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John Muir's Last Journey
South to the Amazon and East to Africa
By John Muir, Michael P. Branch
ISLAND PRESSCopyright © 2001 Island Press
All rights reserved.
Preparing for the Last Journey: California, New York, and Boston
26 January 1911-12 August 1911
THE YEARS LEADING up to his final journey were remarkably active ones in John Muir's life as a traveler, naturalist, activist, family man, and writer. As the twentieth century dawned, Muir was a vigorous man of sixty-one, engaged in studies of geology, glaciology, botany, and palaeontology around the American West and—between May 1903 and May 1904—tree studies around the world. Just before that travel abroad he camped with President Theodore Roosevelt in Yosemite and just after his return he worked hard to win the seventeen-year battle to have responsibility for the protection of Yosemite Valley shifted from the state of California to the federal government. In Muir's private life during this period, the frequent illness of his teenage daughter Helen was a primary concern, but not the only one. In late June 1905 his wife, Louie, suddenly became ill with what turned out to be a lung tumor, and she died in early August of that year. Now alone, Muir wandered between the old family ranch in Martinez and various natural history studies in the field and at Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley.
Though punctuated by periods of loneliness, the years following Louie's death were rich and active ones for Muir, filled with happy family occasions and numerous travels with friends. In the summer of 1906 his eldest daughter, Wanda, married Thomas Rae Hanna and moved into the adobe house immediately behind Muir's own house on the Martinez ranch. The following summer Muir made extensive trips to the Hetch Hetchy Valley with the Sierra Club and with his friend the artist William Keith. In the summer of 1908 Muir dictated his autobiography at the Pelican Bay, Oregon, lodge of his friend, the powerful railroad magnate and financier Edward H. Harriman.
In 1909 Muir, now in his seventies, continued his remarkably active schedule of travels and explorations, making a six-week trip to the Southwest and visiting the Grand Canyon with fellow literary naturalist John Burroughs. Later that year he traveled to the lower Colorado River with Harriman, to Yosemite with Burroughs, to Hetch Hetchy with the Sierra Club, and to Daggett, California, where Helen was now living in hopes the desert air would improve her health. In October he toured Yosemite with President Taft, and Hetch Hetchy with Secretary of the Interior Richard Ballinger. Muir's family life also had its blessings. Although Helen was ill with typhoid during the spring of 1909, she recovered well and was married to Buel A. Funk in October of that year. By 1909 Wanda had already given Muir his second grandchild.
These were also remarkably productive years for Muir as a writer. Stickeen, his famous dog story, was published in 1909, and in 1910 he completed the manuscript of My First Summer in the Sierra and began work on several other book projects. Although 1910 was a year busy with travels in California and the Southwest, Muir returned four times to Los Angeles to lodge and write at the home of his wealthy friend John D. Hooker, the amateur astronomer and retired ironmaster. Muir's friendship with the Hooker family was vitally important to him during these years. Much of his best writing from this period was accomplished not in the "scribble den" of the old Martinez ranch house, but in the garret of the Hooker's home on West Adams Street in Los Angeles, and many of his most expressive letters from the South America and Africa journey were written to J. D. Hooker's wife, Katharine, who was widowed several months before Muir sailed for the southern continents.
Muir's earnest preparations for a trip to South America began in early 1911. He was then seventy-two years old and the grandfather of three: Wanda's sons, Strentzel and John Hanna, and Helen's infant son, Muir Funk. Nevertheless, he had decided to go east to begin his long sea voyage to the Amazon. He also hoped to use the East Coast portion of the trip to lobby representatives in Washington (and prominent men everywhere he could) on the need to preserve the endangered Hetch Hetchy Valley, and to arrange for publication of the several books he was then working on. After doing what he could on both counts, Muir reckoned, he would be free to take an Atlantic steamer south to the Amazon and beyond in order to study the great trees of the only major parts of the world he had not yet visited.
By January 1911 the outline of Muir's plan was shaped, though the details of the trip east and journey south were as yet uncertain. Muir's friend and Yosemite ally Robert Underwood Johnson, an editor at Century Magazine, was already soliciting from him any essays that might come out of the planned Amazonian travels. "Don't forget that we want your impressions of South America," reminded Johnson in a January 18 letter to Muir, to which Muir responded, in the January 26 letter included in this chapter, "[m]y impressions of South America, that you mention may be a long way off yet, but I hope to make that journey before it is too late."
Muir's correspondence from early 1911 is also replete with concerns about Hetch Hetchy Valley, the fate of which had already been a matter of contention for more than a decade. Requiring additional water sources to satisfy a booming population, the city of San Francisco had attempted to gain rights to the Valley since 1901 but had been energetically opposed by Muir and his Sierra Club allies, who argued that the location of Hetch Hetchy within Yosemite National Park (established in 1891) made it inviolable by urban commercial interests. The stakes in the Hetch Hetchy fight were high: if the city won and the Valley was dammed, it would assert the anthropocentric standard of the greatest good for the greatest number of people; if the Sierra Club won and the Valley was saved, it would assert the preservationist standard that national parks were sacred ground that should be protected in perpetuity.
