Tag Archives: yosemite


Route 66 in San Bernardino County, California, with Roy’s Cafe and Motel, looking east

It occurred to me a few years ago that even though I have visited hundreds of places all over California and lived in quite a few, I have not set foot in most of the parts of the state where I have been.

This is because of an invention called the automobile. Before the 1920s, I would guess, most people in California would not have said they had traveled widely in the state. Land travel in those days was likely to be on horseback or by horse drawn wagon or buggy. Trains were reserved for the relatively few who could afford them. Cities had streetcars and limited bus services.

Then after the First World War came a transportation revolution. Detroit transferred a large part of its expanded manufacturing capacity to auto production. The economic upsurge of the 1920s enabled many more people to afford cars. Oil companies lobbied for better highways. The tourist industry promoted auto travel with free maps and advertising. Trucking assumed a larger share of freight haulage. And the automobile caused major social changes, affecting everything from teenage dating patterns to grocery store visits to proliferation of trailer camps.

I suspect that, from the 1920s on, many Californians, like me at a later date, began to notice that they had seen a lot of their state, but only from a car window, without ceasing to be in


Illustration from a 1930s auto manual

My earliest memory of automobiles goes back to age four, in 1948. My parents did not own a car, but one sunny day a friend of the family came to our house in Alameda driving a spiffy two-seater convertible (I didn’t know any of those words at the time) and invited my father and me to go for a ride in the “rumble seat,” the padded, nicely upholstered area for two passengers that appeared magically in the rear of the car when you opened the trunk that would otherwise be the place for luggage. My father and I climbed in, the car picked up speed, and we careened around the neighborhood. I felt unprotected and would not have wanted to be in the rumble seat without one of my parents. But the speed and the breeze and the quickly passing views were exhilarating.

My next strong memory of being in a car dates to age 8 when, with my mother and father and sister, I was on a winding road in the Santa Cruz Mountains on the way to Big Basin Redwoods State Park, where we planned to go camping. That was when I had my first attack of motion sickness, something I have experienced from time to time ever since.

My parents first became car owners when I was 11 years old and my sister was 7 and we were living in Albany on the east side of San Francisco Bay. Although my father’s Navy salary was not much, he had an evening job working at a local supermarket and used some of the money to buy us a dark blue, used 1950 Ford convertible. That allowed us to go see movies at the local drive-in, to make trips to the local 19 cents hamburger stand, to cross the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge for tours of the seacoast, and to visit newly constructed tracts of homes in places like Hayward and San Jose where we thought about buying a house (we never did). During the day, my sister and I absorbed the sights from our car windows. On nights when my father continued toward our destination, my sister and I slept under blankets in the back seat, wishing that the canvas top of the convertible did a better job of keeping the interior of the car warm.

In the mid-1950s, I began to learn about car design. One of my mother’s brothers was a decorator at the Capwell’s department store in Oakland. He bought one of the new-model Studebakers. It was sleek and had a daring color scheme: a cream-colored body and a wine-colored top. Even more dazzling were the cars I encountered through another of my mother’s brothers, who was a Chevrolet salesman in Albany. In 1955 he gave us a tour around the showroom of the dealership where he worked. That was the year that all the Detroit carmakers decided to roll the dice and present the American public with radical new designs. Cars now looked like rockets or jet planes, dripped with chrome, and came in color combinations like pink and charcoal gray, red and white, and blue and lime. Simply to touch the cars was exciting.

1955 Chevrolet

By then I was accumulating many memories of automobile trips both short and long. But my first sense of ironic detachment regarding cars, an intuition that the automobile was a cultural phenomenon that could be analyzed and contemplated, came at age 16 when I made my first visit to Anaheim to see the new and already wildly popular amusement park at Disneyland.

The most attended attraction – nothing else came close – was the “California Freeway” ride. My friend Steve and I stood in line for over an hour for the thrill of climbing into miniature sports cars and meandering through a controlled maze of clover leafs and underpasses and overpasses, passing small billboards, miniature gas stations and replicas of motels and groves of plastic trees, and then returning with a sense of puzzlement and un-fulfillment to our starting point. We had been driven by family friends of Steve on a real, full-sized freeway to get to Disneyland from Los Angeles, and we would be returning in the same manner. Why had we cared so much about experiencing an artificial version of the same thing?

