“Come to the edge, he said.
We are afraid, they said.
Come to the edge, he said.
They came to the edge,
He pushed them and they flew.
Come to the edge, Life said.
They said: We are afraid.
Come to the edge, Life said.
They came. It pushed them…
And they flew.” Christopher Logue
After nearly blinding one eye in an industrial accident, John Muir declared:
“I bade adieu to all my mechanical inventions, determined to devote the rest of my life to the study of the inventions of God.”
This was primarily accomplished in Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada. He launched himself on a self-imposed mission to probe the edges of his humanity and spirituality. Muir not only thrived at seeking transcendental experiences, he enjoyed urging others to seek their respective “edges”where he could give them a gentle push.
100 years before hang glider pilots began launching off of Glacier Point, Muir was urging anyone he could to climb any mountain peak and test his/her spirit wings. I know about this because 50 years ago he called me to the top of Half Dome and gave me a gentle push. My maiden flight was exhilarating and inspired me to lead 24 groups of high school biology students to the top of Half Dome to test their spirit wings. Typically, they were thrilled and like Muir, saw visions, marvels and wonders that defied human description.
In 1976, naturalist T. H. Watkins published, John Muir’s America. He must have felt that he knew Muir’s soul so well that he composed three imaginary conversations with the venerable old mountain man. The first dialogue began on the veranda of Muir’s home in Martinez, Ca. The two men discussed many ecological topics as they wandered up to Muir’s “scribble den.” After discussing some of his inventions, Muir rocked back in his chair and closed his eyes until Watkins innocently wandered into the controversial role that Thomas Huxley played in popularizing Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.
“The old man exploded out of his silence, thrusted forward in his chair and slapped the flat of his palm on the desk top.”
‘Huxley—that bloodless coof! That fool! He and his kind took the work of Darwin and twisted it to fit their vision of the world. And damme, what a cold and heartless world they would have had it be. They called it survival of the fittest, but no matter what they might have called it, was a damnable theory, a dark and chilly reasoning that chance and competition accounted for all things. Oh it was a useful theory—that I canna deny. It justified all manner of cruelty just as my father’s piety excused all manner of cruelty to his children. Should a man be inspired to destroy his best friend in the marketplace, why, he could shrug it off as the natural consequence of living in the great soulless machine of the cosmos. But it was a damnable theory because it ignored the one real truth of the world, the truth that lives in every rock, flower, leaf, tree and animal—including man: it was all created by a loving God, and His love covers all the earth as the sky covers it, and fills it in every pore.’
Forty years later, Watkins’ words have become a fulfilled prophecy. On July 1, 2015, an undocumented immigrant discharged an illegally obtained handgun that resulted in the death of a young woman who was out for a walk in San Francisco. The trial was recently concluded with the jury rendering a verdict of not guilty.
Contrary to all the blather from media pundits, politicians and lawyers, the jury’s acquittal of the alleged criminal had less to do with ethnicity, immigration status or birth-origin, and more to do with socio-cultural, regressive de-evolution in an increasingly soulless society.
The positive proof of this emerged from the fact that in spite of the perpetrator admitting (KGO TV interview) that he pulled the trigger of the lethal weapon, the jury agreed with a scenario that the defense team presented as they “twisted it to fit their vision of the world.”
Tragically, events like these are going to become more common. In the name of “political correctness,” our public el-hi schools, colleges and universities are systematically sanitizing curricula, removing all references to spirituality. This will doubtlessly produce generations of morally bankrupt adults who are proponents of the Godless religion known as “situational ethics.”
Some of the fruits from this evil tree were recently borne for all to see in the San Francisco courthouse.
Of all the countless millions of words generated by this tragedy, two lines stand out. The day after the verdict was announced, the headline of a SF Chronicle editorial:
“Justice was not served.”
And one of the jurors anonymously commented; “I need to spend some time collecting my thoughts.”
Indeed, don’t we all?
In his classic book, Religions, Values and Peak Experiences, psychologist Abraham Maslow expressed concern for an increasingly spiritless US society. He suggested that the subject of “human spirituality” could be added to a suitably enlarged biology curriculum without breaching the wall that separates Church and State.
The recent fires throughout Napa and Sonoma Counties qualify as Ill Winds.
It is common practice for California Dept. of Forestry officials to name fires by their place of origin. Ergo, the fire that destroyed over 3,500 Santa Rosa homes and businesses began near Tubbs Lane in Calistoga. However, it quickly exploded into a firestorm driven by a 70 mph “Diablo Wind.” The name of the wind could not be more perfect: Devil’s Wind.
