m_topn picture
Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

A P R I L  1 9 1 1

My First Summer in the Sierra--April

by John Muir

August 4. [1869.] -- It seemed strange to sleep in a paltry hotel chamber after the spacious magnificence and luxury of the starry sky and Silver Fir grove. Bade farewell to my friend and the General. The old soldier was very kind, and an interesting talker. He told me long stories of the Florida Seminole war in which he took part, and invited me to visit him in Omaha. Calling Carlo, I scrambled home through the Indian Canon gate, rejoicing, pitying the poor Professor and General bound by clocks, almanacs, orders, duties, etc., and compelled to dwell with lowland care and dust and din where Nature is covered and her voice smothered, while the poor insignificant wanderer enjoys the freedom and glory of God's wilderness.

Apart from the human interest of my visit to-day, I greatly enjoyed Yosemite, which I had visited only once before, having spent eight days last spring in rambling amid its rocks and waters. Wherever we go in the mountains, or indeed in any of God's wild fields, we find more than we seek. Descending four thousand feet in a few hours, we enter a new world; climate, plants, sounds, inhabitants, and scenery all new or changed. Near camp the gold-cup oak forms sheets of chaparral on top of which we may make our beds. Going down the Indian Canon, we observe this little bush changing by regular gradations to a large bush, to a small tree, and then larger, until on the rocky taluses near the bottom of the valley we find it developed into a broad, wide-spreading, gnarled, picturesque tree from four to eight feet in diameter, and forty or fifty feet high. Innumerable are the forms of water displayed. Every gliding reach, cascade, and fall has characters of its own. Had a good view of the Vernal and Nevada, two of the main falls of the valley, less than a mile apart, and offering striking differences in voice, form, color, etc.

See each installment of this article:
  • Part I
    (January, 1911)
  • Part II
    (February, 1911)
  • Part III
    (March, 1911)

    Return to Flashback: John Muir's Yosemite

    See "Chesuncook" by Henry David Thoreau (1858).

    See a collection of contemporary articles about the environment.

  • The Vernal, four hundred feet high end about seventy-five or eighty feet wide, drops smoothly over a round-lipped precipice and forms a superb apron of embroidery, green and white, slightly folded and fluted, maintaining this form nearly to the bottom, where it is suddenly veiled in quick flying billows of spray and mist, in which the afternoon sunbeams play with ravishing beauty of rainbow colors.

    The Nevada is white from its first appearance as it leaps out into the freedom of the air. At the head, it presents a twisted appearance by an overfolding of the current from striking on the side of its channel just before the first free outbounding leap is made. About two thirds of the way down, the hurrying throng of comet-shaped masses glances on an inclined part of the face of the precipice, and is beaten into yet whiter foam, greatly expanded, and sent bounding outward, making an indescribably glorious show, especially when the afternoon sunshine is pouring into it. In this fall, one of the most wonderful in the world, the water does not seem to be under the dominion of ordinary laws, but rather as if it were a living creature full of the strength of the mountains and their huge, wild joy.

    August 5. -- We were awakened this morning before daybreak by the furious barking of Carlo and Jack, and the sound of stampeding sheep. Billy fled from his punk-bed to the fire, and refused to stir into the darkness to try to gather the scattered flock, or ascertain the nature of the disturbance. It was a bear attack, as we afterward learned, and I suppose little was gained by attempting to do anything before daylight. Nevertheless, being anxious to know what was up, Carlo and I groped our way through the woods, guided by sound made by fragments of the rock, not fearing the bear, for I knew that the runaways would go from their enemy as far as possible, and Carlo's nose was also to be depended upon.

    About half a mile east of the corral we overtook twenty or thirty of the flock, succeeded in driving them back. When turning to the westward we traced another band of fugitives and got them back to the flock. After daybreak I discovered the remains of a sheep carcass still warm, showing that Bruin must have been enjoying his early mutton breakfast while I was seeking the runaway. He had eaten about half of it. Six dead sheep lay in the corral, evidently smothered by the crowding and piling up of the flock against the side of the corral wall when the bear entered. Making a wide circuit of the camp, Carlo and I discovered a third band of fugitives, and drove them back to camp. We also discovered another dead sheep half-eaten, showing there had been two of the shaggy freebooters at this early breakfast. They were easily traced. They had each caught a sheep, jumped over the corral fence with it, carrying them as a cat carries a mouse, laid them at the foot of fir trees a hundred yards or so back from the corral, and eaten their fill. After breakfast I set out to seek more of the lost, and found seventy-five at a considerable distance from camp. In the afternoon I succeeded with Carlo's help in getting them back to the flock. I don't know whether all are together again or not. I shall make a big fire this evening and keep watch.

