The Life and Letters of John Muir
by William Frederic Badè
Nevada, Alaska, and a Home
During the summer of 1878 the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey made
a reconnaissance along the 39th parallel of latitude in order to effect
the primary triangulation of Nevada and Utah. The survey party was in charge
of Assistant August F. Rodgers, and was making preparations to set out
from Sacramento in June, when Muir returned from a trip to the headwaters
of the north and middle forks of the American River. He decided immediately
to accept an invitation to join the party, although some of his friends,
notably the Strentzels, sought to dissuade him on account of the Indian
disturbances which had made Nevada unsafe territory for a number of years,
Idaho was then actually in the throes of an Indian war that entailed the
destruction and abandonment of the Malheur Reservation across the boundary
But the perils of the situation were in Muir's view outweighed by the
exceptional opportunity to explore numerous detached mountain ranges and
valleys of Nevada about which little was known at the time. "If an explorer
of God's fine wildernesses should wait until every danger be removed,"
he wrote to Mrs. Strentzel, "then he would wait until the sun set. The
war country lies to the north of our line of work, some two or three hundred
miles. Some of the Pah Utes have gone north to join the Bannocks, and those
left behind are not to be trusted, but we shall be well armed, and they
will not dare to attack a party like ours unless they mean to declare war,
however gladly they might seize the opportunity of killing a lonely and
unknown explorer. In any case we will never be more than two hundred miles
from the railroad."
Unfortunately Muir, becoming absorbed the following year in the wonders
of Alaska, never found time to reduce his Nevada explorations to writing
in the form of well-considered articles. He did, however, write for the
"San Francisco Evening Bulletin" a number of sketches during the progress
of the expedition, and these, published in "Steep Trails," can now be supplemented
with the following letters to the Strentzels--the only extant series written
during that expedition.
Since Muir ultimately married into the Strentzel family, its antecedents
are of interest to the reader and may be sketched briefly in this connection.
John Strentzel, born in Lublin, Poland, was a participant in the unsuccessful
Polish revolution of 1830. To escape the bitter fate of being drafted into
the victorious Russian army he fled to Upper Hungary where he obtained
a practical knowledge of viticulture, and later was trained as a physician
at the University of Buda-Pesth. Coming to the United States in 1840, he
joined at Louisville, Kentucky, a party of pioneers known as Peters' Colonization
Company,--and went with them to the Trinity River in Texas, where he built
a cabin on the present site of the city of Dallas, then a wild Comanche
country. When the colony failed and dispersed he removed to Lamar County
in the same state, was married at Honeygrove to Louisiana Erwin, a native
of Tennessee, and in 1849, with his wife and baby daughter, came across
the plains from Texas to California as medical adviser to the Clarkesville
"train" of pioneer immigrants. Not long afterwards he settled in the Alhambra
[According to the journal of Dr. Strentzel, this was
not the original name of the valley. A company of Spanish soldiers, sent
to chastise some Indians, was unable to obtain provisions there, and so
named it, "Canada de la Hambre," or Valley of Hunger. "Mrs. Strentzel,
on arriving here," writes her husband, "was displeased with the name, and,
remembering Irving's glowing description of the Moorish paradise, decided
to re-christen our home Alhambra." Ever since then the valley has borne
this modification of the original name.]
near Martinez, and became
one of the earliest and most successful horticulturists of California.
Louie Wanda Strentzel
(Mrs. John Muir)
Miss Louie Wanda Strentzel, now arrived at mature womanhood, was not
only the pride of the family, but was known widely for the grace with which
she dispensed the generous hospitality of the Strentzel household. She
had received her education in the Atkins Seminary for Young Ladies at Benicia
and, according to her father, was "passionately fond of flowers and music."
Among her admiring friends was Mrs. Carr, who at various times had vainly
tried to bring about a meeting between Miss Strentzel and Mr. Muir. "You
see how I am snubbed in trying to get John Muir to accompany me to your
house this week," wrote Mrs. Carr in April, 1875. Mount Shasta was in opposition
at the time, and easily won the choice.
But so many roads and interests met at the Strentzel ranch, so many
friends had the two in common, that sooner or later an acquaintanceship
was bound to result. In 1878 Muir began to be a frequent and fondly expected
guest in the Strentzel household, and he was to discover ere long that
the most beautiful adventures are not those one deliberately goes to seek.
Meantime, despite the dissuasion of his solicitous friends, he was off
to the wildernesses of Nevada. Since the Survey had adopted for triangulation
purposes a pentagon whose angles met at Genoa Peak, the party first made
its way to the town of the same name in its vicinity, where the first of
the following letters was written.
To Dr. and Mrs. Strentzel
Genoa, Nevada, July 6, 1878
We rode our horses from Sacramento to this little village via Placerville
and Lake Tahoe. The plains and foothills were terribly hot, the upper Sierra
along the south fork of the American River cool and picturesque, and the
Lake region almost cold. Spent three delightful days at the Lake--steamed
around it, and visited Cascade Lake a mile beyond the western shore of
We are now making up our train ready to push off into the Great Basin.
