We spent a few days this winter in Yosemite. I hadn’t been there since I was a child. On the school trip there in 5th grade, I remember seeing a family of six quail walking beak to tail in descending order of size. I remember a Quonset hut. I remember heroic narratives about John Muir. I remember 5th grade romantic drama, holding hands in the backseat of a car. But mostly, I remember seeing waterfalls, ribbons of water falling from granite cliffs, cliffs that shifted something inside me and primed me for a later appreciation of Kant’s dangerous ideas about the sublime and for the proper despair about drought and climate change.
P drove up the treacherous switchbacks into the park and we tried to get our kids to look at the clouds trailing in the pine trees and they refused. They sang the same four-note song over and over and over. Then my 3-year old became frightened of the mountains. I felt despair. My Los Angeles children can not understand weather and are afraid of landscapes. But then the road crested and we dropped into the valley. I drove the switchbacks down into the snow and mist. When Half Dome and Yosemite Falls came into view, I pulled over and we all stepped out of the car into the sharp cold air.
Yosemite does not disappoint. A break in the clouds poured sun over it all, and it was sublime, Nature, awe, the Ice Age ghosts of the glaciers that the Park Service says “gouged and quarried” the valley “into a U-shaped trough” somewhere around a million years ago. Back then, the tip of Half Dome was only 900 feet above the ice. A bunch of cars were parked near us, drivers stopped in their tracks, snapping futile pictures. We were just one hybrid vehicle in a long line of Victorian pilgrimages by station wagon. 95% of visitors to the park never get off the beaten path, say the signs in the Yosemite shuttle. We are the 95%. But it’s a great path. I was almost moved to tears. This world, where had it been? I wanted to stay there staring until the sun left. But my kids were cold and one more turn to the hotel and also I realized I needed shoes.
I was up working until 3am the night before we left. I had packed in a fog. When I stepped out of the car to see the falls for the first time in decades, I was wearing socks and Saltwater sandals. That first evening, just after we saw the falls, we had to drive to the village store so I could buy some duck boots. My kids now know that it is not important to be prepared because the village store sells everything except decent bourbon.
The sublime and the ridiculous continued and merged. The next day an El Niño year storm dropped a foot and half of snow, we had sublime snowball fights. I taught H. to stockpile and aim and we made snow angels and P targeted the branches so the trees would dump snow on everyone at once. We walked out by the river and threw snow into the river and never wanted to leave. H named her snowmen Titu and Silver. On our last day, my three year-old stood up on skis.
At the base of the falls, at least two plaques commemorate John Muir’s tree house cabin, an idyllic place to live. The park service built a lodge next door, because location, location, location. Muir, when he lived there, was running a sawmill. Just after, Muir was a shepherd, which also sounds idyllic. But it turns out he wasn’t really the shepherd, he was hired to supervise the shepherd so that Muir would have more time for writing and botany. He called the sheep “hoofed locusts” because they ate the natural plants. He was among the first white tourists in Yosemite, who began to arrive only ten years after the southern Miwok were driven out.
Of course, the plaque near the falls lauds Muir as the father of the park, as if he discovered the place, as if he were one of a tiny handful of innocent loggers who stumbled into the forest, with Muir the only one who happened to look up and see God. I don’t know enough Muir to know his complete relationship to the Native Americans. But like so many historical plaques in the U.S., this plaque uses a myth to look away from what came before, another small square of metal nailed over our bloody history.
Muir himself was both the bearded rugged and visionary individualist of his myths and also, he was a sensitive, gentle, and social soul who let somebody else deal with the sheep. He was almost blinded in a factory accident. He wrote sheafs of letters to Jeanne Carr, an amateur botanist and his “spiritual mother.” She shared his passion for nature and did the emotional labor of listening to John Muir complain. He was often lonely. She was married to a professor, herself an amateur naturalist, amateur because she was a 19th century wife primarily devoted to the care of other humans. Muir thought it was Jeanne who understood him and his love of Nature best. She and Muir planned her visit to Yosemite for months, but somehow got the date tangled. When she showed up at the Black Hotel, he was not there. She wrote a letter of muted disappointment that he was, instead, “entangled with sheep.”
While we were there, I couldn’t help but think about all of the people hidden behind the myth of Muir—the tragic violence against the Miwok that preceded him, but also Jeanne Carr and her love of ferns. The other loggers at the sawmill. Some poor shepherd suddenly being supervised by a dreamy half-blind botanist. By now, the fact of Thoreau’s mother doing his laundry in the background at Walden pond is a commonplace. Muir’s important mythic function, like so many other important myths in the U.S., relied on the people working, quietly, behind him.
Carr cared and listened, she did the woman’s work of putting her own botany last so that she could put other people first. But her own botany, her own work—without it, she would not have been the reader and the interlocutor who meant so much to John Muir. The feminist answer to Carr’s role can’t be to criticize Muir for not doing his work truly alone. None of us does it alone, that’s a different myth, a neoliberal privatized myth. John Muir existed in a racist sexist morally compromised society much like ours. He wrote about places he loved and in doing so, he shaped a new audience with a slightly better compass for thinking about the natural world, a world that this still compromised society is slowly destroying. Myths are conceived, birthed, collectively raised. The shepherd kept track of the actual sheep so that John Muir could go on thinking profoundly about the lichens. They all, together, built a story. A representation. A thing called Yosemite National Park. Which by the way, the private hotel company that runs Yosemite Lodge has trademarked. While that company tries to profit off of the work done by others to protect a holy place, the National Park Service will go to court.
Hordes of visitors from around the world now use the myth of Muir to step into the romance of Yosemite. His identification with the park is a thumbnail sketch, a narrative blueprint, for how to engage with its super-human scale. He didn’t discover the Valley, nor did he throw his body down immediately on the loggers’ tracks. He ran that sawmill. He wasn’t an ascetic. He got super lonely when he was alone. He collected moss and liverwort and bracken and then swapped notes about them with Jeanne. He left a trace. His letters were not all masculine disquisitions of the dissolution of self into awe and majesty. Lots were quotidian talk, expressions of longing for companionship, questions about Jeanne’s kids, and nerdy comparisons of notes on ferns.
Muir was actually a family man who lived in Yosemite for only a brief period. He visited. He was a writer, a man of letters, who once took a thousand mile walk. I read Wild a few weeks before we came to Yosemite, a woman’s story of a thousand mile walk and an important entrée into the American romance with endurance off the grid. Wild is a paean to a different natural place, the Pacific Crest Trail. But even in Wild, which I loved, I thought about the friend who sent the author’s boxes of stuff to each ranger’s hut along the way. The friend who then showed up at the end, with a car, to take Cheryl Strayed back to Portland. This friend gets short shrift in the book. It’s as if she, like Jeanne Carr, is a bit of a threat to the heroic narrative. The sending of boxes and the doing of laundry and the tending of sheep and the planning of visits to the Black Hotel and the buying of proper shoes and mittens. This is women’s work, even in a woman’s heroic narrative.
I forget things, although usually not shoes. I somehow am always not doing enough and forgetting things—not enough laundry, not enough tending, not enough working, never enough writing. Like Jeanne, I show up, but I get the date wrong, and it must be my fault. I am sorry not to see the falls with the real John Muir. I saw Half Dome only from the window of the shuttle, this trip. But I was still glad to see it. It remains glorious. I will donate to the Sierra Club again, this year, while today’s ice melts. This is not enough, but it is better than nothing. I miss the glaciers I never knew.