    When I asked Billy why he made his bed against the corral in rotten wood when so many better places offered, he replied that he 'wished to be as near the sheep as possible in case bears should attack them.' Now that the bears have come, he has moved his bed to the far side of the camp, and seems afraid of being mistaken for a sheep.

    This has been mostly a sheep day, and of course studies have been interrupted. Nevertheless the walk through the gloom of the woods before the dawn was worth while, and I have learned something about these noble bears. Their tracks are very telling, and so are their breakfasts. Scarce a trace of clouds to-day, and of course our ordinary midday thunder is a-wanting.

    August 10. -- Another of those charming, exhilarating days that make the blood dance, and excite nerve-currents that render one unweariable and well-nigh immortal. Had another view of the broad ice-ploughed divide, and gazed again and again at the Sierra temple and the great red mountains east of the meadows.

    We are camped near the Soda Springs on the north side of the river. A hard time we had getting the sheep across. They were driven into a horseshoe bend and fairly crowded off the bank. They seemed willing to suffer death rather than risk getting wet, though they swim well enough when they have to. Why sheep should be so unreasonably afraid of water, I don't know, but they do fear it as soon as they are born, and perhaps before. I once saw a lamb only a few hours old approach a shallow stream about two feet wide and an inch deep, after it had walked only about a hundred yards on its life journey. All the flock to which it belonged had crossed this inch-deep stream, and as the mother and her lamb were the last to cross I had a good opportunity to observe them. As soon as the flock was out of the way, the anxious mother crossed over and called the youngster. It walked cautiously to the brink, gazed at the water, bleated piteously, and refused to venture. The patient mother went back to it again and again to encourage it, but long without avail. Like the pilgrim on Jordan's stormy bank, it feared to launch away. At length, gathering its trembling, inexperienced legs for the mighty effort, throwing up its head as if it knew all about drowning and was anxious to keep its nose above water, it made the tremendous leap and landed in the middle of the inch-deep stream. It seemed astonished to find that instead of sinking over head and ears, only its toes were wet, gazed at the shining water a few seconds, and then sprang to the shore safe and dry through the dreadful adventure. All kinds of wild sheep are mountain animals, and their descendants' dread of water is not easily accounted for.

    August 12. -- The sky-scenery has changed but little so far with the change in elevation. Clouds about .05. Glorious pearly cumuli tinted with purple of ineffable fineness of tone. Moved camp to the side of the glacier meadow mentioned above. To let sheep trample so divinely fine a place seems barbarous. Fortunately they prefer the succulent broad-leaved triticum and other woodland grasses to the silky species of the meadows, and therefore seldom bite them or set foot on them.

    The shepherd and the Don cannot agree about methods of herding. Billy sets his dog Jack on the sheep far too often, so the Don thought, and after some dispute to-day, in which the shepherd loudly claimed the right to dog the sheep as often as he pleased, he started for the plains. Now I suppose the care of the sheep will fall on me, though Mr. Delaney promises to do the herding himself for a while, then return to the lowlands, and bring another shepherd, so as to leave me free to rove as I like.

    Had another rich ramble. Pushed northward beyond the forests to the head of the general basin, where traces of glacial action are strikingly clear and interesting. The recesses among the peaks look like quarries, so raw and fresh are the moraine-chips and boulders that strew the ground in Nature's glacial workshops.

    Soon after my return to camp we received a visit from an Indian, probably one of the hunters whose camp I had discovered. He came from Mono, he said, with others of his tribe, to hunt deer. One that he had killed a short distance from here he was carrying on his back, its legs tied together in an ornamental bunch on his forehead. Throwing down his burden, he gazed stolidly for a few minutes in silent Indian fashion, then cut off eight or ten pounds of venison for us, and begged a 'lill' (little) of everything he saw or could think of, -- flour, bread, sugar, tobacco, whiskey, needles, etc. We gave a fair price for the meat in flour and sugar, and added a few needles.

    A strangely dirty and irregular life these dark eyed, dark-haired, half-happy savages lead in this clean wilderness; starvation and abundance, death-like calm, indolence, and admirable indefatigable action succeeding each other in stormy rhythm, like winter and summer. Two things they have that civilized toilers might well envy them -- pure air and pure water. These go far to cover and cure the grossness of their lives. Their food is mostly good berries, pine-nuts, clover, lily-bulbs, wild sheep, antelope, deer, grouse, sage-hens, and the larva of ants, wasps, bees, and other insects.

    August 13. -- On my return after sunset to the Portuguese camp after a grand ramble along the Yosemite walls, I found the shepherds greatly excited over the behavior of the bears that have learned to like mutton. 'They are getting worse and worse,' they lamented. Not willing to wait decently until after dark for their suppers, they come and kill and eat their fill in broad daylight. The evening before my arrival, when the two shepherds were leisurely driving the flock toward camp half an hour before sunset, a hungry bear came out of the chaparral within a few yards them and shuffled deliberately toward the flock. 'Portuguese Joe,' who always carries a gun loaded with buckshot, fired excitedly, threw down his gun, fled to the nearest suitable tree, and climbed to a safe height without waiting to see the effect of his shot. His companion also ran, but said that he saw the bear rise on its hind legs and throw out its arms as if feeling for nobody, and then go into the brush as if wounded.