Am well mounted, and with the fine brave old garden desert before me, fear
no ill. We will probably reach Austin, Nevada, in about a month. Write
to me there, care Captain A. F. Rodgers.
Your fruity hollow wears a most beautiful and benignant aspect from
this alkaline standpoint, and so does the memory of your extravagant kindness.
To Dr. and Mrs. Strentzel
West Walker River
Near Wellington's Station
July 11th, 1878
We are now fairly free in the sunny basin of the grand old sea that
stretched from the Wasatch to the Sierra. There is something perfectly
enchanting to me in this young desert with its stranded island ranges.
How bravely they rejoice in the flooding sunshine and endure the heat and
All goes well in camp. All the Indians we meet are harmless as sagebushes,
though perhaps about as bitter at heart. The river here goes brawling out
into the plain after breaking through a range of basaltic lava.
In three days we shall be on top of Mount Grant, the highest peak of
the Wassuck Range, to the west of Walker Lake.
I send you some Nevada prunes, or peaches rather. They are very handsome
and have a fine wild flavor. The bushes are from three to six feet high,
growing among the sage. It is a true Prunus. Whether cultivation
could ever make it soft enough and big enough for civilized teeth I dinna
ken, but guess so. Plant it and see. It will not be ashamed of any pampered
"free" or "cling," or even your oranges.
The wild brier roses are in full bloom, sweeter and bonnier far than
Louie's best, bonnie though they be.
I can see no post-office ahead nearer than Austin, Nevada, which we
may reach in three weeks. The packs are afloat.
To Dr. John Strentzel
August 5th, 1878
Your kind note of the 24th was received the other day and your discussion
of fruits and the fineness in general of civilized things takes me at some
From the "Switch" we rode to the old Fort Churchill on the Carson and
at the "Upper" lower end of Mason Valley were delighted to find the ancient
outlet of Walker Lake down through a very picturesque cañon to its
confluence with the Carson. It appears therefore that not only the Humboldt
and Carson, but the Walker River also poured its waters into the Great
Sink towards the end of the glacial period. From Fort Churchill we pushed
east-ward between Carson Lake and the Sink. Boo! how hot it was riding in
the solenm, silent glare, shadeless, waterless. Here is what the early
emigrants called the forty-mile desert, well marked with bones and broken
wagons. Strange how the very sunshine may become dreary. How strange a
spell this region casts over poor mortals accustomed to shade and coolness
and green fertility. Yet there is no real cause, that I could see, for
reasonable beings losing their wits and becoming frightened. There are
the lovely tender abronias blooming in the fervid sand and sun, and a species
of sunflower, and a curious leguminous bush crowded with purple blossoms,
and a green saltwort, and four or five species of artemisia, really beautiful,
and three or four handsome grasses.
Lizards reveled in the grateful heat and a brave little tamias that
carries his tail forward over his back, and here and there a hare. Immense
areas, however, are smooth and hard and plantless, reflecting light like
water. How eloquently they tell of the period, just gone by, when this
region was as remarkable for its lavish abundance of lake water as now
for its aridity. The same grand geological story is inscribed on
the mountain flanks, old beach lines that seem to have been drawn with
a ruler, registering the successive levels at which the grand lake stood,
corresponding most significantly with the fluctuations of the glaciers
as marked by the terraced lateral moraines and successively higher terminal
After crossing the Sink we ascended the mountain range that bounds it
on the East, eight thousand to ten thousand feet high. How treeless and
barren it seemed. Yet how full of small charming gardens, with mints, primroses,
brier-roses, penstemons, spiraeas, etc., watered by trickling streams too
small to sing audibly. How glorious a view of the Sink from the mountain-top.
The colors are ineffably lovely, as if here Nature were doing her very
But a letter tells little. We next ascended the Augusta Range, crossed
the Desetoya and Shoshone ranges, then crossed Reese River valley and ascended
the Toyabe Range, eleven thousand feet high. Lovely gardens in all.
Discovered here the true Pinus flexilis at ten thousand feet. It enters
the Sierra in one or two places on the south extremity of the Sierra, east
flank. Saw only one rattlesnake. No hostile Indians. Had a visit at my
tent yesterday from Captain Bob, one of the Pah Ute plenipotentiaries
who lately visited McDowell at San Francisco. Next address for two weeks
from this date, Eureka, Nevada.
I'm sure I showed my appreciation of good things. That's a fine suggestion
about the grapes. Try me, Doctor, on tame, tame Tokays.
