June 12, 2013

I abjectly apologize for the long delay in completing The Great Circle. Just to recapitulate, Bob and Lucy Earp, and Connie and I were so impressed by Ken Burns’ magnificent PBS National Park Series films that we decided to personally explore our western national parks for ourselves. Since we’d also been impressed with Christine Barnes’ Great Lodges of the National Parks (aired just after the Burns and Duncan series by PBS) as well as the two books that preceded the film series, we decided to stay in those wonderful old lodges whenever possible.

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It took us two years to complete both the Northwest and Southwest portions of The Great Circle. However, the blogs that detailed our peregrinations came to a temporary halt on June 20, 2012; “temporary,” because I fully intended to return to the series in a couple of weeks, but so many timely, provocative, and interesting subjects intruded that almost a year has passed since then! This time, I promise we’ll complete the loop before I stray away again.

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It is impossible to read Duncan and Burns’ national parks blockbuster without being mesmerized by the role one man played in awakening the nation to a belated conviction that America’s endangered scenic wonders must be saved before it was too late.

John Muir (1838-1914) was born in Dunbar, Scotland, but moved when only nine to America. In 1867, while attending the University of Wisconsin, Madison, an industrial accident nearly cost him an eye. That near disaster changed the course of his life, for he abandoned his technical studies and devoted himself to nature. He walked from the Middle West to the Gulf of Mexico. In 1868, he trekked into then little known Yosemite Valley, which over time became his life’s lodestar. From this focal point he took many trips into Nevada, Utah, Oregon, Washington, and Alaska.

As early as 1876, Muir urged the federal government to adopt a forest conservation policy. The Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks were established in 1890. Early in 1899, President Grover Cleveland designated 13 national forests to be preserved from commercial exploitation; but powerful business groups persuaded the President to back off. But Muir penned two eloquent magazine articles that reversed the tide and swung public and Congressional opinion in favor of national forest reservations. Muir also influenced the large-scale conservation program of President Theodore Roosevelt, who in 1903, during his first term in office, accompanied Muir on a camping trip to the Yosemite region.

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The rest of Muir’s life was spent in almost continual battle with commercial interests determined to wrest control of America’s scenic wonderlands away from those who sought to preserve them for posterity. Though Muir won many such battles, one of his defeats all but broke his heart and hastened his death: the damming of Little Yosemite Valley and turning it into the Hetch Hetchy water reservoir for California’s Bay Area cities.

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Quite simply, Yosemite National Park is iconic in its being one of the world’s most famous wild spaces. Even in the midst of the Civil War, Lincoln found time in 1864 to sign a Congressional bill granting Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Sequoias to the State of California as an inalienable public trust.

Today, in Mel White’s words, “Yosemite National Park, declared a World Heritage site in 1984 for its natural features, attracts more than 3.5 million visitors annually, most of whom see only the valley at its heart, a mile-wide, seven-mile-long area where the Merced River winds among waterfalls and granite monoliths.”

Among the wonders drawing tourists from around the world are the 620-feet-high Bridalveil Falls, the 3,000-feet-high El Capitan (the largest monolith of granite in the world), 8,842-feet-high Half Dome (Yosemite’s most recognized feature), 3,214-feet-high Glacier Point, three Redwood groves (the largest being the Mariposa Grove), 317-feet-high Vernal Falls, 500-feet-high Cascades, 370-feet-high Illilouette Fall, 600-feet-high Pywiak Cascade, 2,000-feet-high Sentinal Falls, 2,000-feet-high Snow Creek Falls, 1,612-feet-high Ribbon Fall, 1,250-feet-high Royal Arch Cascade, 700-feet-high Wildcat Fall, and the granddaddy of them all: 2,565-feet-high Yosemite Falls (including 1,430-feet-high Upper Fall, 320-feet-high Lower Fall, and the Cascades), besides the Park’s too many to count ephemeral falls [seasonal]. Mike Osborne says of the spectacular totality, “Many would argue that Yosemite National Park has the grandest assemblage of waterfalls in the world.” And there are many more in Yosemite’s high country (which few tourists ever reach). The spectacular Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne, with its Horseshoe Falls, can only be reached by foot.

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Our visit will continue next week.


Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009).

Northern California and Nevada Tour Book (Heathrow, Florida: AAA Publishing, 2009).