Devil Winds are atypical winds that result when high-pressure builds over the Nevada desert and causes air to move toward a low-pressure zone over the Pacific Ocean. As the wind rushes down the western Sierra Nevada slope, it is compressed and gets hotter, drier and faster. This condition is the opposite of prevailing westerly winds that typically blow moist, ocean-cooled air over hotter California climes. Diablo Winds typically occur in the summertime when the combination of higher heat, higher wind velocity and extremely low humidity create a potentially disastrous formula for wildfires in California. In SoCal they are known as the Santa Ana winds.
The Tubbs Firestorm destroyed a several-mile-wide swath, devouring forests, vineyards, homes and ranches on its 15-mile rampage to the north edge of the city of Santa Rosa. Reaching the northeast outskirts of the city, it mysteriously veered south in a fiery inferno that consumed over 2,500 homes. Many residents had to flee with only the clothes they were wearing.
The fire is still active and along with several other fires in Sonoma County, the number of homes, structures and businesses destroyed has exceeded 3,500. It has the potential of being the worst wildfire in California history.
Although Sonoma County lies west of Napa County, Napa Valley has been covered in a thick blanket of smoke since Sunday night. The smoke has been bothersome, but a trifling inconvenience compared to the total devastation that 1,000s of Sonoma residents and business owners are struggling to cope with.
This all changed Wednesday. We thought we were safe until a spot-fire erupted 8 miles west of us, near the junction of St. Helena and Calistoga roads. It was headed in our direction and posed a threat to our home and the town of St. Helena. I drove 4 miles to the top of Spring Mt. Rd. where a Napa Co. Sheriff deputy had blocked the road. He described the fire and said that it was rapidly approaching upslope. He went on to say that pilots were desperately trying to suppress it with fire-retardant, but if they failed he would have to close Spring Mt. Rd. He didn’t have to tell me that if the fire crested over the ridge, its downslope path led directly to our home and the heart of St. Helena.
I was confident that if this happened we could pack up prized possessions and evacuate to our daughter’s home in Tiburon. My wife was not convinced and so we packed up and fled, not knowing if we would ever see our beloved home again.
Although our Tiburon family welcomed us warmly, the night was long and sleep was interrupted with images of our house going up in flames. Finally, morning arrived and we were able to call our neighbor, who opted to wait for the mandatory evacuation order. It never came. Evidently, the amazing pilots were able to stop the blaze on the Sonoma side of Spring Mountain and possibly save our home and the town of St. Helena.
Upon returning home, walking through the house was a surreal experience. When we left, we had to concede the possibility that it would not survive the fire. But it did and we felt a bit like we were in a “Twilight Zone.”
The horrific event has created a schizophrenic dilemma. Of course we are grateful that our home was not destroyed, but heartsick over the misery and trauma that so many have been forced to deal with.
Existentialists might dismiss the cause of the horrific conflagration as simply a capricious whim of Mother Nature, however, I suspect that poets, sages and seekers are more likely to describe the massive destruction as the result of the Devil’s Wind:
After Biodesign students explored Yosemite, Grand Canyon and the Mendocino coast, it was not uncommon for them to vow publicly (or privately) to return to one of the areas when they became adults. I have no record of how many achieved that goal, but I do know of one ex-student who has climbed Half Dome 8 times.
Therefore, I was not surprised when an ex-Biodesigner mentioned that he was joining a group that was going to retrace the hike that his class took over 20 years earlier.
His class rode a bus from Yosemite Valley to Glacier Point and as the bus approached Washburn Point, Half Dome loomed into view. I have seen that view approximately 40 times and each time it has left me breathless. The student responses were predictably gasps, oohs and aahs, however, on one occasion a student blurted out, “He’s freaking crazy if he thinks I am going to sleep up there!”
An orientation discussion included the major landmarks; Muir’s description that glaciation was the primary force that created Yosemite Valley and the current theory that Half Dome did not have another half, but was an atypically formed “pluton.”
After allowing time to absorb the sublime beauty, the group headed south, 1.4 miles to Illilouette Fall. Turning left at the waterfall, they ascended the Panorama Trail to Panorama Ridge.
[I agree with many veteran Yosemite hikers who regard the Panorama Trail as the most dramatic, and thus inspirational, trail in the entire Park. The trail is mostly level and the easier walk provides the opportunity to better appreciate the stunning new perspectives that appear around every bend.]
After approximately 2 miles the trail descended steeply downhill and joined the John Muir Trail, which originates in Yosemite Valley. A short walk to the top of Nevada Fall provided a great place to remove backpacks, relax and eat lunch. After a leisurely lunch, the students donned their backpacks and trudged 1.8 miles to their first trail campsite in Little Yosemite Valley.
The next morning, after breakfast and a briefing of the day’s activities, backpacks were hoisted and they began the challenging, 4-mile-hike up 2700 ft. to the top of the 8800 ft. Half Dome.
After sleeping on Half Dome, the group made the 10-mile descent back to their basecamp at Yosemite Valley.
