On the occasion of Muir's 170th Birthday, I selected an excerpt from The Life and Letters of John Muir, by William Frederic Badè [Houghton Mifflin Company, 1924], Chapter VI, “Following the Sheep—1868-1869,” describing some of Muir's adventures after first arriving in California in 1868 at the age of 29–30. Muir gloried in the [then] beauty of California and described, with some humor, some adventures with an old gun and a bear.
Richard A. Cellarius, Ph.D.
The Nebraska arrived at San Francisco, March 27th, and Muir lost no time there after he set foot on land. To his friends he was accustomed to relate, touches of humor, how he met on the street, the morning after debarkation, a man with a kit of carpenter's tools on his shoulders. When he inquired of him "the nearest way out of town to the wild part of the State," the man set down his tools in evident astonishment and asked, "where do you wish to go?" "Anywhere that's wild" was Muir's reply, and he was directed to the Oakland Ferry with the remark that that would be as good a way out of town as any.
On shipboard Muir had made the acquaintanceship of a young Englishman by the name of Chilwell, "a most amusing and faithful companion," who eagerly embraced the opportunity to visit Yosemite Valley with him. In those days the usual route to Yosemite was by river steamer to Stockton, thence by stage to Coulterville or Mariposa, and the remainder of way over the mountains on horseback. But Muir disdained this "orthodox route," for "we had plenty of time," he said, "and proposed drifting leisurely mountain ward by the Santa Clara Valley, Pacheco Pass, and the San Joaquin Valley, and thence to Yosemite by any road that we chanced to find; enjoying the flowers and light; camping out in our blankets wherever overtaken by night and paying very little compliance to roads or times."
In his autobiographical manuscript Muir passes in a few sentences over the first part of this trip, intending according to his penciled directions to fill in from a description already written. This must refer to the detailed narrative published in Old and New in 1872, from which we excerpt the paragraphs descriptive of his walk as far as the top of the Pacheco Pass.
We crossed the bay by the Oakland Ferry and proceeded up the Santa Clara valley to San Jose. This is one of the most fertile of the many small valleys of the coast; its rich bottoms are filled with wheat-fields, and orchards, and vineyards, and alfalfa meadows.
It was now spring-time, and the weather was the best we ever enjoyed. Larks and streams sang everywhere; the sky was cloudless, and the whole valley was a lake of light. The atmosphere was spicy and exhilarating, my companion acknowledging over his national prejudices that it was the best he ever breathed--more deliciously fragrant than that which streamed over the hawthorn hedges of England. This San Jose sky was not simply pure and bright, and mixed with plenty of well-tempered sunshine, but it possessed a positive flavor, a taste that thrilled throughout every tissue of the body. Every inspiration yielded a well-defined piece of pleasure that awakened thousands of new palates everywhere. Both my companion and myself had lived on common air for nearly thirty years, and never before this discovered that our bodies contained such multitudes of palates, or that this mortal flesh, so little valued by philosophers and teachers, was possessed of so vast a capacity for happiness.
We were new creatures, born again; and truly not until this time were we fairly conscious that we were born at all. Never more, thought I as we strode forward at faster speed, never more shall I sentimentalize about getting free from the flesh, for it is steeped like a sponge in immortal pleasure.
The foothills of the valley are in near view all the way to Gilroy, those of the Monte Diablo range on our left, those of Santa Cruz on our right; they are smooth and flowing, and come down to the bottom levels in curves of most surpassing beauty. They are covered with flowers growing close together in cloud-shaped companies, acres and hillsides in size, white, purple, and yellow, separate, yet blending like the hills upon which they grow. . . .
The Pacheco Pass was scarcely less enchanting than the valley. It resounded with crystal waters, and the loud shouts of thousands of quails. The California quail is a little larger than the Bob White; not quite so plump in form. The male has a tall, slender crest, wider at top than bottom, which he can hold straight up, or droop backward on his neck, or forward over his bill, at pleasure; and, instead of "Bob White," he shouts "pe-check-a," bearing down with a stiff, obstinate emphasis on check." Through a considerable portion of the pass the road bends and mazes along the groves of a stream, or down in its pebbly bed, leading one now deep in the shadows of dogwoods and alders, then out in the light, through dry chaparral, over green carex meadow banked with violets and ferns, and dry, plantless flood-beds of gravel and sand.
