Saturday, July 5, 2008

Vacation Part 1: Riding with John Muir

So begins a 3 part blog series from a recent camping family vacation up the west side of the Sierra Nevada, over Truckee, and down the east side past Mammoth. In the best interest of the Blog's intent, we will keep it as cycling related as possible.

The Sierra Nevada, John Muir, and I.

John Muir (April 21, 1838 – December 24, 1914) was one of the first modern preservationists. His letters, essays, and books telling of his adventures in nature, and wildlife, especially in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, were read by millions and are still popular today. His direct activism helped to save the Yosemite Valley and other wilderness areas. The Sierra Club, which he founded, is now one of the most important conservation organizations in the United States. His writings and philosophy strongly influenced the formation of the modern environmental movement. Source - Wikipedia

We were camped at Grant Grove in the Kings Canyon National park, located between Sequoia and Yosemite as a point of reference, and enjoying the benefits of camping in a National Park. Among the good things are the nature programs the rangers host at the outdoor amphitheaters in the evenings. I remember these from waaay back as a child and they are fond memories of good times.

This one evening the talk was "A visit with John Muir". My wife expected a slide show and talk, but I had an inkling of something more, and I was right. There was a volunteer ranger that had been a teacher for 39 years before retiring. Besides that, he had been giving a monologue on the life of John Muir for quite some time. He looked the part too, with a pretty decent white beard.

He began the evening with the usual greetings and bear/food warnings. Soon, it was time for the main program. He dimmed the lights and had us make some sounds as he prompted us and it sounded amazingly like a summer rain shower, with our hands, feet, and fingers providing the tones and sounds of rain and thunder. When the lights came up, he was in character as the man himself.

What followed was a nearly magical time listening as Mr. Muir told us his life story. With his heavy scottish brougue and his gift for prose, he brought us back in time to a day when the Sierra was largely unknown and untraveled. We walked the meadows and summitted the peaks with him, floated down the San Joaquin river, and layed back in the grass and watched shooting stars.

The next morning, I went on a mtn bike ride. I could not get the words from last night out of my head. I was riding through a beautiful place, heading towards the Converse Basin, an area outside the National Park and in National Forest land. Converse Basin was mentioned last night by Muir. It once held the largest grove of Giant Sequoias in the Sierras. It was clear cut by lumbermen during Muir's time, and he mentioned it as a sad moment in his life when he found the meadow destroyed, the big trees felled, some 3000 of them.

After a bit, I arrived at Stump Meadow.

So many big trees were logged out of here, that the water table rose in the meadow upsetting the balance of habitat and killing many other trees. I stood there, next to my bike, feeling like I was in a cemetary. Stump after enormous stump surrounded both sides of the road. It was quiet there and peaceful, but I was saddened by the thought of what it might have looked like before the saws came. Even sadder was the fact that the logging operation was never profitable. How could you look at a magnificent tree like that and think only of 2x4s? What is it in man's nature that allows him to see only profit in such a beautiful place?

I rode as far as the beginning of the trail to the Boole Tree, a record-book Sequoia that was one of the few trees to escape the axe. What did I find on the trail head sign? NO BIKES. Great! Why? This is just a little trail off the main road to a big tree.

Denied that part of the adventure, I finished the ride, running out of time to explore the many roads that tempted me to follow along for a while, just a little 'saunter' like Muir preferred, to see what was around the corner.

Later in the day, I was thinking about it all. The talk had sharpened my awareness of our responsibility to our environment and the need for clear thinking in the pursuit of natural resources. We consume and consume. I wonder about living a simpler life, but worry that I do not know how, and if I did, that I would lack the will to do it.

But what really angered me was the way the environmental movement has alienated me, a person raised to respect the outdoors and appreciate wise use of our resources. I find myself unable to support the Sierra Club and their ilk as the same folks who would stop logging of such a grand tree also want "no bikes" signs placed in most of the public lands. So where do I fit in? I don't see a lot of middle ground here, so no Sierra Club badge for me. Besides my love of bikes, I also advocate responsible OHV use and that makes me anathema.

I don't know what John Muir would have thought of mountain bikes in the forest. Maybe he would have been my enemy too, wanting "No Bikes" signs everywhere. I wonder though what he would think of the radical nature of today's green agenda, which serves an elitist group with very little room for a guy like me who thinks the middle ground is also the high ground.

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