By JEFF BENZIGER
Some 100 years after his death, Muir has been honored more than any other person in California as the namesake of natural resources, trails and a college.
One fall day in 1868, a lanky, bearded man approached Patrick Delaney who was engaged as a sheep rancher on a stretch of land between La Grange and the Basso Ferry.
The 31-year-old man was looking for work for “bread.” Since his money supply was nearly exhausted, he pondered the thought of working in the beautiful rolling rangeland in close proximity to what would become his love, Yosemite National Park.
This was John Muir’s first winter in California. Muir stayed in Stanislaus County, moving sheep back-and-forth from eastern Stanislaus County and Merced County near Snelling. But history carried him to immortality after becoming a prominent author, naturalist and renowned lecturer.
Had he not borrowed the ear of President Theodore Roosevelt for several days on a 1903 Yosemite camping trip, the notion of national conservation of wild lands might not have been weaved into the federal government’s consciousness. Preservation of the nation’s resources might have been exploited to greater degree had Muir remain satisfied with his La Grange experience and not moved on in life.
How did the famous naturalist come to La Grange in the first place?
Born in Dunbar, Scotland, on April 21, 1838, John Muir resided with two other siblings and his parents in that village until he was 11 years old. As a child, his interest with wilderness and nature grew to be an obsession. He enjoyed planting a little bit of ground in his father’s garden, and liked exploring the stormy North Sea Beach.
On Feb. 19, 1849, Muir and father Daniel Muir, brother David and sister Sarah, all set sail from Glasgow. Although it was the year of the famed Gold Rush, riches were not the cause for the voyage. The Muir patriarch, a religious zealot, decided to seek more congenial religious surroundings. After six weeks on the rough Atlantic Ocean, the ship anchored in New York Harbor on April 5, 1849. The family wound up in central Wisconsin via the Erie Canal and the Great Lakes.
His pilgrimage to California started in early March 1868, when he boarded a ship from New York. He arrived in San Francisco on March 28, 1868. He stopped a carpenter on Market Street and asked for the quickest way out of town to “anywhere that’s wild.” With an Englishman friend he met on the Oakland Ferry, Muir trekked out to San Jose, then Gilroy and then east over Pacheco Pass near the current-day San Luis Reservoir. At the top of the pass, Muir caught his never-to-be-forgotten view of the great Central Valley of California.
In those days, most people headed to Yosemite would take a river steamer to Stockton, then board a stage to Coulterville or Mariposa and then by horseback to Yosemite. Muir, however, had a disdain for the road well-traveled “for we had plenty of time, and proposed drifting leisurely mountainward 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.”
Muir wrote of the experience: “Looking eastward from the summit of the Pacheco Pass one shining morning, a landscape was displayed that, after all my wandering, still appears as the most beautiful I have ever beheld. At my feet lay the great Central Valley of California, level and flowery, like a lake of pure sunshine, 40 or 50 miles wide, 500 miles long, one rich furred garden of yellow composite. And from the eastern boundary of this vast golden flowerbed rose the mighty Sierra, miles in height, and so gloriously colored and so radiant, it seemed not clothed with light, but wholly composed of it, like the wall of some celestial city … then it seemed to me that the Sierra should be called, not the Nevada or Snowy Range, but the Range of Light.”
Muir and his companion crossed the San Joaquin River at Hill’s Ferry three miles northeast of Newman and followed the Merced River eastward, walking the ground north of the future town site of Livingston. The miles and miles of wildflowers they walked through never left Muir’s memory.
The Central Valley, he wrote, was “one smooth continuous bed of honey bloom, so marvelously rich that, in walking from one end of it to the other, a distance of more than 400 miles, your foot would press upon 100 flowers at each step.”
He wrote: “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, newly 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.”
After spending a week and a half in Yosemite, awed by nature’s spectacle, the two made their way back down into the valley foothills, via Mariposa.
Both Muir and friend Chilwell found work on a Hopeton ranch owned by Thomas Egleston, harvesting wheat, breaking wild horses and shearing sheep. This ranch is on what is now Turlock Road west of Cox Ferry Road. There they were seated for a meal where Chilwell recited complaints about having to live on meals of flour and water without meat. Muir wrote that Chilwell “ate so many hot biscuits at that table, and so much beans and boiled pork, that he was sick for three or four days afterwards, a trick the despised Yosemite diet never played him.”
Chilwell went his own way, while Muir stayed in Merced Falls, working on a ferry. He was then hired to shear sheep, a Pat Delaney hired him.
On June 3, 1869, Muir, Delaney, Billy, “a Chinaman” and “a Digger Indian” then left the La Grange ranch and headed into the brushy foothills, probably in a southeast direction. Five days later they were in a valley of the north fork of the Merced River, at the foot of Pilot Peak Ridge where the first camp was selected.
Muir, a humorist as well as botanist, wrote humorously of Billy. “Our shepherd is a queer character and hard to place in this wilderness. His bed is a hollow made of red dry-rot punky dust beside a log which forms a portion of the south wall of the corral. There he lives with his wonderful everlasting clothing on, wrapped in a red blanket, breathing not only the dust of the decayed wood but also that of the corral, as if determined to take ammoniacal snuff all night after chewing tobacco all day.
Following the sheep he carries a heavy six-shooter swung from his belt on one side and his luncheon on the other. The ancient cloth in which the meat, fresh from the frying pan, is tied serves as a filter through which the clear fat and the gravy juices drip down on his right hip and leg in clustering stalactites. His trousers have become so adhesive with the mixed fat and resin that pine needles, thin flakes and fibers of bark, hair, feathers, seed wings, moth and butterfly wings … adhere to them and are safely embedded. These precious overalls are never taken off…”
On June 14, Muir and party reached a cascading portion of the Merced, probably Diana Falls near Bower’s Cave in the Greely Hills area. There he rested under the flowering Dogwood and alder trees leaning over all and sun-sifted arches.”
“How soothing, restfully cool it is beneath the leafy, translucent ceiling, and how delightful the water music — the deep bass tones of the fall … thanks be to God for this immortal gift.”
The party eventually made its way into Yosemite and back.
Muir, of course, would later see other parts of California and the world. He survived the massive Inyo Earthquake that hit Yosemite on March 26, 1872. He became one of the first men to climb the 14,161-foot volcanic peak of Mount Shasta in 1874 and April 1875 when he almost died. He also discovered the Muir Glacier in Alaska in 1879. He married Louise Wanda Strenzel of Martinez, Calif., in 1880 and they had two daughters, Helen and Wanda.
President of the conservationist Sierra Club from 1892 until his death in 1914, Muir is credited for saving the Grand Canyon and Petrified Forest in Arizona. Muir, it was said, died of a broken heart when he lost the fight to save Hetch Hetchy Valley from the building of the 227-foot-tall O’Shaughnessy Dam in Yosemite National Park. Today the grand valley is filled with water which is stored and piped underground 167 miles through the Central Valley for consumption by urban dwellers in the San Francisco Bay Area. Those great pipes go underground just south of the Crossroads shopping center in Riverbank and right through north Modesto on its way to Fremont.
Some 100 years after his death, Muir has been honored more than any other person in California as the name sake of natural resources, trails and a college. The “Father of the National Parks” is buried beside his wife beneath the eucalyptus tree on his Martinez ranch.