in their clothes. Muir’s beard attracted the flakes like bees to nectar; it was soon whiter than the brim of the President’s hat.
They plodded through the snow for two hours until Leonard announced they had reached their camp for the night—a spot near Sentinel Dome, a mile or so from Glacier Point, that offered a view of the entire valley and its surrounding points and domes. As they arrived, the storm abated, revealing five inches of virgin snow covering not only their vantage point, but the valley below as well. In the dimming light, the Merced River flowed between goose down banks, echoing the darkness of the surrounding forests.
The President and Muir dismounted and ranger Leonard led their mules to a sheltered area and fed them grain and hay collected from their packs. The two rangers proceeded to build a bonfire from seasoned wood collected and delivered to the campsite earlier. Soon flames from the fire cut through the dusky gloom and lit the cooking area and the fallen log where the two leaders sat. Sporadic snow showers filled the evening air, as the first aroma of the camp meal began to fill the illuminated circle.
Roosevelt noticed that ranger Leonard was beginning to remove their tents from the pack mules.
“Hold on, Leonard! I read that Mr. Muir cured an illness sleeping on a glacier in Alaska, and I intend to follow his example tonight. Put up a simple tarp in those trees and I will sleep in the open, in the fresh air, blankets on the snow. I intend to be refreshed by the wonder of the mountains. What do you say, Muir? Will you join me?”
Muir stretched his lanky body and nodded agreement. He seemed indifferent to his sleeping arrangements. Perhaps he was assessing whether the right time had come to discuss the future of this park with the President. Apparently, not. Roosevelt turned to rummage in his pack and extracted a razor, soap and brush, and a polished steel mirror, which he propped up on a tree limb. By the golden, flickering light of the bonfire, he shaved away his two-day beard, carefully trimming around the walrus moustache he cultivated. Finished, he rubbed his cheeks pink with handfuls of snow to remove the remnants of soap. He grinned as Leidig announced that supper was ready and strode to the cook table. Leidig held out a tin plate heaped with food.
“Ambrosia!” he exclaimed. “There is nothing on earth better that a meal by the campfire to share with good fellows.”
He pointed his fork at ranger Leidig.
“Mark me, Leidig. You are better than the chef at the Palace Hotel.”
Leidig joined the others to eat their evening meal as Leonard added more wood to the bonfire. The flames burnished their faces, erasing lines of care in flattering light. Even dour Muir looked almost youthful as he quizzed the President about the Palace Hotel, thinking he might visit it on his next trip to San Francisco. Roosevelt must have read Johnson’s account of his first meeting with Muir in a similar hotel.
“Johnson says that the twists and turns of hotel corridors confuse you, that you had to call out to him to locate yourself when you first met.”
Muir smiled at the recollection.
“That is so. But you should not be surprised that I am more at home among mountains divinely designed that in manmade warrens festooned with garish decoration. I think you understand me, happy to plow through snowfall and enjoy battle with the elements, at play in nature. You are a sensible man, Mr. President.”
Roosevelt patted his new friend on the shoulder.
“I have read and reread The National Parks, and agree with most of your arguments there, of which we will talk more tomorrow. But now, I plan to enjoy a blissful night’s sleep, here, in Yosemite, under the stars.”
He walked to the place ranger Leonard prepared—thick layers of wool on a bed of snow laid close under a yellow tarp. Roosevelt crawled under blankets, bade the others goodnight, and began to produce muffled snores within minutes. Muir stood for a while by the embers of the bonfire, looking at the mountains and stars, thinking about the morrow.
Leonard had promised an early start the following morning, and awakened Roosevelt and Muir with cups of hot coffee at five thirty in the morning. Alpen glow showed crimson on some western peaks, disclosing a cloudless sky and the assurance of a fine morning. The two leaders stood holding their warm cups near the southern ridge of the valley, turning to observe the unobstructed view. Roosevelt expressed surprise that they were looking down at Glacier Point, and Muir reminded him that the top of the point was almost a thousand feet lower than Sentinel Dome. Chill breaths of wind from the valley turned them to the cook table where Leidig offered another spectacular breakfast that caused the President to brush crumbs from his mustache.
They broke camp a few minutes after six as the first rays of sun began to penetrate mists rising from the Merced River in the valley below. From their vantage points on mule back, as they descended to the valley, the degradation caused by grazing, logging, and commercial activities was clearly apparent. The President stopped his mount to look at the muddy tributaries to the Merced, runoff from overgrazed and unstable slopes, and the patchwork of bare ground amid forest groves, calling attention to the practice of clear cutting. The hotel, surrounded by gimcrack cabins and unattractive outbuildings, seemed out of place among the classic monoliths guarding the valley. They could see that guests were already hanging over the porch rails, hoping to catch a glimpse of the President.