To Dr. and Mrs. John Strentzel
In camp near Belmont, Nevada
August 28th, 1878
I sent you a note from Austin. Thence we traveled southward down the
Big Smoky Valley, crossing and recrossing it between the Toyabe and Toquima
Ranges, the dominating summits of which we ascended. Thence still southward
towards Death Valley to Lone Mountain; thence northeastward to this little
From the summit of a huge volcanic table mountain of the Toquima Range
I observed a truly glorious spectacle--a dozen "cloud-bursts" falling at
once while we were cordially pelted with hail. The falling water cloud-drapery,
thunder tones, lightning, and tranquil blue sky windows between made one
of the most impressive pictures I ever beheld. One of these cloudbursts
fell upon Austin, another upon Eureka. But still more glorious to me was
the big significant fact I found here, fresh, telling glacial phenomena--a
whole series. Moraines,
roches moutonnées, glacial sculptures,
and even feeble specimens of glacier meadows and glacier lakes. I also
observed less manifest glaciation on several other ranges. I have long
guessed that this Great Basin was loaded with ice during the last cold
period; but the rocks are as unresisting and the water spouts to which
all the ranges have been exposed have not simply obscured the glacial scriptures
here, but nearly buried and obliterated them, so that only the skilled
observer would detect a single word, and he would probably be called a
glaciated monomaniac. Now it is clear that this fiery inland region was
icy prior to the lake period.
I have also been so fortunate as to settle that pine species we discussed,
and found the nest and young of the Alpine sparrow. What do you think of
all this--"A' that and a' that"? The sun heat has been intense. What a
triangle of noses!--Captain Rodgers', Eimbeck's, and mine--mine sore, Eimbeck's
sorer, Captain's sorest--scaled and dry as the backs of lizards, and divided
into sections all over the surface and turned up on the edges like
the surface layers of the desiccated sections of adobe flats.
On Lone Mountain we were thirsty. How we thought of the cool
singing streams of the Sierra while our blood fevered and boiled and throbbed!
Three of us ascended the mountain against my counsel and remonstrances
while forty miles from any known water. Two of the three nearly lost their
lives. I suffered least, though I suffered as never before, and was the
only one strong enough to ascend a sandy cañon to find and fetch
the animals after descending the mountain. Then I had to find my two companions.
One I found death-like, lying in the hot sand, scarcely conscious and unable
to speak above a frightful whisper. I managed, however, to get him on his
horse. The other I found in a kind of delirious stupor, voiceless, in the
sagebrush. It was a fearfully exciting search, and I forgot my own exhaustion
in it, though I never for a moment lost my will and wits, or doubted our
ability to endure and escape. We reached water at daybreak of the second
day--two days and nights in this fire without water! A lesson has been
learned that will last, and we will not suffer so again. Of course we could
not eat or sleep all this time, for we could not swallow food and the fever
prevented sleep. Tomorrow we set out for the White Pine region.
To Mrs. John Strentzel
Dear Mrs. Strentzel:
August 31st, 1876
I wrote you a note the other day before receiving your letter of the
14th which reached me this morning. The men are packing up and I have only
a moment, We have been engaged so long southward that we may not go to
Eureka. If not we will make direct to Hamilton and the box the Doctor so
kindly sent I will have forwarded.
The fiery sun is pouring his first beams across the gray Belmont hills,
but so long as there is anything like a fair supply of any kind of water
to keep my blood thin and flowing, it affects me but little. We are all
well again, or nearly so--I quite. Our leader still shows traces of fever.
The difference between wet and dry bulb thermometer here is often 40°
or more, causing excessive waste from lungs and skin, and, unless water
be constantly supplied, one's blood seems to thicken to such an extent
that if Shylock should ask, "If you prick him, will he bleed?" I should
answer, "I dinna ken." Heavens! if the juicy grapes had come manna-like
from the sky that last thirst-night!
Farewell. We go.
Cordially and thankfully yours
[The following note was written, probably the evening of the same day,
on the reverse of the letter-sheet]
The very finest, softest, most ethereal purple hue tinges,
permeates, covers, glorifies the mountains and the level. How lovely then,
how suggestive of the best heaven, how unlike a desert now! While the little
garden, the hurrying moths, the opening flowers, and the cool evening wind
that now begins to flow and lave down the gray slopes above, heighten the
peacefulness and loveliness of the scene.
To Dr. and Mrs. John Strentzel
September 11, 1878
All goes well in camp save that box of grapes you so kindly sent. I
telegraphed for it, on arriving at this place, to be sent by Wells Fargo,
but it has not come, and we leave here tomorrow. We had hoped to have been
in Eureka by the middle of last month, but the unknown factors
so abundant in our work have pushed us so far southward we will not now
be likely to go there at all. Nevertheless I have enjoyed your kindness
even in this last grape expression of it, but you must not try to send
any more, because we will not again be within grape range of railroads
until on our way home in October or November. Then, should there be any
left, I will manifest for my own good and the edification of civilization
a fruit capacity and fervor to be found only in savage camps.
Since our Lone Mountain experience we have not been thirsty. Our course
hence is first south for eighty or ninety miles along the western flank
of the White Pine Range, then east to the Snake Range near the boundary
of the State, etc.
Our address will be Hamilton, Nevada, until the end of this month. Our
movements being so uncertain, we prefer to have our mail forwarded to points
where we chance to find ourselves. In southern Utah the greater portion
of our course will be across deserts.
The roses are past bloom, but I'll send seeds from the first garden
I find. Yesterday found on Mount Hamilton the
Pinus aristata growing
on limestone and presenting the most extravagant picturesqueness I have
ever met in any climate or species. Glacial traces, too, of great interest.
