Last week, my family and I traveled to California; more precisely, to Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon National Parks. (We visited family in Los Angeles as well.) Superlatives for national parks are a dime-a-dozen, so most writing on them is doomed to cliche. But let me press on regardless.
The landscapes of these parks, like those of Monument Valley on which I wrote last year, have become iconic–captured innumerable times in photographs and movies. Your first encounter with them is tinged with that familiar sense of bewilderment: you have seen this all before, many, many times. And yet, of course, it’s novel.
Consider Half-Dome, that splendid granite centerpiece of the Yosemite Valley, here viewed from Glacier Point (now, mercifully free of the hotels that once defiled it):
This is an exceedingly familiar image for most Americans (and many non-Americans too, if the amount of German, French, and Russian I heard spoken at Yosemite is any indication). Still, its ubiquity does nothing to diminish one’s sense of awe when confronted by its 4000-foot face.
Yosemite and Sequoia are justifiably famous too, as the venues of John Muir‘s epic rambles, walks which brought him into close proximity with a wilderness of staggering beauty and which he dedicated his life to studying, eulogizing, and protecting. Reading his richly poetic descriptions of these landscapes, you realize you have made contact–through time and space–with a deeply sensitive soul, someone who found in quiet and loud spaces by stream and brook and waterfall and glacier and rockface, the perfect zones for meditation and repose and a deeper understanding of himself and his place in nature. And ours, of course.
It might sound strange to say this, but the deepest impressions on me on these travels were made not just by the awe-inspiring High Sierra, the gigantic sequoias, the verdant valleys of the Merced but also by Muir’s words and recountings of his travels and experiences. This was a man who could travel alone, for weeks and months on end, among bear and mountain lion, swim down an avalanche, stand behind a waterfall and spend a night on a tree to experience its relationship to a storm. This was a man who found his most comfortable beds on the branches of fir trees, who preferred to count stars instead of sheep as he sought sleep, who found divinity not in the Bible he had been forced to memorize by a tyrannical father, but in the living, breathing, sparkling works of nature around him. Somewhere, buried in his many, many written words, must be emotions and thoughts similar to those expressed by another visionary and mystic:
To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
Muir clearly felt himself to be one with the beauty that surrounded him; in its endless cycles and rhythms he might have detected a kind of immortality that was also his, an acknowledgment of his genesis in age-old cosmic dust, come to rest in him and the granite and bark and cold streams that were his constant companions.
We should all be grateful he was so eloquent and so passionate, that his words helped protect and preserve the visions that are ours for the viewing.