John Muir and the Desert Connection
by Peter Wild
(Reprinted from the
John Muir Newsletter
Vol. 5, No. 2, Spring 1995)
"A bitter wind was blowing over the Mohave," says Linnie Marsh
Wolfe, when an aging John Muir arrived at a desert ranch late in the winter
Most people know that Muir took sick with his final illness near an
obscure desert town called Daggett. However, beyond that, little is known
about his relationship to Daggett, to the Mojave desert, and to the friends
he made there during the last seven years of his life. Yet the period is
rich with Muir's personal involvement, with ironies, and his influence on
others, and it is a period awaiting further exploration by students of
A mountain and ice man, Muir didn't go willingly to the California
desert. Rather, it was the health of daughter Helen that forced him out
there in his final years. He had spent much of 1905-1906 worrying over
Helen's condition and trying to find a healing climate for her respiratory
problems, first in the mountains of eastern Arizona, later at the Petrified
Forest in the northern part of the state
The cure seemed to work.
Then, back in Martinez, in 1907 Helen suddenly took a turn for the worse,
and Muir rushed her south to the Van Dyke Ranch, a mile east of Daggett.
The details of why Muir chose this ranch are not entirely clear.
In fact, Daggett had a particularly evil reputation. On Saturday nights
the boom town could wax riotous with miners pouring down from the rich
silver claims in the nearby mountains--not at all the place either for
gentle-mannered Muir or his young daughter. However, as it happened, the
ranch was owned by Theodore Strong Van Dyke, a well-known outdoor writer of
the day who shared Muir's sympathy for nature. Furthermore, Theodore had
not only solved his own health problems by moving to the desert ranch some
six years before, he often celebrated the healthful climate of the region
in his books and articles. Given the small community of California's
writers at the time, it is likely that Muir knew of Van Dyke and perhaps
had met him prior to 1907. On top of that, since Theodore was Daggett's
no-nonsense justice of the peace, a powerful position in a desert where the
law was stretched thin, Helen likely would suffer no rowdyism from the
In any case, Muir got Helen settled at the ranch and returned
to Martinez. Word came from Helen that she enjoyed the outdoor life and
the company of Theodore and his son, Dix, so much so that Muir sent her
both Stickeen and her horse Sniffpony. Helen was in Daggett to stay. In a
few years she married Buel Funk, the son of a nearby rancher. Thus Muir,
alone and aging, had every reason to be a frequent visitor in Daggett.
In one of those rare strokes that can put flesh on the bare bones
of history, fortunately for us Dix wrote a substantial memoir about life at
the Van Dyke Ranch. He records not only some of Muir's visits but follows
Buel's "sparking" of Helen and their subsequent marriage
Dix, Theodore and Muir, two authors of about the same age, found each other
"congenial souls," and both looked forward to times spent together at the
At this point, however, the story becomes at once more complex and
intriguing. Theodore, though a graduate of Princeton, an attorney, and a
student of Greek and Latin of some accomplishment, had "gone native,"
shedding the pretenses of urban civilization. A mountain rover and
naturalist of precise observation, he had earned the right, as had Muir, to
speak with authority about California's vast and varied natural heritage.
Not so Theodore's younger brother John C. Van Dyke. And here the ironies
begin to turn on themselves.
In 1901, John published a landmark book,
volume to counter the common wisdom of the day condemning deserts as ugly
Instead, with a poetry and power not since surpassed, The
Desert praised the arid lands for their beauty, for their lava peaks that
glow like hot iron after sunsets, and for their storms that whirl up in
showers of gold. The hitch is that John was no outdoorsman but a refined
professor of art history at Rutgers University, a familiar of the East
Coast's toniest salons. Though because of his own health problems he
started visiting Theodore in Southern California sometime in the late
1890s, the likelihood is very strong that the adventures in John's famous
book, still in print, were more the stuff of his fantasy than experience.
Whether or not John knew Muir through Theodore at the time John wrote
is not known. In any case, some of the passages in the most famous
book ever written about the Southwest not only echo Muir's writing, at
times John uses Muir's very words and imagery
A lively personal element comes into play here, and sparks begin to
fly. At one point, the paths of John and Muir crossed at the ranch, and
things did not go well. Dix says that ". . . the two wrangled incessantly
. . . ," with Muir stomping off in some heat
In contrast, John's
version of the meeting in his Autobiography all but lowers the mantle of
sainthood around Muir's shoulders
These and other aspects of John Muir's days on the Mojave desert
may never be resolved. Yet references to them keep cropping up in
unpublished sources, and, again fortunately, the little town of Daggett
remains much as it was when Muir knew it. The old general store he likely
visited still stands in the center of town, as does the house out at the
Van Dyke Ranch where Helen lived. A few hundred yards away is
"Desertaire," the mansion Buel and Helen built after Muir's death, today in
an excellent state of preservation. All await further investigation.
Linnie Marsh Wolfe,
Son of the Wilderness: The Life of John Muir
(New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1945), p. 347.
"Months of Sorrow and Renewal: John Muir in Arizona 1905-1906,"
Journal of the Southwest
29 (Spring, 1987): 65-80.
For more on Theodore see Peter Wild,
Theodore Strong Van Dyke
(Boise: Boise State University, forthcoming.)
Printed under various titles,
such as "The Pioneer Story" and "Pioneer
Days," Dix's memoir appeared on the intermittent Thursdays in the local
Bartstow Printer Review,
throughout 1953, the year after his death.
Ibid., October 29, 1953.
John C. Van Dyke,
The Desert: Further studies in Natural Appearances
(New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1901).
for instance, the closing paragraphs of John Muir's
"The American Forests",
80 (August 1897) 156-7, with Van Dyke's
Dix Van Dyke,
Barstow Printer Review,
October 29, 1953.
John C. Van Dyke,
The Autobiography of John C. Ban Dyke:
A Personal Narrative of American Life, 1861-1931.
(Editor: Peter Wild, Salt Lake City,
University of Utah Press, 1993), pp. 167-8.
Department of English
Modern Languages Building #67
University of Arizona
Tucson, AZ 85721