Leonard rode up next to the President.
“Leidig and I plan to skirt the hotel on the way to our next camp at Bridalveil Meadow. You don’t mind riding through a bit of the river do you, sir?”
He certainly did not! Roosevelt prodded his mule to follow the rangers into a cut that ran behind the hotel and through the river. The watchers at the hotel were looking in the other direction. The two leaders rode side by side through the icy waters of the Merced and directed their mounts eastward to the great meadow.
Late that afternoon they settled at the edge of the meadow, listening to the sounds of field and forest. Roosevelt, with Leonard’s help, was delighted to decipher bird songs and asked Muir which birds he favored. Muir confessed he cared little about birds or birdsongs, noticing only some that were very conspicuous, like water ouzels. Roosevelt hid his surprise that the man of the mountains, this naturalist, was blind to that species of God’s creations. He smiled at Muir and said,
“Ah, water ouzels—they are a particular favorite of mine too. “
Leidig punctuated the day’s delights of sights in the valley floor by opening a bottle of wine for the two guests. They sat on canvas chairs, Muir with his legs stretched out toward the western peaks, the President cross-legged, leaning forward, signaling his eagerness to begin the conversation Muir longed for.
“In The National Parks, you object to the fact that the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove remain under the control of the State of California, not subject to federal control like the rest of this great wilderness that surrounds the valley. Please tell me more about your concerns.”
Muir placed his hands on his knees and gazed across the great meadow in front of them before he answered.
“It is now more than thirty years since I walked to this place for the first time, and it is by far the grandest of all the special temples of nature I was ever permitted to enter. Through the years, I have revered this valley, but have watched commercial interests, misguided worldlings, abuse and debase it. Ignorance of the outcome of their greedy endeavors does not excuse the harm they have done to these mountains, this valley.”
He turned toward Roosevelt, his beard burnished by the sun’s low angle, passion raising the pitch of his voice.
“Although the Cavalry stationed here to manage the federal areas of the park has managed to eliminate the problem of sheep grazing, they cannot intervene to ease the worsening condition of Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove. You saw for yourself today the results of overgrazing by the hoofed locusts permitted to forage the valley, and the ugliness of rampant deforestation. California has not, and will not, protect this valley. No sensible person, with a God given appreciation of the gifts of nature, can permit this to continue.”
Muir warmed to his sermon, describing not only the specific acts and areas of abuse, but also how the people who derived emotional and physical sustenance from the mountains and valleys felt about their treatment at the hands of thoughtless debasers. While he was at it, he offered other places of natural wonder for the President’s consideration.
Roosevelt, who by now was convinced of the verity of Muir’s vision, listened carefully, produced a leather-bound journal from a breast pocket, and took notes. The men talked for more than two hours, and the rangers waited patiently. They shared Muir’s dream, but were nonetheless mesmerized by his passion and his arguments. Long shadows blued the heather tones of the meadow when Muir decided he could make no better case to his robust companion. He stood to face the last glow of a setting sun, and Roosevelt joined him, grasping Muir’s arm, muttering words that made it seem that his vision would be validated. The President enjoyed another blissful night of rest in the beautiful valley.
The next day, the two leaders returned to business, with a ceremonial gathering at the hotel, and some of the pomp and circumstance that surrounds high office. Roosevelt confirmed to a group of reporters gathered to interview him that
“This is one day of my life I will always remember with pleasure. Just think of where I was—up there amid the pines and silver firs, in the Sierran solitude, in a snowstorm, too, and without a tent. I passed one of the most pleasant nights of my life. It was so reviving to be so close to nature in this magnificent forest.”
Muir, standing close to the President, was encouraged by Roosevelt’s obvious appreciation for the beauty and solitude he found during the past three days. Soon the reporters asked the naturalist for his comments about their adventure. Muir praised the President’s endurance and good nature, and then used the opportunity to lecture the reporters about the importance of conservation and preservation. They soon turned back to the President, who was preparing to ride to the coach that would carry him to his official railway car west of Yosemite.
Muir walked over the bridge across the Merced River, meaning to bid the President farewell as he passed on horseback. Instead, Roosevelt alighted, strode over to Muir, and clasped his hand, a huge smile on his face.
“Muir,” he said, “of all the people in the world, you are the one with whom it was best worthwhile thus to see the Yosemite. We will continue this business together.”
Still holding Muir’s hand, he paused for a long moment, saluted his new friend, and remounted. The crowd of visitors cheered their popular leader as he passed by them on his way to the coach.
In 1906, Roosevelt signed a bill that took control of the Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove away from California and returned it to the federal government. The development of America’s National parks was on sound footing.
Great Falls of the Yellowstone