The freeway ride at Disneyland in its current version

We could not say. The answer, of course, had to do with sociology, about which I knew nothing at the time. Postwar America was in love with the automobile even more in the 1950s than it had been in the 1920s. And freeways had become emblems of California life almost as powerful as the Golden Gate Bridge or the HOLLYWOOD sign in the hills above Burbank.

Energizing all of America’s fascination with highways is a more long-term awareness of being in motion and being on a journey. America itself is a product of journeys, whether by the aboriginal peoples who came here via the Bering land bridge, or by the Europeans and Africans who came here via the Atlantic Ocean, or by the immigrants who came to America via the Pacific. There was a great filling in of the North American land mass and, in the case of California, from the time of the Gold Rush on, a great push to the Pacific Coast, sometimes in search of economic opportunity, and sometimes to explore spiritual and emotional frontiers.

In American literature, the themes of westward movement and migration from place to place are easy to notice. For example, in Huckleberry Finn (1885), the main characters are on a metaphorical road, the Mississippi River, and Mark Twain ends the novel by having Huck “light out for the territory,” that is, the West. In The Grapes of Wrath (1939), John Steinbeck describes the exhausting journey of the Okies to California in the 1930s. In The Big Rock Candy Mountain (1943), Wallace Stegner searches for the meaning of his father’s lifelong effort to find a place where there would be riches and relief from recurring cares. The tropes of constant motion and quest for a better place are everywhere in our literature, as also in our music, painting, and movies.

When it comes to writings about California, there is probably no author who has explored the subjects of motion and journey more powerfully than Jack Kerouac (b. 1922-d.1969).

Jack Kerouac

An important fact about Kerouac is that he was only partly a California writer. He was born and raised in Lowell, Massachusetts, where his French-Canadian family worked in the mills. After a troubled childhood he attended Columbia University, dropped out, and in the late 1940s made his way gradually westward, eventually becoming part of the Beat culture that centered on San Francisco and Big Sur. Thereafter he was in and out of California, living at various times in Oregon, Florida, and Montana, among other places.

Map of Jack Kerouac’s travels for On the Road

Whether he is discussing California or other places, Kerouac’s writings, notably On the Road (1957), The Dharma Bums (1958), and Big Sur (1962), always involve a journey in the spiritual sense, as he struggles to synthesize Catholicism, Buddhism, environmentalism, and even jazz into a usable whole. And his physical motion – expressed with amazing power in the drive of his stream of consciousness prose style — takes him all around the United States as well as to Europe and Mexico. Still, he ends his life frustrated by the failure to find ultimate meaning in any of these places.

Kerouac’s biography helps us to remember an important fact about road culture in California specifically. Road literature in America is mostly about places outside of California. California writers have said a great deal about highway culture within the state, but California is the place where you end up. You can move toward the Pacific shore in your quest. But you run out of land when you get to California. Then all you can do is leave or go from one place to another within the state, and your quest for meaning must turn at least partly inward, as was the case with Kerouac.

I sometimes think of the Los Angeles freeway system as a symbol of this kind of road journey: an endless moving back and forth and around and up and down within California, on the way to a destination that can’t be defined.

Los Angeles freeway

On the other hand, California on its own is such a beautiful, inspiring place that one can, from time to time, go on the road within the state and have an experience that is just as fulfilling as any journey from elsewhere.

For me, one such experience occurred when I was 14 years old and my sister was 11, and we made our first trip, in early June, to Yosemite.

Our father drove us. Our mother, who did not like camping, stayed at home in Berkeley. But the other three of us made the journey enthusiastically.

It took several hours of driving eastward from Berkeley, across the flat, central farming area of California, before my sister and I felt reassured that we were in fact going to reach a place called Yosemite.

As we came to the area around the city of Merced, the highway began to rise and the topography started to change. Pine trees and big boulders began to appear, then ravines and streamlets, then occasional patches of melting snow. The two lane highway meandered ever higher and eventually we arrived at a gate where a ranger from the U.S. National Park Service came out of a small, brown, shingle-walled booth and collected our entrance fee and gave us a map and some friendly advice about bears and matches and snakes.