This is the famous White Pine mining region, now nearly dead. Twenty-eight
thousand mining claims were located in the district, which is six miles
by twelve. Now only fifteen are worked, and of these only one, the Eberhardt,
gives much hope or money. Both Hamilton and Treasure City are silent now,
but Nature goes on gloriously.
To Dr. John Strentzel
Ward, Nevada, Saturday morning
September 28th, 1878
Your kind letter of the 8th ultimo reached me yesterday, having been
forwarded from Hamilton. This is a little three-year-old mining town where
we are making a few days' halt to transact some business and rest the weary
animals. We arrived late, when it was too dark to set the tents, and we
recklessly camped in a corral on a breezy hilltop. I have a great horror
of sleeping upon any trodden ground near human settlements, not to say
ammoniacal pens, but the Captain had his blankets spread alongside the
wagon, and I dared the worst and lay down beside him. A wild equinoctial
gale roared and tumbled down the mountain-side all through the night, sifting
the dry fragrant snuff about our eyes and ears, notwithstanding all our
care in tucking and rolling our ample blankets. The situation was not exactly
distressing, but most absurdly and d---dly ludicrous. Our camp traps,
basins, bowls, bags, went speeding wildly past in screeching rumbling discord
with the earnest wind-tones. A heavy mill-frame was blown down, but we
suffered no great damage, most of our runaway gear having been found in
fence corners. But how terribly we stood in need of deodorizers!--not dealkalizers,
as you suggest.
Next morning we rented a couple of rooms in town where we now are and
washed, rubbed, dusted, and combed ourselves back again into countenance.
Half an hour ago, after reading your letter a second time, I tumbled out
my pine tails, tassels, and burrs, and was down on my knees on the floor
making a selection for you according to your wishes and was casting about
as to the chances of finding a suitable box, when the Captain, returning
from the post-office, handed me your richly laden grape box, and now the
grapes are out and the burrs are in. Now this was a coincidence worth noting,
was it not?--better than most people's special providence The fruit was
in perfect condition, every individual spheroid of them all fresh and bright
and as tightly bent as drums with their stored-up sun-juices. The big bunch
is hung up for the benefit of eyes, most of the others have already vanished,
causing, as they fled, a series of the finest sensuous nerve-waves imaginable.
The weather is now much cooler--the nights almost bracingly cold--and
all goes well, not a thirst trace left. We were weather-bound a week in
a cañon of the Golden Gate Range, not by storms, but by soft, balmy,
hazy Indian summer, in which the mountain aspens ripened to flaming yellow,
while the sky was too opaque for observations upon the distant peaks.
Since leaving Hamilton, have obtained more glacial facts of great interest,
very telling in the history, of the Great Basin. Also many charming additions
to the thousand, thousand pictures of Nature's mountain beauty. I understand
perfectly your criticism on the blind pursuit of every scientific pebble,
wasting a life in microscopic examinations of every grain of wheat in a
field, but I am not so doing. The history of this vast wonderland is scarce
at all known, and no amount of study in other fields will develop it to
the light. As to that special thirst affair, I was in no way responsible.
I was fully awake to the danger, but I was not in a position to prevent
Our work goes on hopefully towards a satisfactory termination. Will
soon be in Utah. All the mountains yet to be climbed have been seen from
other summits save two on the Wasatch, viz. Mount Nebo and a peak back
of Beaver. Our next object will be Wheeler's Peak, forty miles east of
The fir I send you is remarkably like the Sierra grandis,
much smaller, seldom attaining a greater height than fifty feet. In going
east from the Sierra it was first met on the Hot Creek Range, and afterwards
on all the higher ranges thus far. It also occurs on the Wasatch and Oquirrh
Mountains. Of the two pines, that with the larger cones is called "White
Pine" by the settlers. It was first met on Cory's Peak west of Walker Lake,
and afterwards on all the mountains thus far that reached an elevation
of ten thousand feet or more. This, I have no doubt, is the species so
rare on the Sierra, and which I found on the eastern slope opposite the
head of Owens Valley. Two years ago I saw it on the Wasatch above Salt
Lake. I mean to send specimens to Gray and Hooker, as they doubtless observed
it on the Rocky Mountains. The other species is the arislata of
the southern portion of the Sierra above the Kern and Kings Rivers. Is
but little known, though exceedingly interesting. First met on the Hot
Creek Range, and more abundantly on the White Pine Mountains--called Fox-Tail
Pine by the miners, on account of its long bushy tassels. It is by far
the most picturesque of all pines, and those of these basin ranges far
surpass those of the Sierra in extravagant and unusual beauty of the picturesque
kind. These three species and the Fremont or nut pine and junipers are
the only coniferous trees I have thus far met in the State. Possibly the
Yellow Pine (ponderosa) may be found on the Snake Range. I observed
it last year on the Wasatch, together with one Abies. Of course that small
portion of Nevada which extends into the Sierra about Lake Tahoe is not
considered in this connection, for it is naturally a portion of California,
Upon his return from the mountains of Nevada Muir found that sickness
had invaded the family of John Swett, with whom he had made his home for
the last three years, and it became necessary for him to find new lodgings.
