Looking South from Forester Pass Elevation 13,200'
John Muir Trail
Fr. Dale Matson
There any number of things that one can do as a form of deep and extended play. All of us need these avocations to help sustain and repair us. It is also possible to say that many of these things could be metaphors for life itself. St. Paul used the metaphor of the runner and the race as a means of describing the disciplined, dedicated and steadfast life of the Christian.
“Pilgrim’s Progress” is an allegory describing the journey of life with all of the trials and tribulations of the Christian on a journey toward Heaven. Homer offered us “The Odyssey” which is both a journey of exploration and a heroic effort to return home. These journeys can bring a testing, overcoming and an occasional failure. It is seeking and self-discovery too. It is also a way to carve a spot in the ego to accommodate more humility, as we realize our limitations. It does not automatically mean that the journey with the hardships and triumphs of the pilgrim will form the pilgrim for the better. Swift’s Gulliver was embittered by his travels.
John Muir a self-taught naturalist, the founder and president of the Sierra Club, was an explorer and a seeker. He fully understood the redemptive value for “civilized” humans introduced to nature in general and the Sierra Nevada Mountains in particular. His goals were to educate and introduce the civilized to his gospel of the wilderness. For Muir, the wilderness was not only their elixir; it was their salvation. He was an evangelist for and the high priest of the wilderness. He was also an activist against careless exploitation of the wilderness. I believe he so identified with the Sierra wilderness that he put aside his Christian roots and viewed creation itself as God. He remained a spiritual man but not a religious man.
The magnificent and arguably the most beautiful trail in the world, was named in his honor. The John Muir Trail (JMT) was the vision of another seeker, Theodore Solomons, who at age 14 stood in a field near Fresno and envisioned a trail stretching along the west side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Many of the eight mountain passes on the JMT like Mather, Muir, Pinchot and Forester are named for important men who helped make the trail a reality. The Golden Staircase and Forester Pass in particular would not be possible without extensive human sculpting of granite and the use of dynamite. There are also bridges along the trail that affect the course of creeks and rivers. Would the current leadership of the Sierra Club file legal action against the construction of such a magnificent trail if it were proposed today? What started as a flexible vision and a desire to share the wilderness with others seems to have become a perceived obstructive legalism intended to protect the environment from human encroachment and influence. There has been a shift in the balance between human use and wilderness protection based on a shift in the understanding of humans and their role on this earth.
Pack it in and pack it out is the familiar refrain from those issuing wilderness permits for travel there. It is a good policy and a metaphor for life also. Our material impact should be minimal. Backpacking is a great reminder of how little we really need in life, even in the wilderness. Incarnate examples of this minimalist life are the back country rangers, who are genuine monks of the wilderness, welcoming and assisting the weary pilgrims.
John Muir loved both wilderness and his fellow humans. His goal was to reacquaint modern society members with the wilderness. This was the focal point of his activism and much of his political lobbying. Also through his efforts, national park and wilderness areas were set aside for this purpose and to protect these pristine areas from commercial exploitation. It was intended as a kind of legacy to be handed down to future generations to enjoy. Both Muir and Solomons were visionaries more than legalists. Like evangelists they wanted to share their discoveries with others and helped make that possible. I am only one of those beneficiaries and indirectly share the trail and their journey with them. Muir, Solomons and I are spiritual brothers on this trail. All are spiritual brothers and sisters who have or will travel it too. The journey can be transformative.
Thanks to visionaries like Muir, Solomons and others, I also have had the opportunity to experience the wilderness and to discover the JMT in bits, pieces and chunks over the last 20 years. There are easy access points where the trail runs close to roads in Tuolumne and Red’s Meadows, Whitney Portals and Happy Isles. Florence Lake, Edison Lake, Happy Isles, Roads End require more effort. There are also access trails to the JMT from the East side of the Sierras that were originally “use trails” of Native Americans. Each of the passes on this trail culminates in a moment of exhausted elation following the struggle against incline and thinner air. Each time the admission price was worth the view. Isn’t overcoming obstacles about gaining perspective anyway?
Like Muir, I have Scottish blood and lived in Wisconsin. I ran on the ice age trails of the Kettle Moraine area of S.E. Wisconsin, also named after Muir. Like Muir I came to California and fell in love with the Sierra wilderness. Like Muir the monastic side found peace in that wilderness. Each of the sections of the JMT that I have completed holds special memories for me and serve as unique benchmarks over the last 20 years of my lifes journey. Unlike Muir who was the high priest of the wilderness, I am simply a priest who spends time in God’s wilderness.