In 1911 Muir was cautiously optimistic about efforts to preserve Hetch Hetchy from industrial incursion. In a January 27 letter to the family of Herbert Gleason, the photographer whose work illustrates the first edition of My First Summer in the Sierra, he wrote that "[a]ll continues to go well as far as I know with the Sierra Club in its work, especially with reference to the preservation of Hetch-Hetchy." By February 15, however, Muir informed his friend the palaeontologist and natural history curator Henry Fairfield Osborn that "the Hetch-Hetchy question" remained unsettled, and he correctly guessed that a great deal of "hard fighting" was still ahead for the preservationists. Six weeks later Muir was palpably disgusted with renewed efforts to destroy Hetch Hetchy, and on March 31 he sent letters of protest to a number of high-ranking federal officials, including President Taft himself, to whom he wrote, with characteristic candor, that "the San Francisco thieves and robbers are still at work, bent on destroying some of the grandest of God's handiwork in the Yosemite National Park." However, letters would not be enough, and Muir was already preparing to go east to lobby on behalf of "Hetch Hetchy immortal business" before sailing for South America.
In mid-February Muir returned from Los Angeles to Martinez to handle business at the ranch, though he was back in L.A. briefly on March 21 to attend a dinner honoring his friend Theodore Roosevelt, whom he had guided through the Yosemite wilderness in 1903. Attending the dinner were "a party of about a dozen gentlemen," which included host Arthur Fleming, Roosevelt, and John Burroughs. Muir was also invited to Roosevelt's lecture later that evening, "A Zoological Trip through Africa"—a topic of considerable interest to Muir, who seems already to have been considering whether to extend the planned South America journey so far as Africa.
Returning to Martinez after what he called "a very brilliant and in every way Rooseveltian affair," Muir took up his South America travel plans with new resolve. In his correspondence from this period there is a sense of urgency that confirms his commitment to reach the Amazon—a desire for South American travel mixed with a fear that if he did not go at once he might miss his opportunity to go at all. During late March and early April Muir settled matters at the ranch, arranged his manuscripts a bit, and wrote some final letters urging loved ones to take special care in his absence. On the evening of April 20 he left San Francisco, bound for New York on a private railcar provided courtesy of the family of his friend E. H. Harriman, whom he eulogized in a booklet entitled Edward Henry Harriman, and with whose family he often corresponded.
Although we have no details of Muir's trip to New York, it is certain that after his arrival he wasted little time in getting to Washington, D.C., and lobbying on behalf of Hetch Hetchy. As early as May 8, Muir was already able to inform William Colby of the "good luck" that had allowed him to preach the preservation of the Valley in meetings with President Taft, Secretary of the Interior Walter Fisher, Speaker of the House Champ Clark, Congressman Joseph Cannon, and "lots of senators and representatives." In a letter included in this chapter Muir wrote to Katharine Hooker that"[e]ver since my arrival on this crowded side of the continent I've been in a dizzy whirl of National Park work, book publishing arrangements, South American plans, visits, receptions, dinners, etc." "In particular," he noted, perhaps in explanation for delays in his planned departure for the Amazon, "I feel bound to do all in my power for the Hetch Hetchy Valley ere I vanish in the wilderness of the other America."
In addition to ambitious lobbying work to preserve the endangered valley, Muir was also busy arranging for publication of the several books he then had in progress. His first book, The Mountains of California, had been published by the Century Company in 1894, but Houghton Mifflin had published Stickeen in 1909 and had My First Summer in the Sierra, which would come out in June 1911, already in press. Nevertheless, Muir had decided to return to the Century Company for the publication of "a Yosemite book"—which he sometimes referred to by the tentative title "Yosemite Valley and Other Yosemites"—that he was even then rushing to finish before leaving for South America. On May 13 Muir traveled from New York City to Rochester on the Harrimans' private railcar, and within a few days had continued on to Boston to discuss with Houghton Mifflin possible terms of publication for his autobiography. Although Century was also interested in the autobiography, Muir ultimately decided—after some negotiations regarding advance serial publication—to contract with Houghton Mifflin, which eventually brought out The Story of My Boyhood and Youth in March 1913.
In addition to visiting New York, Washington, and Boston, Muir also spent a few days in New Haven, where, on June 21, he received an honorary degree from Yale University. Although Harvard had likewise honored him in 1896 and the University of Wisconsin had done so in 1897, Muir seemed to enjoy the Yale ceremony particularly, and he composed a number of charming, comically self-deprecating, mock-heroic missives, such as the June 27 letter to Charlotte Kellogg that is reproduced in this chapter.