In a letter addressed to Mrs. John Bidwell, under date of February 17,
1879, he writes: "I have settled for the winter at 920 Valencia Street
[San Francisco], with my friend Mr. [Isaac] Upham, of Payot, Upham and
Company, Booksellers; am comfortable, but not very fruitful thus far--reading
more than writing." This remained his temporary abode until his marriage
and removal to Martinez the following year. The famous wooden clock shared
also this last removal and continued its service as a faithful timepiece
for many years to come.
To Dr. and Mrs. John Strentzel
920 Valencia St., San Francisco
January 28th, 1879
The vast soul-stirring work of flitting is at length done and well
done. Myself, wooden clock, and notebooks are once more planted for the
winter out here on the outermost ragged edge of this howling metropolis
of dwelling boxes.
And now, well what now? Nothing but work, bookmaking, brick-making,
the transformation of raw bush sugar and mountain meal into magazine cookies
and snaps. And though the spectacled critics who ken everything in wise
ignorance say "well done, sir, well done," I always feel that there is
something not quite honorable in thus dealing with God's wild gold--the
sugar and meal, I mean.
Yesterday I began to try to cook a mess of bees, but have not yet succeeded
in making the ink run sweet. The blessed brownies winna buzz in this temperature,
and what can a body do about it? Maybe ignorance is the deil that is spoiling
the--the--the broth--the nectar, and perhaps I ought to go out and gather
some more Melissa and thyme and white sage for the pot.
The streets here are barren and beeless and ineffably muddy and mean-looking.
How people can keep hold of the conceptions of New Jerusalem and immortality
of souls with so much mud and gutter, is to me admirably strange. A Eucalyptus
bush on every other comer, standing tied to a painted stick, and a geranium
sprout in a pot on every tenth window sill may help heavenward a little,
but how little amid so muckle down-dragging mud!
This much for despondency; per contra, the grass and grain is growing,
and man will be fed, and the nations will be glad, etc., and the sun rises
Helen [Swett] is well out of danger, and is very nearly her own sweet
amiable engaging little self again, and I can see her at least once a week.
I'm living with Mr. Upham and am comfortable as possible. Summer will
soon be again.
When you come to the city visit me, and see how bravely I endure; so
touching a lesson of resignation to metropolitan evils and goods should
not be lightly missed.
Hoping all goes well with you, I am,
Cordially your friend
Frequently, in letters to friends, Muir complains that in town he
is unable to compel the right mood for the production of readable articles.
"As yet I have accomplished very nearly nothing," he writes some weeks
after the above letter; he had only "reviewed a little book, and written
a first sketch of our bee pastures! . . .
How astoundingly empty and dry--box-like!--is
our brain in a house built on one of those precious 'lots' one hears so
The fact is that Muir's personal letters, like his conversation, flowed
smoothly and easily; but when he sat down to write an article, his critical
faculty was called into play, and his thoughts, to employ his own simile,
began to labor like a laden wagon in a bog. There was a consequent loss
of that spontaneity which made him such a fascinating talker. "John polishes
his articles until an ordinary man slips on them," remarked his friend
and neighbor John Swett when he wished to underline his own sense of the
difference between Muir's spoken and written words. Such was the brilliance
of his conversation during the decades of his greatest power that the fame
of it still lingers as a literary tradition in California. Organizations
and individuals vied with each other to secure his attendance at public
and private gatherings, convinced that the announcement "John Muir will
be there" would assure the success of any meeting. It was with this thought
in mind that the manager of a great Sunday-School convention, scheduled
to meet in Yosemite in June, 1879, offered him a hundred dollars just to
come and talk.
It seems a pity that in his earlier years no one thought of having his
vivid recitals of observations and adventures recorded by a stenographer
and then placed before him for revision. By direction of the late E. H.
Harriman, Muir's boyhood memoirs were taken down from his conversation
at Pelican Lodge to be subsequently revised for publication. Though he
often entirely rewrote the conversational first draft, the possession of
the raw material in typed form acted as a stimulus to literary production,
and enabled him to bring to completion what otherwise might have been lost
to the world.
But, however much he chafed and groaned under the necessity of meeting
his contracts for articles, the remarkable series which he wrote during
the late seventies for "Harper's Magazine" and "Scribner's Monthly" are
conclusive demonstrations of his power. Among them was "The Humming-Bird
of the California Waterfalls" which loaded his mail with letters from near
and far, and evoked admiration from the foremost writers of the time. Though
Muir was not without self-esteem, the flood of praise that descended upon
him gave him more embarrassment than gratification, especially when his
sisters desired to know the identity of this or that lady who had dedicated
a poem to him.
Scarcely any one knew at this time that there was a lady not far from
San Francisco who, though not writing poems, was playing rival to the bee
pastures of his articles, and that when, during the spring of 1879, he
disappeared occasionally from the Upham household on Valencia Street,
he could have been found, and not alone, in the Strentzel orchards at Martinez.