Afterwards, the road continued to climb upwards, and there were rock walls along the edge to guard us from dropping five hundred feet straight down. My father explained that the walls had been built in the 1930s, by prisoners and out of work young people who were members of the Civilian Conservation Corps.

As we rounded one of the turns in the road, I was especially glad the walls had been built. A car coming from the other direction was trying to pass on the blind curve and was heading straight at us in our lane. My father, with the incredible athletic quickness that I had seen him demonstrate many times, swerved instantly to his right and found just enough space near the wall to prevent a head-on collision.

A short while later, we found ourselves driving downward into a hot, dry area where there were no more rock walls and the road followed the bank of a river. There was almost no vegetation. The sun reflected off the high, stone cliffs on both sides of us, raising the temperature to almost one hundred degrees Fahrenheit. Then the road started to climb again, the temperature lowered, and we were back into a forested area.

By now, however, the trees were bigger and the river flowed in cascades. I recognized redwoods that reminded me of the ones I had encountered many years before on our family’s first camping trip to Big Basin. But the boulders were unlike anything I had ever seen – huge chunks of gray, textured granite that looked like they had been tossed into the middle of the fast moving river by some mysterious, unseen giant. Around, through, and over the rocks, the water ran and churned, in amazing, translucent color.

Then suddenly I noticed that my father and my sister were laughing happily. I asked them why. My father explained that I had been exclaiming “Ooh” and “Wow” for several miles, apparently without realizing it. I was usually much more reserved, my father said – more like my mother and her father.

Another wonder followed. The road soon opened before us on either side and we drove alongside the by now deep green water of the river into a huge, flat valley — a vast amphitheater, walled on all sides by gray granite cliffs over two thousand feet high, with groupings of trees here and there on the valley floor, and vast swaths of Alpine meadows and marshland. This was the center of Yosemite National Park, and from here it was only a short drive to the wooded camping areas where we could begin searching for a site.

My father told us that “camp 7” and “camp 14” were the two most desirable areas along the river. There was a conspicuous firmness in his manner as he relayed this information. He was really saying that the areas had been the most desirable twenty years before, when he had gone to Yosemite with his father and mother and two sisters, and he wanted the camps to be the same way now. But, as we drove the dirt roads between the trees, I could see that his information was up to date. We found a beautiful site right next to the river and parked our car in the fresh, white sand that had been deposited recently by the spring floods. And, because my father had remembered to come in June and beat the rush, our site was almost twenty-five yards away from the ones occupied by other campers.

As we got out of our car, I was struck by how odd it looked: an industrial intrusion in our forest surroundings. But there was no time to dwell on the contrast because we were soon busily unpacking our cargo and setting up camp: a brown canvas tent, three cots, an ice chest, and a kerosene stove placed on top of the wooden picnic table the Park Service had constructed at the site along with a stone grille.

Our stay in Yosemite over the next two weeks was not perfect. We could see that the Park was already beginning to be under stress from too many visitors. We had to wash our dishes in cold water. The public bathrooms were not always clean. I got a bad sunburn. And so forth.

But the meadows in the valley and the high cliffs and the cool water and clean air and the stars at night were more than worth traveling to see. And the most rewarding thing of all, for me, was that first sight of the park as we entered it, on the road.

Woodcut illustration of Yosemite, 1879



(Previous posts dealt with matters that involved me personally.  There will be additional posts in the same vein.  This post, however,  is the first of many in which the word “I” will not appear.  It talks about California’s most famous conservationist, and the under-appreciated fact that he was a brilliant practitioner of public relations long before that term was ever coined.)

Yosemite Valley

Rough-hewn Woodsman, Urbane Promoter

In our own era, when the influence of the environmental movement is enormous, it is difficult to find anyone who has not heard the name John Muir.  Places are named after him, books are written about him, and he is, in the eyes of many, the patron saint of natural resources conservation.

People usually think of Muir as the man who camped near pristine lakes, climbed granite peaks, and tied himself to treetops during storms, the better to experience the full force of nature.  Some who have read about Muir may also know that he spent several years of his life not as an outdoorsman but as a rancher and farmer on property where he and his wife lived north of San Francisco in Martinez. But most people are not aware that Muir was a skilled user of big-city strategies to achieve his purposes. His exploitation of newspapers and magazines showed the pattern.

