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 in Oregon.
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 Valley [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. StrentzelGenoa, Nevada, July 6, 1878Dear Strentzels:
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 Tahoe.
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.Farewell
To Dr. and Mrs. StrentzelWest Walker RiverDear Strentzels:
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 drought.
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.Good-morning.
To Dr. John Strentzel
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 moraines.
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 best painting.
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.
[The following note was written, probably the evening of the same day, on the reverse of the letter-sheet]To Dr. and Mrs. John StrentzelIn camp near Belmont, NevadaDear Strentzels:
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 mining town.
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.Cordially yours
To Mrs. John StrentzelBilmont, NevadaDear 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 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 StrentzelHamilton, NevadaDear Strentzels:
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.Cordially yours
To Dr. John StrentzelWard, Nevada, Saturday morningDear Doctor:
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 it.
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 here.
The fir I send you is remarkably like the Sierra grandis, but 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 Strentzel920 Valencia St., San FranciscoDear Friends:
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 every day.
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 much about!”
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 Graydon920 Valencia Street, San FranciscoMy 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.
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 again!”To Louie Wanda StrentzelSan Francisco,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 amYours very truly
Mary Louise Swett
To Miss Katharine Merrill Graydon1419 Taylor St., San FranciscoMy 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 believe me,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.
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