Living John Muir in Reverse

August 23, 2017

 

Can you pinpoint a moment or two that brought a pivot in your life? Little, seemingly-undramatic decisions or interactions that turned out to be of disproportionate importance?

 

One of mine came in a small Ranger station gift shop at Sequoia Nation Park 17+ years ago, when I picked up a rather plainly-designed book from the rack of gorgeous photo-covered publications: “The 22 Greatest Adventures of John Muir.” I didn’t know who John Muir was, but the word “adventure” was enticing; and just as important, the stories were short.

 

It was one of those purchases you know has a 50/50 chance of sitting on a shelf for five years before finding its way into a friend’s hands or a Goodwill donation box. Instead, it became a narrative that inspired and shaped me.

 

In brief, the somewhat-apocryphal tale is that when John Muir arrived in San Francisco in 1868 after a near-fatal foot-and-boat journey from Wisconsin, his first question was, “where’s the nearest wild place?” He found his way to the Yosemite Valley, pre-national park and largely unexplored.

 

Over the next six years, he tested the limits of human capacity and, some would say, common sense, as his wonderment and pure joy led him to take hair-raising risks in order to fully experience the power and beauty of nature.

 

He stood on the lip of the Yosemite Falls, water rushing past him, so he could follow the water as it fell over two thousand feet. He recalled, “While perched on that ledge I was not distinctly conscious of danger. The tremendous grandeur of the fall in form and sound and motion, acting at close range, smothered the sense of fear…”

 

 

 

He clamored to the top of a 100-foot Douglas Fir tree in the middle of a storm, body swaying side to side, to experience the raw power of the wind.

 

As an earthquake shook the valley of the cabin where he was staying, and all the residents fled, he rushed to an avalanche and jumped on the top of the boulders while they were still trembling.

 

Amazing. Who of us has that much courage, that amount of recklessness, that willingness to let go of ourselves to experience all that life has to offer?

 

Then comes the deflating part of the story. I found out, a year or two after digesting and internalizing these twenty-two amazing adventure stories, that after those six years of living in that state of intoxicating curiosity, Muir’s adventurous spirit was overridden by something more mundane. He opted to settle down with a woman into a reportedly tepid marriage relationship on her family’s fruit farm in the San Joaquin Valley for the rest of his life, where he suffered bouts of discouragement and depression.

 

He still went on excursions, and made contributions that last to this day such as helping establish the Sierra Club and leading the movement to create Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, and protect and add to Yosemite, among many other accomplishments. He just stopped living that life of pure abandonment.

 

This doesn’t fit the dramatic arc. His Heroic Journey is supposed to start at the depression part, then lead to the enlightenment and adventure, and end with meeting the life partner who goes on the adventures with him. His wife reportedly only went camping with him one time. Hated it.

 

(*I should say here that this deflating twist in the tale is subject to debate; some say Muir lived a happier post-Yosemite life and that stories of a depressed ranching life are unfair; other say such rosier accounts of his later years are white-washed, and the first account I gave are more accurate. Regardless, the reverse-arc version, from gloriously-impetuous explorer to compromised conventional businessman, has stuck with me.)

 

Much as I’ve wanted to, I haven’t lived like Muir did those early years in Yosemite. I’ve never jumped on metaphorical boulders after an avalanche. It’s scary to think of moving beyond the comfortable, beyond what you’ve grown up thinking is correct and normal and safe.

 

But there’s no reason to settle into a life that feels less than fulfilling on a daily basis, even if, like Muir, I can continue to contribute to the world around me.

 

What would it mean to take steps away from the safe life I’ve led up until now, and find those waterfalls and jump on those boulders? Would that involve huge adventures, or dramatic acts of service, or running a 100-miler for charity? (Dear Lord, please not that!)

 

That’s where this third round of cancer has been a gift.

 

The first and second episodes made me bitter. This one, though it has the same amount of uncertainty, brings with it a new sense of being unfettered.

 

Middle age has hit. The prognosis is uncertain—any day could see a return of the familiar symptoms, or maybe some new ones. The goals I set to get through the first months after treatment will be largely complete in a few weeks. It seems like the worst of the trauma has worked itself out.

 

Why not try to find the nearest wild place, whatever that means here, now? I have a life partner to walk through it with me, and nothing to lose.

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