The Power of the Press

By the late nineteenth century, print media — as we would call them today — were playing a very large role in American society.  Ever since the late eighteenth century, when they gave special protections to the press in the Bill of Rights, Americans had appreciated the importance of print communication for fostering democratic values.  By the late nineteenth century, with growth of population and industrialization of printing, the influence of the press was vast and widely appreciated.  It was a presence in political campaigns and social crusades, and a widely used vehicle for commercial advertising, almost as much as it is today.  Any alert observer would have sensed its power.

The late-nineteenth century expansion of the press coincided with the growing influence, during the same period, of Americans anxious to save natural areas, especially in the West, not only for their recreational potential and their symbolism as monuments to match Europe’s treasures of human history, but also as sources of spiritual renewal. Muir not only explored many of the wilderness areas, but also was a leader in using the communications tools of his era to publicize their importance. In his seminal book, Wilderness  and the American Mind(1982), the UC Santa Barbara historian Roderick Nash goes so far as to assign Muir pride of place in this activity. “As a publicizer of the American wilderness Muir had no equal,” Nash has written.

The Path to PR

It is interesting to chart how Muir came to play this role.  Muir grew up in Scotland where his father taught him a strict Calvinism and required him to memorize all of the Old Testament and most of the New. In 1849, when John was eleven years old, the family moved to a homestead on the Wisconsin frontier, where Indians still lived and the land was heavily forested. In the wild nature of the area, Muir found relief from the hard labor of farm life and the family’s religious strictness. A route out of farm life opened in 1860 when John garnered wide praise for several mechanical inventions he displayed at the State Agricultural Fair In Madison. He received several job offers but ultimately decided to enroll at the University of Wisconsin where he studied geology, botany and the writings of Emerson, Thoreau and other Transcendentalists. He spent two and one half years at the University and then in 1867 took a job at a carriage factory in Indianapolis. Here he suffered an eye injury which caused him to lose all sight for a month. When his sight returned he felt an urgency to use it to do what he realized he most wanted to do, which was to view and contemplate the meaning of nature.

His first foray was a hiking journey of a thousand miles from Indiana to the Gulf of Mexico. Muir’s journal of the trip recorded ideas that were to become basic for him, regarding the beauty and power of nature and the ways that direct encounter with it helped one to sense divine beauty and the essential harmony of creation. Muir planned to go further south, to the Amazon, but after an attack of malaria he decided to seek out colder regions and took a ship to San Francisco, arriving there in 1868. Instead of stopping to explore the city,  however, he immediately crossed the Bay and, after a time in the San Joaquin Valley, went north into the Sierra Nevada mountains, where he hiked extensively and spent several winters in Yosemite Valley.

Coincidentally, one of the visitors to Yosemite around this time was Ralph Waldo Emerson. He and Muir introduced themselves to each other there in 1871. Emerson, by this time very much the Eastern cosmopolite, was not as attracted to rugged encounters with nature as Muir was, preferring to stay at a hotel. But he and Muir shared a strong belief in the importance of contemplating nature; and their meeting encouraged Muir to continue writing down his thoughts about the landscape, and also gave Muir an important link to publishers.

California Redwoods

Entering the Communicator’s World

When, exactly, Muir decided to be a publicist may not be discoverable. We do know that he began to write and lecture to spread his ideas in the 1870s, taking the position that public ownership was the most effective way of preserving wilderness areas deserving protection. An early – perhaps the earliest – example of his advocacy in print was “God’s First Temples: How Shall We preserve our Forests?” which appeared in the February 4, 1876, issue of the Sacramento Record-Union. Muir’s print activity occurred in tandem with other kinds of persuasion. In 1881, for example, he lobbied Congress unsuccessfully to establish a national park on the model of Yellowstone in the King’s River area in the southern Sierra. In 1888 he campaigned for preservation of the Mt. Shasta area in northern California as a public park.

