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).





March 28, 2012











Ordinarily, I will not plan to feature a given author more than once a year, or in close proximity to a previous listing, but for a very special reason I am making an exception for April’s Book of the Month.  The obvious reason is last week’s blog on Death Valley National Park.  You may remember that our January book was Zane Grey’s Heritage of the Desert—(the December 28, 2011 blog).  But since Grey’s greatest desert novel—perhaps the greatest desert novel ever written—was set in California’s Death Valley, the coincidence was just too good an opportunity to pass up.


Immediately after the close of World War I (contemporaries called it simply “The Great War”), Zane Grey assumed the role of a desert rat himself as he immersed himself into the desert world so that his next novel might ring true.  From my Master Chronology I have documented this period according to locale (based on letter postmarks and diary entries):


January 1, 1919            Zane Grey in Palm Springs, California

January 3, 1919            Exploring desert between Chuckwalla and Chocolate Mountains

January 4, 1919            In vicinity of Yuma, Arizona

January 5, 1919            Exploring Picture Canyon, Mecca, Brawley, El Centro, and Holtville, California

January 6, 1919            In sand dune waste between El Centro and Yuma

January 7, 1919            Meets famed frontiersman, Charlie Meadows

January 8, 1919            Yuma Midland, in vicinity of Picacho, for some time

February 23 – mid March, 1919            Exploring California/Arizona desert country

March 21, 1919            Train to Death Valley Junction

March 22, 1919            Travel from Junction to Death Valley

March 23-26, 1919            Walking across Death Valley with a desert wanderer

March 27-28, 1919            Walks 12 of the 34 miles back to Death Valley Junction


Grey and his wife Dolly had first fallen in love with the Southwest desert country during their 1906 honeymoon.  Beginning in 1907, Grey, in expedition after expedition, both on foot and horseback, internalized what was still frontier country.  This is why Wanderer had such a long fuse to it.


In my 1975 Vanderbilt doctoral dissertation, I summed up the significance of Wanderer of the Wasteland in these words:


Although Wanderer of the Wasteland had been written in 1919, it was not published until 1923 (eighth on the 1923 best seller list). Wanderer of the Wasteland is one of Grey’s finest desert epics.  The protagonist, Adam Larey, (alias Wansfell, The Eagle, Tanquitch) is a heroic super-human on the scale of Michelangelo’s “David.”  In terms of emotional drain, the book probably took more out of Grey than anything else he ever wrote. The following entries come from his diaries: January 19, 1919.  “Today after years of plan [sic], and months of thought, and weeks of travel, reading, I began the novel that I have determined to be great.”  January 26.  “Dolly read the first chapter, and her praise made me exultant and happy, and full of inspiration.”  February 13.  “I feel that I can write best in the silence and solitude of the night, when everyone has retired. There is a bigness, a glory about the approach of the Wasteland Wanderer novel . . .  It grows upon me day by day.”  March 1.  “Finished the seventh chapter . . . . But this week I go to the desert again, and after that to Death Valley.  Then I will be able to write with a living flame—this novel obsesses me.  It is wonderful, beautiful, terrible.”  May 22.  “I write swiftly, passionately.  I am approaching the climax, and have to rise to tremendous heights.  I feel the surge of emotion—a dread—a terror—a pain, as if this ordeal were physical.”  May 29.  “IT IS MIDNIGHT.  I HAVE JUST FINISHED MY NOVEL WANDERER OF THE WASTELAND.  Twelve hours today—28 pages—and I sweat blood!. . . .  I do not know what it is that I have written.  But I have never worked so hard on any book, never suffered so much or so long.  838 pages.  170,000 words.”


The book includes some of the finest desert description: terrain, fauna, plant life, etc., that he ever wrote.  The theme partially is the Old Testament Cain-Abel love-hate relationship, partly the redemptive power of suffering, and partly the desert crucible which will either destroy or ennoble those who submit themselves to its fires.  Magdalene Virey, considering the short period she lives in the book’s pages, is nevertheless a memorable character.  Altogether, it took Grey ten years to gather all the material for the story.  Then, as he began to write, several trips to the Southern California-Arizona border country and two trips to Death Valley helped give him the fresh inspiration he needed.  Later, Grey observed:


When the novel came out in book form I said I was willing to stand or fall by it.  I was.  I am still.  I had high hopes for this novel of the wastelands.  A few of them were realized, yet most prominent critics who reviewed the book damned it with faint praise.  They all struck the same note.  They could not see the beauty, the wonder, the tragedy and soul of the desert, the truth of the waste places of the earth and their equally ennobling and debasing effect upon man.  It was not that there was not enough of my ten years’ absorption of the desert to convince the critics of these things.  It was that they did not know anything about the desert—that they could not believe in the heroism and idealism of man.33


When he finished, Harpers asked him to cut 100 pages out of the book. . . “All in my interest, they said!  Did you ever hear of such callowness?  Just to save a little money they would cut my book to nothing. . . .  There are some aspects of this literary game that are sickening.”34 Eventually Grey shortened it some, supposedly by about 3,000 words.  To him, it was like cutting off his own flesh.  His 1919 diary entries during this period reveal how carefully he researched his subject.  Nothing was too insignificant to count.


33Zane Grey, “My Answer to the Critics,” unpublished manuscript (in possession of the Zane Grey Family), p. 5.

34Zane Grey, letter to Dolly Grey, June 26, 1922, unpublished (in possession of the Zane Grey family).


From Zane Grey’s Impact on American Life and Letters (pp. 174-6).


* * *


So total was this immersion that, in the years that followed, Dolly often addressed him in letters as “Wansfell the Wanderer.”  In fact, during her own epic journeys across the U.S. by auto during the 1920s, whenever a desert wanderer stepped onto a road (most all unpaved) ahead of her, she’d think for a moment it was her husband. [Rarely did they travel together].


After the book was published, so many readers asked him to write a sequel that he finally did so [he wrote very few]: Stairs of Sand.


* * * * *


Get prepared for a great read!  It is easy to find this book on the web.