After the ex-student returned, I contacted him with a request to hear about his adventure. He gladly obliged and filled me with wonderful stories and images. His group left their backpacks at Little Yosemite Valley and they hiked up Half Dome in time for a gorgeous sunset.
“It was a hard hike,” he said, “I don’t k now how our whole class made it with backpacks on.”
However, when I casually asked him how they handled the trail meals, he looked a bit sheepish and said, “Our guides took care of all of that.” I was not aware of such services, but quickly connected the dots and blurted out, “I HATE YOU!” Of course he knew that I was kidding and we shared a hearty laugh.
He obviously had not forgotten that a major chore for the Biodesign trips to Yosemite was preparing trail meals for a group of 30. Rather than packing 15 small backpack stoves, we took three MSR Rapidfire stoves. Each one sounded like a small jet airplane, but could get six quarts of water boiling in about 10 mins. We carried 3, 6-qt. pots and each pot provided enough hot water for 10 hikers.
He continued, “Only some of us had some equipment and rather than spend a lot of money on equipment that we would probably never use again, we hired two guides. They supplied all the equipment, cooked all meals on the trail and filtered all the water we needed.”
When I shared this with Christie, not unkindly, she burst out laughing and said, “I didn’t know that Yosemite had “Sherpa Guides!” LOL
My curiosity was piqued and so I went on-line to research “Yosemite Sherpa Services” (just kidding) and found a plethora of options available. The guide service that I Googled charged $900/per person for a three-day backpack trip similar to the one we took. At first, I was a bit shocked, but quickly recovered and concluded that the price was reasonable for what most participants would call, “a-once-in-a-lifetime-experience.” The $300/per day for guide, food and equipment seemed like a bargain compared to the $450/per night for a room at the Ahwahnee Hotel. Furthermore, it pleased me that our 6-day Yosemite trip cost our students $50. (with confidential scholarships readily available.) When I apologized to parents about the cost, they frequently dismissed my concerns and said their kids cost them more than that when they were at home. ;o)
John Muir hiked mostly alone at Yosemite and was happy with a single wool blanket and pillowcase with some dried bread balls and some tea. However, I truly believe that he would both approve and marvel at the evolution of the latest backpacking equipment and trail techniques, including professional guides. After all, he himself guided many Yosemite visitors, including President Teddy Roosevelt. Roosevelt was so impressed with Muir’s wilderness that, after returning to Washington D.C., he ordered 230 million acres to be protected and formed the foundation for the US National Park Service and the US Forest Service.
“Loren Eiseley is less concerned about man conquering nature than nature, in the form of God, conquering the human heart.” Time Magazine.
AFTER nearly 75 years, I have concluded that life is mostly (if not totally) a journey into mystery. E.g. how could I have possibly guessed that a simple, innocent question from a student would eventually guide me to climb Yosemite’s Half Dome over 30 times? Each visit was unique and not unlike meeting a long-lost friend with lots of catching up to do. Intriguingly, most of my trips were with students and seeing Half Dome through their eyes provided some of the most glorious moments of my life.
“I Conquered Half Dome” was the title of a Biodesigner’s post-Yosemite essay, and why not? Tom described the “emotional blood,” sweat and near-blisters that were required for him to hike the 10 miles from Yosemite Stables to the top of Half Dome in one grueling day. The altitude gain was nearly 5,000 ft. and YNPS listed the trail as “extremely strenuous” (and that is without a backpack.) It is a safe bet that his 50-lb. backpack made the trek at least twice as difficult.
Tom meticulously recorded the events of the day including moments of inspiration, and frustration; stops for snacks, water and lunch. He also described the logistical demands of stopping to filter water and apply “Mole Skin” to hotspots before they became debilitating blisters. He noted the high level of camaraderie and playful banter that helped ease the fatigue induced by the steep switchbacks. He marveled at how everyone worked together with the stronger hikers quietly taking sleeping bags or tents from classmates who were struggling excessively.
This hike occurred in the early years of the Biodesign program when the trip was only four days. It involved a 4:00 AM departure and 5-hour drive to Yosemite Valley; one very demanding day to hike to the top of Half Dome to spend the night; one very long day to return to The Valley and the 5-hour return trip home. Due to the very demanding 4-day journey, it was quite reasonable for Tom to feel that he had indeed conquered Half Dome. However, the latter part of his essay took on a very different tone.
“I had never been so exhausted but I could not sleep due to the thousands of rapid-fire mental images of our long hike. Earlier in the evening, we huddled in a circle as you read John Muir’s story about his adventure with the ‘wee little dog Stickeen.’ Muir described their near-death experience in a storm on an Alaskan glacier. The ordeal lasted 18 hours and, although they were cold, wet and exhausted, they were happy to make it back to camp.
