The Two Yosemites

John Muir's Yosemite
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Each year for forty years — except while enduring twenty-four months of army slop in Georgia and Vietnam — I have visited Yosemite. For a long time I was just a narrow-minded rock climber, ticking the big routes off. I loved the valley and roamed all about its lovely floor during rest days. But I realize now that I rarely saw the flowers or the birds; my focus was on the cliffs, the most beautiful in the world. This wasn't a bad life, to be sure, but it was an incomplete one.

Later, of course, I slowed down and looked around, much as I had done on that long-ago forced layover. And only then did I realize what a splendid place the park is. Talk about variety! Everyone knows about the cliffs and the waterfalls, but today I scarcely look at these. Instead, I stare at the Merced River, wondering how such an immense body of swift-moving water can be so silent. I walk around one of the giant sequoias, finding it impossible to believe the thing sprang from a mere seed, even if it took 4,000 years to reach gianthood. I rub my hands along glacial polish, trying to imagine John Muir doing the same. I see a tiny pocket glacier nestled under the north face of a peak and imagine Muir squatting on the ice, stroking his beard, scribbling in his notebook, and wondering how he's going to prove to the doubters that the High Sierra contains living glaciers.

I think a lot about Muir. He climbed peaks just to get the lay of the land; he was a self-taught naturalist, possessing a curiosity that few of us have. He was a guide and a visionary. He helped found the Sierra Club and helped establish Yosemite National Park. Blessed with wanderlust, he roamed the world for decades. When San Francisco won the right to build a dam inside the park, Muir despaired and died soon thereafter — victim, I'd like to think, of a broken heart.

As I climb the cliffs of the valley nowadays I think of one of Muir's finest lines:"The tide of visitors will float slowly about the bottom of the valley as harmless scum collecting in hotel and saloon eddies, leaving the rocks and falls eloquent as ever. . . ." Muir, wondering about the future of this hallowed place, wrote this in 1870 while lamenting the fact that "there are about fifty visitors in the valley at present."

At present, of course, one will see fifty people lining up for the restrooms outside the saloon at Yosemite Lodge. About 4 million people visit the park each year, and what Muir would think of this I dare not guess. Naturally, some big-city problems have made their way into the park. Yes, there are traffic jams — as the California newspapers love to report — but these prove minor except on holiday weekends. Yes, camping reservations on the valley floor must be made months ahead of time. So, make them months ahead of time! And, sure, crimes occur, but most are relatively minor, like car break-ins. The solution: Don't leave valuables in the car.


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 7 Jul 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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