Osborne, Mike, Granite, Water, and Light: The Waterfalls of Yosemite Valley (Berkeley, California: Yosemite Association, 2009).

Walklet, Keith S., Yosemite: An Enduring Treasure (Berkeley, California: Yosemite Association, 2001).






June 20, 2012





Yosemite is the penultimate stop in our Great Circle of National Parks grand tour that we began on August 4, 2010.  It is fitting that our closing fireworks takes place where the National Park story begins.  And for that story we can thank Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns, for their book has been our sourcebook.


Yosemite’s story really begins with Dr. Lafayette Bunnell in one of the earliest expeditions (1851) into this then all but unknown valley.  He was so overwhelmed by what he saw that he named the valley.  Wrongly, it turns out.  In his ignorance of the Native American Indians who lived here, he mistakenly named it Yosemite Valley.  Turns out that Yosemite translates as “Killers” . . . “People who should be feared.”  It should have been called “Ahwahnee Valley,” so named by the  Ahwahnee Indians who referred to themselves as the “Ahwahneechies.”  Translated, “Ahwahnee” means “The Place of the Gaping Mouth” (Duncan and Burns, p. 2).


Word spread, and photographers (the profession then in its infancy) and artists such as that great romantic landscapist, Albert Bierstadt (who came here and painted such magnificent canvasses in 1862 that he was paid a then unheard of $25,000 for one of his Yosemite paintings) packed into the valley to see if it was all legend attributed to it.


In 1864, John Conners (junior senator from the very young state of California) did an almost unbelievable thing: In the midst of the bloodiest war in American history (with more casualties than in all the rest of America’s wars combined) Conners stood up on May 17, 1864 in the Senate Chamber and introduced a bill to preserve this little-known valley.  A proposal that was unprecedented in human history: to “set aside a large tract (some 60 square miles) of natural scenery for the future enjoyment of everyone.”  The bill included both Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees (Sequoia).  The concept for the bill had originated with Captain Israel Ward Raymond.  Such a proposal seemingly made little sense in light of Americans’ well-known propensity to trash all itsnatural wonders.  They’d already all but ruined Niagara Falls with cheap commercialism.  Almost unbelievably—no small thanks to Conners’ assurance that the land was completely worthless and wouldn’t cost the country a dime—, the bill sailed through; and on June 30, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln “signed a law to preserve forever a beautiful valley and a grove of trees that he had never seen thousands of miles away.” (This section, Duncan and Burns, 8-13).


Unwisely, it turns out, the bill mandated turning the park over to the State of California to administer, which resulted in half a century of fierce and unrelenting warfare between the forces of those who sought to preserve the park in its pristine state and those who sought to commercialize it, log it, mine it, and do all they could to destroy it.  It proved to be one of the bitterest wars the West has ever known (matched only by the battle to preserve the Grand Canyon of the Colorado).


The unenviable job of actually protecting the park fell on the shoulders of 52-year-old Galen Clark, who’d proved himself to be a failure at most everything else he’d ever tried to do.  California appointed him the first guardian of Yosemite and the Mariposa Grove for the munificent figure of $500 a year.   Out of that, he was to pay all his living expenses, maintain all roads and bridges, supervise all those who set up businesses, hotels, etc., and, not incidentally, prevent the tourists from destroying the park!  An almost impossible challenge.  Even at that, the State of California withheld his wages for four years!  Just as bad, there was the self-appointed ruler of the park, James Mason Hutchins (a man who’d done much to publicize the park).  Hutchins had no intention of surrendering authority over the park to Clark or the State.  In fact, Hutchins decided to construct a sawmill in the park and wasn’t about to be stopped by anyone!  But he needed a reliable man to construct the sawmill and run it.


Enter a wandering sheepherder from Scotland.  Born in Dunbar, Scotland, and growing up in Wisconsin, he was raised by a harsh tyrannical father, an itinerant Presbyterian minister, who forced his son to memorize the Bible—and beat him repeatedly to keep him at it.  After escaping from his father, uncertain as to his future, he walked a thousand miles to the Gulf of Mexico, then came west. Seeking the wildest place he could find, he was steered into sheepherding in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  And so it came to pass that, in the fall of 1869, this 31-year-old walked into the Yosemite Valley to apply for the job of sawmill builder and manager.


His name was John Muir (Duncan and Burns, 15-17).




Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009).