Among perhaps the three greatest American Naturalists, John Muir was clearly the wildest. He “walked-the-walk and talked-the-talk” throughout vast areas of unspoiled wilderness. He experienced and described marvels, wonders and miracles that R.W. Emerson and H.D. Thoreau could not envision in their widest imagination. Emerson chose to write from the comfort of his office desk. Thoreau attempted to ascend Mt. Katahdin (5200 ft.), got lost in the fog and wrote: …“I fear bodies, I tremble to meet them. What is this Titan that has possession of me?”
Muir easily walked the equivalent of around the world and the list of mountains that he climbed is extraordinary; including Mt. Whitney (14,500 ft.), Mt. Shasta (14,100 ft.), Mt. Rainer (14, 411 ft.).
Even though he walked the world over, Muir’s favorite “temple” was Yosemite Valley, which he boldly proclaimed kept him in a constant state of elevated physical, mental and spiritual transcendence. Evidently, over 700 St. Helena High School advanced biology students agreed, especially those who participated in a total lunar eclipse on the top of Yosemite’s Half Dome.
After 24 years of leading high school students into Yosemite’s wilderness, it seemed as though Mother Nature saved one of her finest synchronicities for our last trip. Each year students were challenged to get as close to the living spirit of Muir as they could. Some experienced a “John Muir baptism” under Nevada Fall. Many slept under the stars on top of Half Dome (when it was legal). One class slept through a snowstorm; one class descended the Half Dome cables in a freak ice storm. It seemed to help that they had previously read about Muir’s escapades: a face-to-face encounter with a Yosemite bear; climbing a swaying fir tree in a windstorm; “scoochering” out on a ledge under the brow of a flooding Yosemite Fall; body-surfing an avalanche; inching across an ice bridge on an Alaskan glacier; frolicking during a major earthquake in Yosemite Valley; and wallowing all night (14 hours) in a Mt. Shasta fumarole during a snow storm.
The fall of 1996 proved to be our last trip to Yosemite. We camped at Little Yosemite Valley and planned a day-hike to explore the top of Half Dome. After a wondrous afternoon, the sun began to set and a small group of mostly boys approached me with a bold request. We had discussed the total lunar eclipse that was predicted that evening and I mentioned that we could not stay on top because descending the cables in the dark was not a risk I could take.
However, the group leader informed me that they had all brought along headlights and reminded me that chaperone Mark Salvestrin was a skilled wilderness guide. Furthermore, he was also a gifted Nature photographer who might be able to capture some of the magic of the eclipse. During our pre-trip studies, we learned that some Scots still believe in “Kything,” (communicating with the dead). One of the boys suggested that he had checked with Muir’s spirit and he agreed they should stay for the show. The group erupted with laughter, but I wondered if, in his clever ploy, the boy might have been on to something.
Whether in print or verbally, Muir enthusiastically credited a “Heavenly Creator” for guiding his life. Understandably, he was perplexed by fellow wilderness trekkers who put their trust in a small brass compass with a magnetic needle, but remained unaware of spiritual guidance from a Higher Power. Intriguingly, before I encountered the “Spirit of Muir,” I was in that company. As a “science” teacher, I had little (if any) interest in religious discourse and without him I probably would have lived my life agreeing with the great Stephen Hawking, (“The Great Design”) …God has become obsolete.
Thankfully, in direct opposition, Muir’s extraordinary theological interpretation of Yosemite: “a place to play and a place to pray” radically transformed my life and led me to the conclusion that he remains as a spiritual bridge between Heaven and Earth.
In the end I was swayed by the students’ tenacity and agreed that I would lead one group down to Little Yosemite Valley and Mark would lead the eclipse gazers down after dark.
After returning to camp, it was immediately clear that participating in a total lunar eclipse on top of Half Dome would become a totally, “you have to go there to know there” experience. The gazers effused enthusiasm as they absorbed the fact that they would not likely ever see an event like that again in their entire lifetime. They confirmed what Muir claimed that Nature never disappoints and always offers more that we expect.
Mark’s photo conjures up wonderful questions about mysteries of Muir’s “Heavenly Creator.” So, just what is it that makes lunar eclipses so intriguing? After all, in terms of gravitation, nothing unusual occurs: no changes in tidal rhythm or abnormal weather patterns.
On the other hand, there is a lot of space “out there” and when we consider the synchronicity of variables necessary for the Earth, Sun and Moon to align perfectly, it boggles the mind.
- Our moon revolves around the Earth every 29.5 days and due to a mysterious “synchronous rotation” it keeps the same face turned toward the Earth.
- The Earth’s rotational velocity at the equator is about 1,000 mph; San Francisco is moving approximately 700 mph and the velocity at the poles is zero.
- The Earth is revolving around the sun at about 67,000 mph.
- Our Solar System is traveling through the Milky Way Galaxy at 45,000 mph.
- The Milky Way Galaxy is moving approx. 1,000,000 mph through “NOTHING!” Well, except for some widely scattered hydrogen ions.
- We are headed for the constellation Hercules, but not to worry. It is over 1 million light years away and the distance that light travels is about 6 trillion miles per year. Therefore, we will have to travel 131,000,000,000,000,000 miles to get there.
Stories like these send chills down my spine when I contemplate that I could have missed 24 years of John Muir guiding my amazingly curious students on inner spiritual journeys via wilderness adventures. It is heartbreaking to know that very few of our public school children from K-grad-school will experience what Muir was writing about.