“We reached camp about ten o’clock, and found a big fire and a big supper. A party of Hoona Indians had visited Mr. Young, bringing a gift of porpoise meat and wild strawberries, and Hunter Joe had brought in a wild goat. But we lay down, too tired to eat much, and soon fell into a troubled sleep. The man who said, ‘The harder the toil, the sweeter the rest,’ never was profoundly tired.”
“Before the trip we discussed the geology of Half Dome and I was now aware that I was trying to sleep on rock that was over 100 million years old and was there when dinosaurs roamed the earth and perhaps some bird-like forms flew over Yosemite Valley.
I finally gave up trying to sleep and grabbed my flashlight and down jacket. I moseyed out to the “Eye Brow” and carefully dangled my legs over the edge. Interestingly, due to the darkness, the 5,000-foot drop was not as scary as in the daylight. I remembered you saying that Native Americans and “mountain men” could tell time using the “handle” of “The Big Dipper.” I was facing north and looked up to see the giant cosmic-hour-hand above me. And then, IT HAPPENED! A massive surge of adrenaline super-activated every nerve in my body. I was ecstatic, but it was not sublime. I was paradoxically exhilarated, but terrified and quickly began to suffer a panic attack. I could not move! I thought, ‘This is not a good place to be in the middle of the night.’ The panic seemed interminable, but either God or my “reptilian brain” took over and I noticed my hands and thighs slowly begin to inch my body back from the edge. When I stood, I was badly shaken and, with wobbly knees, returned to my sleeping bag.
If I live to be 100 years old, I will never feel the same degree of warmth, safety and comfort that my sleeping bag provided. And then the second major epiphany occurred! What a fool I was to think that I had “conquered” Half Dome! God, Mother Nature or karma allowed me to ascend Half Dome, however; there is still enough mystery and intrigue to last another 100 million years.”
At the youthful age of 17, Tom discovered that he was being conquered and not the conqueror, something more and more people will live and die without discovering.
I don’t think it is elitist for people who have climbed to the top of Half Dome to recalibrate their personal biography into “Pre-H-D” and “Post-H-D.” I don’t think it is possible to climb Half Dome and not have a life-changing experience, however, as John Muir noted about spiritual revelations, there are no earthly words to define them.
“Into this one mountain Nature gathered her choicest treasures, to draw her lovers into close and confiding communion.” – John Muir
Fans of John Muir clearly understand that his love of nature stirred every fiber of his being. For him, nature was not only a pathway to the universe, but also a pathway of enrichment for personal and interpersonal communion and spiritual growth.In the sphere of human biology, there are countless millions of examples of making love and only one involves the genre of sexual reproduction. And, while a huge amount of time and treasure are spent pursuing carnal love, pursuing the platonic virtues of compassion, tolerance, forgiveness and soul-nurturing are profoundly important.
Corey Rich’s glorious photo celebrates life at so many levels (pun intended). If love is a verb then that is exactly what these young people are up to. Whether climbing partners, siblings, lovers or soul-mates, these two must have made a verbal (or tacit) pledge to love, honor and support each other (if necessary) “until death do them part.” The simple fact is that they needed each other for this monumental moment to occur. She needed him to carry out his part and he needed her to do her part. It should not be surprising to look at this photo as a metaphor for marriage; total mutual commitment is required on the journey to higher physical, mental and spiritual ground. The payoff is views and experiences that neither could experience without the other.
I don’t k now if she is reading, The Wilderness World of John Muir, but I am certain Muir would rejoice to see the latest climbing equipment and females joining in the celebration.
I don’t know if any couples have been married on the face of El Capitan, but I do know that Shawn Reeder recorded a wedding on a Half Dome ledge.
Also, several years ago, a soon-to-be bride and groom, best man, maid-of-honor, able-bodied family, friends and pastor all made the 10-mile trek from Yosemite Valley to the top of half Dome for a wedding celebration. No word if champagne and gorp were served to guests after the wedding vows were exchanged.
While researching this post, I found Reverend Carol Dewey who lives near Yosemite in the town of Mariposa, Ca. http://www.weddingsinyosemite.com/. I chatted with her and found out that she officiates at weddings throughout Yosemite and even did two weddings on top of Half Dome last year.
John Muir would have rejoiced in all of this as he considered Half Dome as the High Altar appropriately situated at the east end of his Yosemite Cathedral. Truly a prophet, Muir predicted that Yosemite would become a favorite place where lovers would be drawn “into close and confiding communion.”
The eminent anthropologist/humanitarian Loren Eiseley fully appreciated this concept by suggesting that he was less concerned about man conquering nature than about nature, in the form of God, conquering the human heart. When this happens, he asserts, men lack vision and inspiration and cease to be fully-functional human beings.