Paul Andersen: In the footsteps of John Muir
Quality of light. John Muir found it in the Sierra Nevada. Not the “snowy range” as the name imparts, but what Muir called “The Range of Light.”
The Sierras exude brilliant radiance reflecting from infinite glinting facets of silvery granite. The granite that forms pregnant domes and chiseled cirques radiates the brightness of snow, begging sunglasses of alpine hikers gazing at impossibly precipitous aeries and ridgelines against a deep, blue sky.
Where our Elk Mountains are graced with verdant tundra speckled with a garish palette of wildflowers, the younger high Sierras are carved from solid rock forming vast convexities and concavities, surfaces in which Muir found an effusion of light that illuminated the spiritual clarity on which he poetically and scientifically attested.
“… the intense azure of the sky, the purplish grays of the granite, the red and brown of dry meadows, and the translucent purples and crimson of huckleberry bogs; the flaming yellow of aspen groves, the silvery flashing of the streams, and the bright green and blue of the glacier lakes …”
This is all fresh for me as I look back on a two-week camping trip last week that began with a westward jaunt from Glenwood Springs on Amtrak, our beleaguered national rail system. My wife and I rocked and swayed to Reno, Nevada, on a 20-hour sojourn across the desert plains where bald eagles and wild horses spotted the landscape.
Reading Muir’s “Mountains of California” had set the stage for this amazing mountain range where the light is indeed luminescent, where the eastern escarpments are vertiginous and high, peaking with Mount Whitney — the highest in the contiguous 48 states — on which Muir made a perilous first ascent of the forbidding east face.
While I aspired to walk in the footsteps of Muir, a mountaineer of my humble abilities must defer to Muir, the master mountaineer who sought communion with the natural world through inspired scrambles. Nature’s devotee, Muir was vitalized by a penitential fervor, feeling the pulse of wildness by testing every fiber of his resilient Scottish body.
Muir’s exploits opened his every sense to raw and unfiltered landscapes, endowing all with the force of his own spirit in true communion, a marriage of man and mountain with a vow to the felicity of dramatic landscapes.
Following Muir’s literal routes was impractical and imprudent for me, so I followed his virtual routes on a philosophical journey replete with lofty ascents. First came an understanding of Muir’s original discovery.
“I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”
For Muir, “going in” meant internalizing his external surroundings. He became a spelunker to his very existence. His sense of self was illuminated by the radiance he blinked upon while taking in the glinting granite, which is what the Sierras are all about.
Muir set challenging goals, but his journeys were as important as his destinations. “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks,” wrote Muir, who proved that every man is a Moses by seeking deep truths through self-guided crucibles into realms of the divine.
The summation of my journey was a pilgrimage to the Muir Grove of Sequoiadendron giganteum on a ridgeline in Sequoia National Park. From a distance the trees are visible by their broccoli-like crowns standing head and shoulders over the towering pines they so majestically dwarf.
A cloister of Sequoias form a circle that rises heavenward like the nave of a Renaissance cathedral where reverential silence brought my heartbeat to my ears and amplified the chatter of a squirrel, the guttural voice of a raven, and the sighing of a breeze through the topmost branches where they intertwined overhead, just as their roots interwove below.
Here, as celestial rays cut into the grove through a cloud of gnats that swarmed overhead like sprites, I found the “going in” that Muir described. Here was the living cathedral where Muir worshiped in Pagan surrender, where he learned that no walls can contain the divine, where the spirit of nature enters the spirit of man.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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