"Every one," writes John to Miss Strentzel in April--"every one, according
to the eternal unfitness of civilized things, has been seeking me and calling
on me while I was away. John Swett, on his second failure to find me,
left word with Mr. Upham that he was coming to Martinez some time to see
me during the summer vacation! The other day I chanced to find in my pocket
that slippery, fuzzy mesh you wear round your neck." The feminine world
probably will recognize in the last sentence a characteristically masculine
description of a kind of head-covering fashionable in those days and known
as a "fascinator."
The same letter contains evidence that the orchards did not let him
forget them when he returned to San Francisco, for after reporting that
he had finished "Snow Banners" and is at work upon "Floods," he breaks
off in the middle of a sentence to exclaim "Boo!!! aren't they lovely!!!
The bushel of bloom, I mean. Just came this moment. Never was so blankly
puzzled in making a guess before lifting the lid. An orchard in a band-box!!!
Who wad ha thocht it? A swarm of bees and fifty humming-birds would have
made the thing complete."
Early in the year Muir had carefully laid his plans for a new exploration
trip, this time into the Puget Sound region. There doubtless was something
in the circumstances and uncertainties of this new venture that brought
to culmination his friendship with Miss Strentzel, for they became engaged
on the eve of his departure, though for months no one outside of the family
knew anything about it, so closely was the secret kept. Even to Mrs. Carr,
who had ardently hoped for this outcome, he merely wrote: "I'm going home--going
to my summer in the snow and ice and forests of the north coast. Will sail
to-morrow at noon on the Dakota for Victoria and Olympia. Will then push
inland and alongland. May visit Alaska."
He did, as it turned out, go to Alaska that summer, and the first literary
fruitage of this trip took the form of eleven letters to the "San Francisco
Evening Bulletin." Written on the spot, they preserve the freshness of
his first impressions, and were read with breathless interest by an ever-enlarging
circle of readers. Toward the close of his life these vivid sketches were
utilized, together with his journals, in writing the first part of his
"Travels in Alaska." It was at Fort Wrangell that he met the Reverend S.
Hall Young, then stationed as a missionary among the Thlinkit Indians.
Mr. Young later accompanied him on various canoe and land expeditions,
particularly the one up Glacier Bay, that resulted in the discovery of
a number of stupendous glaciers, the largest of which was afterwards to
receive the name of Muir. In his book, "Alaska Days with John Muir," Mr.
Young has given a most readable and vivid account of their experiences
together, and the interested reader will wish to compare, among other things,
the author's own account of his thrilling rescue from certain death on
the precipices of Glenora Peak with Muir's modest description of the heroic
part he played in the adventure.
It is Young also who relates how Muir, by his daring and original ways
of inquiring into Nature's every mood, came to be regarded by the Indians
as a mysterious being whose motives were beyond all conjecture. A notable
instance was the occasion on which, one wild, stormy night, he left the
shelter of Young's house and slid out into the inky darkness and wind-driven
sheets of rain. At two o'clock in the morning a rain-soaked group of Indians
hammered at the missionary's door, and begged him to pray. "We scare. All
Stickeen scare," they said, for some wakeful ones had seen a red glow on
top of a neighboring mountain and the mysterious, portentous phenomenon
had immediately been communicated to the whole frightened tribe. "We want
you to play [pray] God; plenty play," they said.
The reader will not find it difficult to imagine what had happened,
for Muir was the unconscious cause of their alarm. He had made his way
through the drenching blast to the top of a forested hill, There he had
contrived to start "a fire, a big one, to see as well as to hear how the
storm and trees were behaving." At midnight his fire, sheltered from the
village by the brow of the hill, was shedding its glow upon the low-flying
storm-clouds, striking terror to the hearts of the Indians, who thought
they saw something that "waved in the air like wings of a spirit." And
while they were imploring the prayers of the missionary for their safety,
Muir, according to his own account, was sitting under a bark shelter in
front of his fire, with "nothing to do but look and listen and join the
trees it. their hymns and prayers."
Meanwhile Muir's "Bulletin" letters had greatly enlarged its circulation
and were being copied all over the country to the great delight of the
editor, Sam Williams, who had long been a warm friend of Muir. The latter's
descriptions reflected the boundless enthusiasm which these newfound wildernesses
of Alaska aroused in him. In the Sierra Nevada his task was to reconstruct
imaginatively, from vestiges of vanished glaciers, the picture of their
prime during the ice period; but here he saw actually at work the stupendous
landscape-making glaciers of Alaska, and in their action he found verified
the conclusions of his "Studies in the Sierra." No wonder he tarried in
the North months beyond the time he had set for his return. "Every summer,"
he wrote to Miss Strentzel from Fort Wrangell in October--"every summer
my gains from God's wilds grow greater. This last seems the greatest of
all. For the first few weeks I was so feverishly excited with the boundless
exuberance of the woods and the wilderness, of great ice floods, and the
manifest scriptures of the ice-sheet that modelled the lovely archipelagoes
along the coast, that I could hardly settle down to the steady labor required
in making any sort of Truth one's own. But I'm working now, and feel unable
to leave the field. Had a most glorious time of it among the Stickeen glaciers,
which in some shape or other will reach you."