Though Muir often referred to himself as "the wanderer," his desire to wander to South America was being delayed by a number of obligations, the most urgent of which was the need to finish the manuscript of the Yosemite book before "vanish[ing] in the wilderness of the other America." His letters throughout June and July routinely refer to the Yosemite book and his need to complete it as soon as possible. In a July 14 letter to John Burroughs, Muir explained that he had intended to work on the book in the offices of the Century Company in New York City but that the extraordinary heat of the summer of 1911 had driven him to the Hudson highlands, where he had decided to work in the cooler, more comfortable surroundings at Castle Rock, his friend Henry Fairfield Osborn's summer house at Garrison on the Hudson, near West Point. Muir was working almost constantly during July, and he now routinely declined social and professional invitations in order to remain at Castle Rock and finish his Yosemite book in time to sail for the Amazon by mid-August.
Amidst this physical separation from his family and friends, and laboring beneath the burden of the summer heat and worries about the fate of the treasured Hetch Hetchy Valley, Muir was working at a frenetic and exhausting pace. Though he often cautioned his daughters against overwork, Muir was himself a stubborn and often indefatigable worker, as his efforts during July and early August clearly show. His letters to his family before the journey, several of which are included here, tend to emphasize his physical preparedness for the journey. On the very day of his departure he reassures Helen: "Don't fret about me, for I've been so well fed, etc., that in spite of hard work I'm perfectly well." Other letters, such as his August 2 missive to Katharine Hooker, however, reveal the work regimen under which Muir had placed himself during the months prior to sailing: "Have been at work every morning for weeks and weeks at 5:00 to about 8:00 p.m. Fell asleep day before yesterday pen in hand though can't sleep much in bed."
Having worked approximately 100 hours per week for almost two months straight, Muir completed the manuscript of the Yosemite book on the evening of August 10, leaving him less than two days before he sailed for the Amazon. The final words of that book, published the following April under the title The Yosemite, are among his most famous: "These temple destroyers, devotees of a ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature, and, instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the mountains, lift them to the Almighty Dollar. Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people's cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man." Having ended the book with those powerful lines, Muir deposited his manuscript with the Century Company, packed his bags, wrote a few quick letters, and, by the morning of August 12, 1911, was ready to sail out of Brooklyn Harbor, bound for the great Amazon at last.
Los Angeles, California
January 26, 1911
Robert Underwood Johnson
Dear Mr. Johnson,
I am glad you are going to give me a memorandum of your relationship to Yosemite Park and other parks. Do not make it too short, as I want everybody to know that in particular you invented Yosemite Park.
On receipt of your letter of Jan. 5th I wrote immediately to your son-in-law, Mr. Holden, at the Fairmont Hotel, San Francisco, giving him my address and saying I hoped to meet him here, but I have not yet heard from him.
I shall be glad to see Mr. Scott here.
My impressions of South America, that you mention, may be a long way off yet, but I hope to make that journey before it is too late.
I am trying dictation and in the story of my life I find I can do something in the way of composition, though of course it has to be recast often.
Glad you had such a splendid time at the Academy and wish I could have been with you.
Don't work too hard, now that you are Editor, since blessed Gilder left you.
Hoping to see you ere long, I am,
Ever faithfully yours,
* * *
Los Angeles, California
February 11, 1911
Dear Mrs. Kellogg,
I'll take our first train which if on time leaves here at 6:45 and arrives San Francisco about 8:30 so I may catch your 9:00.
I want to go to the Araucaria imbricata forests and across Brazil and to South Africa and to Stanford Kellogg. The last seems most difficult of the three. Should I live through them all then "it's home and it's home and it's home I would be," if ever I'm to have a fixed home this side of the great river.
* * *
Los Angeles, California
February 15, 1911
Henry Fairfield Osborn
Dear Mr. Osborne,
No end of obstacles jumped up in my way last fall when I was planning to be with you and the Harrimans, for glorious visits and some most interesting Hetch Hetchy work.
I have been shut up in a garret this winter, writing on three different books, one of which, a little journal, is now in the press, a volume of autobiography, and a book on Yosemite Valley and other Yosemites. The greater part of the time I have been half sick with the "grip" as usual, but I hope to be with you in the spring.
By the enclosed "Resolution" you will see that the Hetch Hetchy question is still far from being settled" and I look forward to a good deal of hard fighting about next May, for the proponents of that damming scheme are still hard at work with plenty of money, leaving no stone unturned that they think may give them a chance to complete this grand national robbery. I trust, however, that President Taft and Secretary Ballinger will stand fast and that the right will triumph.
With warmest regards to Mrs. Osborne and all the family, I am,
* * *
March 2, 1911
My dear Betty Averell,
Your letter came perilously near charming me across the continent leaving all cares to gang tapsalterrie, as Burns sings. Yes, I learned that Will was going East 2 or 3 weeks ago when at Los Angeles I called to see him and get tidings of you.
Excerpted from John Muir's Last Journey by John Muir, Michael P. Branch. Copyright © 2001 Island Press. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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