In 1889, Muir was approached by Robert Underwood Johnson, the associate editor of the Century magazine, which was at that time the most influential monthly review of literature in the United States. Johnson was in San Francisco on a tour of the west to find new possibilities for articles. There, he and Muir agreed to undertake some form of collaboration. Their first joint venture was a trip that same year in the areas around Yosemite valley. Deeply moved by the experience, and impressed with the need for action to protect the area, Johnson asked Muir to write two articles for Century advocating creation of a national park at Yosemite and similar enclaves elsewhere in the West.

Muir’s two articles appeared in the magazine in the fall of 1890, along with extensive illustrations. Ever the enthusiast, Muir predicted that the articles would attract an audience of over a million readers. This seems an exaggeration, even if one allows for hand to hand sharing. But the articles probably did reach at least 200,000 readers, which was the circulation figure for the magazine at the time. All the same, publicity on this scale was a great step forward for the cause of preservation on spiritual and scientific grounds rather than for managed exploitation of natural resources or mere recreation.

Johnson followed up Muir’s articles with one of his own later in 1890, in support of the idea of national parks in general. Johnson also lobbied Congress for protection of Yosemite. He may have been aided by the Southern Pacific Railroad, which saw the potential of increased tourism. In September 1890, as a result of all these efforts, Congress passed and President Benjamin Harrison signed a bill creating Yosemite National Park, the first park specifically intended to protect wilderness.

Muir and Johnson knew that vigilance and further activity would be needed, both to protect Yosemite against interests who might still attempt to encroach upon it, and to further build support for the concept of wilderness preservation. For these reasons they banded together with faculty members from the University of California and the recently created Stanford University, as well as members of the business and professional communities, to form an association that would help to further the goals systematically. The association took its inspiration from mountaineering clubs that had become popular by this time elsewhere, mostly in the eastern United States and Europe. In June 1892, in the offices of the San Francisco attorney Warren Olney, twenty-seven men formed the Sierra Club. Muir was unanimously elected as the first President (an office he held for the next twenty-two years until his death).

Widening His Scope

During the 1890s Muir also undertook publicity on other fronts. In 1891 he published an article in Century calling for establishment of a national park in the King’s Canyon area of the Sierras. His preference for preserving the area strictly as a wilderness lost out to the views of others who advocated that the area be protected as a forest to be exploited according to concepts of managed use. And in 1895 Muir even acknowledged that not all forests could be retained simply as wild areas, joining with others in an article in Century on best practices in forest management. But in 1897 Muir partly returned to his purist position in an article he wrote for Walter Hines Page , the editor of the Atlantic Monthly, in which he allowed for the possibility of managed use but warned that the dangers of over-exploitation were great because of economic pressures and greed. Muir contributed a similar article in 1897 to Harper’s Weekly.

Additional employment of print took place in late 1897 in Seattle. There Muir met with Gifford Pinchot, the already nationally famous leader in the movement to conserve forests and other environments according to principles of managed use. The two had crossed paths in earlier years but both were by now more hardened in their attitudes. Pinchot allowed himself to be quoted in Seattle newspapers as strongly in favor of his and not Muir’s philosophy. Thereafter, Muir and Pinchot had an animated discussion in a hotel lobby and broke off further contact. Muir elaborated his disagreements with Pinchot in an article he wrote for the January 1898 issue of the Atlantic Monthly.

John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt at Yosemite

Muir’s activities as a master publicist continued into the twentieth century. An important encounter occurred in 1903 when Muir postponed a scheduled world tour in order to meet with President Theodore Roosevelt, who had invited Muir to join him for a trip through the Yosemite area. The two greatly enjoyed each other, even though Muir did not share Roosevelt’s love of hunting and even though the President’s views of conservation were closer to Pinchot’s. In response to Muir’s advocacy, Roosevelt’s followed up their trip with important actions. In 1906 the President signed a bill in which California ceded the Yosemite Valley to the federal government and included it in the already existing national park. And in 1908 Roosevelt designated the Grand Canyon area as a national monument, giving it the protection that Muir had been advocating for several years.

In the early twentieth century, Muir engaged in his last great battle as a publicist when  he led the struggle to prevent the Hetch Hetchy valley from being dammed as a reservoir for the city of San Francisco.  The battle was lost, becoming Muir’s only major failure as a promoter of wilderness.

Muir did indeed tie himself to trees in storms and hike alone in the wild. But he also knew how to use the tools of the big city. That may in fact be the main reason we remember him today.