Upon landing in Portland on his return in January, he was persuaded
to give several public lectures and to make an observation trip up the
Columbia River. At his lodgings in San Francisco there had gathered meanwhile
an immense accumulation of letters, and among them one that bridged the
memories of a dozen eventful years. It was from Katharine Merrill Graydon,
one of the three little Samaritans who used to visit him after the accidental
injury to one of his eyes in an Indianapolis wagon factory. "The three
children you knew best," said the writer, "the ones who long ago in the
dark room delighted to read to you and bring you flowers, are now men and
women. Merrill is a young lawyer with all sorts of aspirations. Janet is
at home, a young lady of leisure. Your 'little friend Katie' is teacher
in a fashionable boarding-school, which I know is not much of a recommendation
to a man who turns his eyes away from all flowers but the wild rose and
the sweetbrier." The main occasion of the letter was to introduce Professor
David Starr Jordan and Mr. Charles Gilbert, who were going to the Pacific
Coast. "I send this," continued the writer, "with a little quaking of the
heart. What if you should ask, 'Who is Kate Graydon?' Still I have faith
that even ten or twelve years have not obliterated the pleasant little
friendship formed one summer so long ago. The remembrance on my part was
wonderfully quickened one morning nearly two years ago when Professor Jordan
read to our class the sweetest, brightest, most musical article on the
'Water Ouzel' from 'Scribner's.' The writer, he said, was John Muir. The
way my acquaintance of long ago developed into friendship, and the way
I proudly said I knew you, would have made you laugh."
This letter brought the following response:
To Miss Katharine Merrill Graydon
920 Valencia Street, San Francisco
My Dear Katie, Miss Kate Graydon,
February 5th, 1880
Professor of Greek and English Literature, etc.
My Dear, Frail, Wee, Bashful Lassie and Dear Madam:
I was delighted with your bright charming letter introducing your friends
Professor [David Starr] Jordan and Charles Gilbert. I have not yet met
either of the gentlemen. They are at Santa Barbara, but expect to be here
in April, when I hope to see them and like them for your sake, and Janet's,
and their own worth.
Some time ago I learned that you were teachmg Greek, and of all the
strange things in this changeful world, this seemed
the strangest, and
the most difficult to get packed quietly down into my awkward mind. Therefore
I will have to get you to excuse the confusion I fell into at the beginning
of my letter, I mean to come to you in a year or two, or any time soon,
to see you all in your new developments. The sweet blooming underbrush
of boys and girls--Moores, Merrills, Graydons, etc.--was very refreshing
and pleasant to me all my Indiana days, and now that you have
all grown up into trees, strong and thrifty, waving your outreaching branches
in God's Light, I am sure I shall love you all. Going to Indianapolis is
one of the brightest of my hopes. It seems but yesterday since I left you
all. And indeed, in very truth, all these years have been to me one unbroken
day, one continuous walk in one grand garden.
I'm glad you like my wee dear ouzel. He is one of the most complete
of God's small darlings. I found him in Alaska a month or two ago. I made
a long canoe trip of seven hundred miles from Fort Wrangell northward,
exploring the glaciers and icy fiords of the coast and inland channels
with one white man and four Indians. And on the way back to Wrangell, while
exploring one of the deep fiords with lofty walls like those of Yosemite
Valley, and with its waters crowded with immense bergs discharged from
the noble glaciers, I found a single specimen of his blessed tribe. We
had camped on the shore of the fiord among huge icebergs that had been
stranded at high tide, and next morning made haste to get away, fearing
that we would be frozen in for the winter; and while pushing our canoe
through the bergs, admiring and fearing the grand beauty of the icy wilderness,
my blessed favorite came out from the shore to see me, flew once round
the boat, gave one cheery note of welcome, while seeming to say, "You need
not fear this ice and frost, for you see I am here," then flew back to
the shore and alighted on the edge of a big white berg, not so far away
but that I could see him doing his happy manners.
In this one summer in the white Northland I have seen perhaps ten times
as many glacier's as there are in all Switzerland. But I cannot hope to
tell you about them now, or hardly indeed at any time, for the best things
and thoughts one gets from Nature we dare not tell. I will be so happy
to see you again, not to renew my acquaintance, for that has not been for
a moment interrupted, but to know you better in your new growth.
Ever your friend
Years afterwards Dr. Jordan, as he notes in his autobiography, The
Days of a Man, took the opportunity to bestow the name Ouzel Basin
on the old glacier channel "near which John Muir sketched his unrivaled
biography of a water ouzel."
Any one who has heard the February merriment of Western meadowlarks
in the Alhambra Valley must know that winter gets but a slight foothold
there, for it tilts toward the sun, and is in full radiance of blossom
and song during March and April. John Muir and Louie Wanda Strentzel chose
the fourteenth of the latter flower month for their wedding day and were
ready to share their secret with their friends. "Visited the immortals
Brown and Swett," confesses John to his fiancée in one of his notes,
and the announcement was followed immeately by shoals of congratulatory
letters. The one from Mrs. John Swett, in whose home he had spent so many
happy days, is not only fairly indicative of the common opinion, but draws
some lines of Muir's character that make it worthy of a place here.