We found ferns in abundance in the pass . . . Also in this rich garden pass we gathered many fine grasses and carices, and brilliant penstemons, azure and scarlet, and mints and lilies, and scores of others, strangers to us, but beautiful and pure as ever enjoyed the sun or shade of a mountain home.
At this point Muir's unpublished memoirs resume the thread of the narrative as follows:
At the top of the Pass I obtained my first view of the San Joaquin plain and the glorious Sierra Nevada. Looking down from a height of fifteen hundred feet, there, extending north and south as far as I could see lay a vast level flower garden, smooch and level like a lake of gold--the floweriest part of the world I had yet seen. From the eastern margin of the golden plain arose the white Sierra. At the base ran a belt of gently sloping purplish foothills lightly dotted with oaks, above that a broad dark zone of coniferous forests and above is forest zone arose the lofty mountain peaks, clad in snow. The atmosphere was so clear that the nearest of the mountain peaks on the axis of range were at a distance of more than one hundred and fifty miles, they seemed to be at just the right distance to be seen broadly in their relations to one another, marshaled in glorious ranks and groups, their snowy robes smooch and bright that it seemed impossible for a man to walk across the open folds without being seen, even at this distance. Perhaps more than three hundred miles of the range was comprehended in this one view.
Descending the pass and wading out into the bed of golden compost five hundred miles long by forty or fifty wide, I found that the average depth of the vegetation was over knee deep, and the flowers were so crowded together that in walking through the midst of them and over them more than a hundred were pressed down beneath the foot at every step. The yellow these compositae, both of the ray and disc flowers, is extremely deep a rich and bossy, and exceeds the purple of all the others in superficial quantity forty or fifty times their whole amount. But to an observer who first looks downward, then takes a wider and wider view, the yellow gradually fade and purple predominates, because nearly all of the purple flowers are taller, In depth, the purple stratum is about ten or twelve inches, the yellow seven or eight, and down in the shade, out of sight, is another stratum of purple, one inch in depth, for the ground forests of mosses are there, with purple stems, and purple cups. The color beauty of these mosses, at least in mass, was not made for human eyes, nor for the wild horses that inhabit these plains, nor the antelopes, but perhaps the little creatures enjoy their own beauty, and perhaps the insects that dwell in these forests and climb their shining columns enjoy it. But we know that however faint, and however shaded' no part of it is lost, for all color is received into the eyes of God.
Crossing this greatest of flower gardens and the San Joaquin River at Hill's Ferry, we followed the Merced River, which I knew drained Yosemite Valley, and ascended the foothills from Snelling by way of Coulterville. We had several accidents and adventures. At the little mining town of Coulterville we bought flour and tea and made inquiries about roads and trails, and the forests we would have to pass through. The storekeeper, an Italian, took kindly pains to tell the pair of wandering wayfarers, new arrived in California, that the winter had been very severe, that in some places the Yosemite trail was still buried in snow eight or ten feet deep, and therefore we would have to wait at least a month before we could possibly get into the great valley, for we would surely get lost should we attempt to go on. As to the forests, the trees, he said, were very large; some of the pines eight or ten feet in diameter.
In reply I told him that it would be delightful to see snow ten feet deep and trees ten feet thick, even if lost, but I never got lost in wild woods. "Well," said he, "go, if you must, but I have warned you; and anyhow you must have a gun, for there are bears in the mountains, but you must not shoot at them unless they come for you and are very, very close up." So at last, at Mr. Chilwell's anxious suggestion, we bought an old army musket, with a few pounds of quail shot and large buckshot, good, as the merchant assured us, for either birds or bears.
Our bill of fare in camps was simple--tea and cakes, the latter made from flour without leaven and toasted on the coals—and of course we shunned hotels in the valley, seldom indulging even in crackers, as being too expensive. Chilwell, being an Englishman, loudly lamented being compelled to live on so light a diet, flour and water, as he expressed it, and hungered for flesh; therefore he made desperate efforts to shoot something to eat, particularly quails and grouse, but he was invariably unsuccessful and declared the gun was worthless. I told him I thought that it was good enough if properly loaded and aimed, though perhaps sighted too high, and promised to show him at the first opportunity how to load and shoot.
