John Muir hopped off a steamer in the San Francisco Bay and asked for the quickest way out of town. Where to? “Anywhere that is wild,” he said.
So, 150 years ago on April 1, Muir set off on foot from San Francisco to Yosemite. After a ferry trip to Oakland, the not-yet-famous naturalist made his way on a 310-mile ramble; south to Gilroy, east through the Pacheco Pass, across the Central Valley, then into the Sierra. Six weeks later, he arrived in Yosemite Valley, a place where he would return many times.
That was 1868 and the wide open Central Valley was a sight to behold. Massive seas of wildflowers paved Muir’s path as that California spring brimmed with golden splendor.
How did he feel when he saw those breathtaking vistas? What did he think of these flower-filled fields? Where were his earliest impressions of a state he would embrace?
And what would it be like to walk that same trans-California route today?
Peter and Donna Thomas, two creative hikers, wanted to know. First, they walked in Muir’s footsteps so they could experience his journey firsthand. Then, they looked for his words to describe what he saw.
Although Muir didn’t publish a complete account of his journey, the couple found enough of Muir’s own words to illustrate his awe-inspiring trek. Through letters, journals and articles written by Muir, they crafted a new first-person narrative out of his 19th century observations: “Anywhere That is Wild: John Muir’s First Walk to Yosemite” (Yosemite Conservancy, 68 pages, $12.99).
It’s a slim hardcover, made for tucking into a pocket or backpack, but flowing with Muir’s distinctive prose.
“His style is very different than what’s in fashion today,” Peter Thomas noted in a phone interview, “but his words make you fall in love with California and nature all over again.”
Thomas noted that Muir’s wife Louisa told him to “stop using the word ‘glorious’ so much,’ ” but that’s how the Scottish-born naturalist felt about what he saw.
“Never were mortal eyes more thronged with beauty,” Muir wrote of the spring display. “When I walked, more than a hundred flowers touched my feet, at every step closing above them, as if wading in water. Go where I would, east or west, north or south, I still splashed and rippled in flower-gems; and at night I lay between two skies of silver and gold, spanned by a milky-way, and nestling deep in a goldy-way of vegetable suns.”
Peter and Donna Thomas, artists who specialize in making hand-crafted books, wanted to experience that beauty, too. They’ve hiked the entire 211-mile Muir Trail from Yosemite to Mt. Whitney several times, but across the state? That was a new challenge.
“Donna wanted to walk out our front door in Santa Cruz to Yosemite,” Peter said. “Instead, we followed Muir.”
In 2006, the couple traced Muir’s route, walking across their home state on a journey closely paralleled to that of California’s first conservationist and the founder of the Sierra Club. When they finished in Yosemite Valley, they wore 1800s garb for the final leg.
“When Muir did it, it was no big deal; everybody walked,” Peter said. “When we did it, it was front page news.”
“Muir followed existing dirt roads that turned into major roads,” he explained. “We tried to follow those roads and highways. Instead of walking on the highways, we linked together open spaces to parallel his route across the Central Valley.”
For the sesquicentennial of Muir’s walk, they revisited their own trek, rewalking the segments.
“No where now can we see the displays of flowers he saw,” Thomas said. “That’s because our native bunch grass has been crowded out by non-native grasses brought in for cattle. The native grasses grow in bunches, allowing a lot of room for wildflowers to grow around them. The non-native grasses form a thick mat with less room for flowers.”
But some places come close.
“The Pacheco Pass has just an incredible display of flowers,” he said. “The hillsides are full of color. … The goldfields are so thick; every step, you squish flowers. The hillsides are just a sea of yellow.”
Muir chose the right time of year to walk across the state, Thomas added. “April and May, it’s not so boiling hot. And the flowers are everywhere. The fiddlenecks are cool. You see California poppies along the roadsides. The lupines in the low foothills make beautiful fields of purple.”
The trek can be easier now, he noted.
“It’s exciting to see how much has changed since just 2006,” he said. “Not the landscape so much, but technology. That was the first year of Google maps; it’s much easier to find your way now. When we did it (in 2006), blogs had not really been invented yet. We emailed a friend with posts and updates for our website.
“We would love for other people to do this,” he added. “But the route needed more infrastructure; there aren’t little hotels everywhere or coffee shops. Now, with Airbnb and Uber, you could do the whole trip without ever camping out. It’s urban backpacking, where all you have to carry is water and a credit card. You walk as much as you want, then call an Uber to take you to a place to stay that night. Then, return to the trail in the morning.”
Instead of walking all 310 miles, Thomas suggested breaking the trek into shorter segments; seven possible hikes are outlined on the couple’s Muir Ramble website.
When Muir walked across California, there weren’t hotels and coffee shops either. But he usually found himself a place to eat and stay with friendly farmers, Thomas said.
“Muir was a charismatic story teller,” he said. “Who wouldn’t want him as a guest? He’d offer to help around the farm; he was a mechanical engineer and could do all sorts of things. He shared his stories about traveling from New York to San Francisco. He was endless entertainment.
“And some nights, he just camped out under the stars.”
Muir traveled very light with only a plant press (to preserve wildflowers) and a book to read. While he chronicled many of his travels in journals, a diary of this first trip was not among Muir’s papers in the collections at the John Muir Center at the University of the Pacific.
“That’s the one piece that was missing,” Thomas said. “That’s why no one before had done this book; this story had not been told. But the Muir Center is a wonderful resource. We were able to find so much (among Muir’s papers).
“You’ve got to remember, in his day, walking was not that interesting,” he added. “The focus was the destination, not getting there. But in our day, it’s a rare person who does that kind of walk.”
Few writers or walkers focus on the Central Valley, he noted, but it still offers wide open spaces worth exploring. And it’s not a difficult hike; the segment of the Muir Route from Interstate 5 to Highway 99 is relatively flat with open spaces and available camping spots.
“It’s a wonderful part of California to learn about,” Thomas said. “It’s still a beautiful thing. Very few people walk through that part of the state.”
The Thomases continue to hike and reflect on Muir’s journey. On July 26-28, they plan to retrace Muir’s path from Crane Flat to Yosemite Valley with a special presentation July 28 at the Yosemite Heritage Lodge.
“We’ve yet to walk out our front door to Yosemite,” Thomas added, “but we’re still thinking about it.”