Books

They followed Muir's footsteps across California, then found his words to describe it

Last year's rainy weather produced a super bloom of wildflowers at the Carrizo Plains National Monument in southeastern San Luis Obispo County, California. That's how much of Central California looked when naturalist John Muir walked across the state in 1868.
Last year's rainy weather produced a super bloom of wildflowers at the Carrizo Plains National Monument in southeastern San Luis Obispo County, California. That's how much of Central California looked when naturalist John Muir walked across the state in 1868.

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.”

Indeed, the San Francisco Chronicle and other newspapers featured the Thomases and their Muir Ramble. The couple turned their story into a guidebook and website, www.muirrambleroute.com.

“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.

The Trans-California Ramble

Peter and Donna Thomas retraced John Muir’s 1868 walk from San Francisco to Yosemite Valley in 2006.
Map of John Muir Ramble 1868 and Thomas 2006 route retrace
Sources: John Muir Global Network, muirrambleroute.com, San Francisco Chronicle
The Sacramento Bee
  Comments