To Louie Wanda Strentzel
My Dear Miss Strentzel:
April 8, 1880
When Mr. Muir made his appearance the other night I thought he had
a sheepish twinkle in his eye, but ascribed it to a guilty consciousness
that he had been up to Martinez again and a fear of being rallied about
it. Judge then of the sensation when he exploded his bombshell! At first
laughing incredulity--it was April. We were on our guard against being
taken in, but the mention of Dr. Dwinell's name and a date settled it,
and I have hunted up a pen to write you a letter of congratulation. For
John and I are jubilant over the match. It gratifies completely our sense
of fitness, for you both have a fair foundation of the essentials of good
health, good looks, good temper, etc. Then you both have culture, and to
crown all you have "prospects" and he has talent and distinction.
But I hope you are good at a hair-splitting argument. You will need
to be to hold your own with him. Five times to-day has he vanquished me.
Not that I admitted it to him--no, never! He not only excels in argument,
but always takes the highest ground--is always on the right side. He told
Colonel Boyce the other night that his position was that of champion
for a mean, brutal policy. It was with regard to Indian extermination,
and that he (Boyce) would be ashamed to carry it with one Indian in personal
conflict. I thought the Colonel would be mad, but they walked off arm in
arm. Further, he is so truthful that he not only will never embellish sketch
or word-picture by any imaginary addition, but even retains every unsightly
feature lest his picture should not be true.
There, I have said all I can in his favor, and as an offset I must tell
you that I have been trying all day to soften his hard heart of an old
animosity and he won't yield an inch. It is sometimes impossible to please
him. . . .
With hearty regard, I am
Yours very truly
Mary Louise Swett
The occasion of the following letter was one from Miss Graydon in which
she rallied him on her sudden discovery of how much sympathy she had wasted
on him because she had imagined him without friends or companions except
glaciers and icebergs, and without even a mother to wear out her anxious
heart about him. "I heard," she wrote, "that your mother was still living
and that you had not been near her for twelve years. And then, while I
supposed you had not a lady friend in the world, I heard you were the center
of an adoring circle of ladie's in San Francisco. If you heard any one
laugh about that time, it was I. See if I ever waste my sympathy on you
To Miss Katharine Merrill Graydon
1419 Taylor St., San Francisco
My Dear Girl-woman, Katie and Miss Kate:
April 12th, 1880
Your letter of March 28th has reached me, telling how much loving sympathy
I am to have because I have a mother, and because of the story of my adoring
circle of lady friends. Well, what is to become of me when I tell you that
I am to marry one of those friends the day after to-morrow? What sympathy
will be left the villain who has a mother and a wife also, and even a home
and a circle, etc., and twice as muckle as a' that? But now, even now,
Katie, don't, don't withdraw your sympathy. You know that I never did demand
pity for the storm-beatings and rock-beds and the hunger and loneliness
of all these years since you were a frail wee lass, for I have been very
happy and strong through it all--the happiest man I ever saw; but, nevertheless,
I want to hold on to and love all my friends, for they are the most precious
of all my riches.
I hope to see you all this year or next, and no amount of marrying will
diminish the enjoyment of meeting you again. And some of you will no doubt
come to this side of the Continent, and then how happy I will be to welcome
you to a warm little home in the Contra Costa hills near the bay.
I have been out of town for a week or two, and have not seen much of
Professor Jordan and Mr. Gilbert. They are very busy about the fishes,
crabs, clams, oysters, etc. Have called at his hotel two or three times,
and have had some good Moores and Merrill talks, but nothing short of a
good long excursion in the free wilderness would ever mix us as much as
you seem to want.
Now, my brave teacher lassie, good luck to you. Heaven bless you, and
Ever truly your friend
It was fitting, perhaps, that one who loved Nature in her wildest
moods, should have his wedding day distinguished by a roaring rainstorm
through which he drove Dr. I. E. Dwinell, the officiating clergyman, back
to the Martinez station in a manner described by the latter as "like the
rush of a torrent down the cañon." Both relatives and friends, to
judge by their letters, were so completely surprised by the happy event
that it proved "a nine days' wonder." The social stir occasioned by the
wedding was, however, far from gratifying to Mr. Muir, who had to summon
all his courage to prevent his besetting bashfulness from driving him to
the seclusion of the nearest cañon.
But lest the reader imagine that Muir's home was henceforward to be
on the beaten crossways of annoying crowds, let me hasten to add that the
old Strentzel home, which the bride's parents vacated for their daughter,
was a more than ordinarily secluded and quiet place. Cascades of ivy and
roses fell over the corners of the wide verandas, and the slope upon which
the house stood had an air of leaning upon its elbows and looking tranquilly
down across hill-girt orchards to the blue waters of Carquinez Straits.
There, a mile away, at the entrance of the valley, nestled the little town
of Martinez, but scarcely a whisper of its activities might be heard above
the contented hum of Alhambra bees. It was an ideal place for a honeymoon
and there we leave the happy pair.
to Chapter 12 |
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