Many of the herbaceous plants of the flowing foothills were the same as those of the plain and had already gone to seed and withered. But at a height of one thousand feet or so we found many of the lily family blooming in all their glory, the Calochortus especially, a charming genus like European tulips, but finer, and many species of two new shrubs—especially, Ceanothus and Adenostoma. The oaks, beautiful trees with blue foliage and white bark, forming open groves, gave a fine park effect. Higher, we met the first of the pines, with long gray foliage, large stout cones, and wide-spreading heads like palms. Then yellow pines, growing gradually more abundant as we ascended. At Bower Cave on the north fork of the Merced the streams were fringed with willows and azalea, ferns, flowering dogwood, etc. Here, too, we enjoyed the strange beauty of the Cave in a limestone hill.
At Deer Flat the wagon-road ended in a trail which we traced up the side of the dividing ridge parallel to the Merced and Tuolumne to Crane Flat, lying at a height of six thousand feet, where we found a noble forest of sugar pine, silver fir, libocedrus, Douglas spruce, the first of the noble Sierra forests, the noblest coniferous forests in the world, towering in all their unspoiled beauty and grandeur around a sunny, gently sloping meadow. Here, too, we got into the heavy winter snow--a fine change from the burning foothills and plains.
Some mountaineer had tried to establish a claim to the Flat by building a little cabin of sugar pine shakes, and though we had arrived early in the afternoon I decided to camp here for the night as the trail was buried in the snow which was about six feet deep, and I wanted to examine the topography and plan our course. Chilwell cleared away the snow from the door and floor of the cabin, and made a bed in it of boughs of fernlike silver fir, though I urged the same sort of bed made under the trees on the snow. But he had the house habit.
After camp arrangements were made he reminded me of my promise about the gun, hoping eagerly for improvement of our bill of fare, however slight. Accordingly I loaded the gun, paced off thirty yards from the cabin, or shanty, and told Mr. Chilwell to pin a piece of paper on the wall and see if I could not put shot into it and prove the gun's worth. So he pinned a piece on the shanty wall and vanished around the corner, calling out, "Fire away."
I supposed that he had gone some distance back of the cabin, but instead he went inside of it and stood up against the mark that he had himself placed on the wall, and as the shake wall of soft sugar pine was only about half an inch thick, the shot passed through it and into his chowder. He came rushing: out, with his hand on his chowder, crying in great concern, "You've shot me, you've shot me, Scottie." The weather being cold, he fortunately had on three coats and as many shirts. One of the coats was a heavy English overcoat. I discovered that the shot had passed through all this clothing and into his shoulder, and the embedded pellets had to be picked out with the point of a penknife. I asked him how he could be so foolish as to stand opposite the mark. "Because," he replied, "I never imagined the blank gun would shoot through the side of the 'ouse."
We found our way easily enough over the deep snow, guided by the topography, and discovered the trail on the brow of the valley just as the Bridal Veil came in sight. I didn't know that it was one of the famous falls I had read about, and calling Chilwell's attention to it I said, "See that dainty little fall over there. I should like to camp at the foot of it to see the ferns and lilies that may be there. It looks small from here, only about fifteen or twenty feet, but it may be sixty or seventy." So little did we then know of Yosemite magnitudes!
After spending eight or ten days in visiting the falls and the high points of view around the walls, making sketches, collecting flowers and ferns, etc., we decided to make the return trip by way of Wawona, then owned by Galen Clark, the Yosemite pioneer. The night before the start was made on the return trip we camped near the Bridal Veil Meadows, where, as we lay eating our suppers by the light of the camp-fire, we were visited by a brown bear. We heard him approaching by the heavy crackling of twigs. Chilwell, in alarm, after listening a while, said, "I see it! I see it! It's a bear, a grizzly! Where is the gun? You take the gun and shoot him--you can shoot best." But the gun had only a charge of birdshot in it; therefore, while the bear stood on the opposite side of the fire, at a distance of probably twenty-five or thirty feet, I hastily loaded in a lot of buckshot. The buckshot was too large to chamber and therefore it made a zigzag charge on top of the birdshot charge, the two charges occupying about half of the barrel. Thus armed, the gun held at rest pointed at the bear, we sat hushed and motionless, according to instructions from the man who sold the gun, solemnly waiting and watching, as full of fear as the musket of shot. Finally, after sniffing and whining for his supper what seemed to us a long time, the young inexperienced beast walked off. We were much afraid of his return to attack us. We did not then know that bears never attack sleeping campers, and dreading another visit we kept awake on guard most of the night.
Source: http://www.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/life/life_and_letters/chapter_6.html (Accessed 20 April 2008)