    At another of their camps in this neighborhood a bear with two cubs attacked the flock before sunset just as they were approaching the corral. Joe promptly climbed a tree out of danger, while Antone, rebuking his companion for cowardice in abandoning his charge, said that he was not going to let bears 'eat up his sheeps' in daylight, and rushed toward the bears, shouting and setting his dog on them. The frightened cubs climbed a tree, but the mother ran to meet the shepherd, and seemed anxious to fight. Antone stood astonished for a moment, eying the on-coming bear, then turned and fled, closely pursued. Unable to reach a suitable tree for climbing, he ran to the camp and scrambled up to the roof of the little cabin; the bear followed, but did not climb to the roof, only stood glaring up at him for a few minutes, threatening him and holding him in mortal terror, then went to her cubs, called them down, went to the flock, caught a sheep for supper, and vanished in the brush. As soon as the bear left the cabin the trembling Antone begged Joe to show him a good safe tree, up which he climbed like a sailor climbing a mast, and remained as long as he could hold on, the tree being almost branchless.

    After these disastrous experiences the shepherds chopped and gathered large piles of dry wood, and made a ring of fire around the corral every night, while one with a gun kept watch from a comfortable stage built on a neighboring pine that commanded a view of the corral. This evening the show made by the circle of fire was very fine, bringing out the surrounding trees in most impressive relief, and making the thousands of sheep eyes glow like a glorious bed of diamonds.

    August 14. -- Up to the time I went to bed last night all was quiet, though we expected the shaggy freebooters every minute. They did not come till near midnight, when a pair walked boldly to the corral between two of the great fires, climbed in, killed two sheep and smothered ten, while the frightened watcher in the tree did not fire a single shot, saying that he was afraid he might kill some of the sheep, for the bears got into the corral before he got a good clear view of them. I told the shepherds they should at once move the flock to another camp. 'Oh, no use, no use,' they lamented. 'Where we go the bears go too. See my poor dead sheeps, soon all dead. No use try another camp. We go down to the plains.' And as I afterwards learned, they were driven out of the mountains a month before the usual time. Were bears much more numerous and destructive the sheep would be kept away altogether.

    It seems strange that bears, so fond of all sorts of flesh, running the risks of guns and fires and poison, should never attack men except in defense of their young. How easily and safely a bear could pick us up as we lie asleep! Only wolves and tigers seem to have learned to hunt man for food, and perhaps sharks and crocodiles. Mosquitoes and other insects would, I suppose, devour a helpless man in some regions, and so might lions, leopards, wolves, hyenas, and panthers at times, if pressed by hunger; but under ordinary circumstances perhaps only the tiger among land animals may be said to be a maneater, unless we add man himself.

    Clouds as usual about .05. Another glorious Sierra day, warm, crisp, fragrant, and clear. Many of the flowering plants have gone to seed, but many others are unfolding their petals every day, and the firs and pines are more fragrant than ever. Their seeds are nearly ripe, and will soon be flying in the merriest flocks that ever spread a wing.

    On the way back to our Tuolumne camp, enjoyed the scenery if possible more than when it first came to view. Every feature already seems familiar, as if I had lived here always. I never weary gazing at the wonderful Cathedral. It has more individual character than any other rock or mountain I ever saw, excepting perhaps the Yosemite South Dome. The forests too seem kindly familiar, and the lakes and meadows and glad, singing streams. I should like to dwell with them forever. Here with bread and water I should be content. Even if not allowed to roam and climb, tethered to a stake or tree in some meadow or grove, even then I should be content forever. Bathed in such beauty, watching the expressions ever varying on the faces of the mountains, watching the stars, which here have a glory that the lowlander never dreams of, watching the circling seasons, listening to the songs of the waters and winds and birds, would be endless pleasure. And What glorious cloud-lands I would see! storms and calms, a new heaven and a new earth every day, aye, and new inhabitants. And how many visitors I would have! I feel sure I would not have one dull moment. And why should this appear extravagant? It is only common sense, a sign of health, -- genuine natural all-awake health. One would be at an endless Godful play, and what speeches and music and acting and scenery and lights! sun, moon, stars, auroras. Creation just beginning, the morning stars 'still singing together and all the sons of God shouting for joy.'

    August 22. -- Clouds none, cool west wind, slight hoar-frost on the meadows. Carlo is missing; have been seeking him all day. In the thick woods between camp and the river, among tall grass and fallen pines, I discovered a baby fawn. At first it seemed inclined to come to me, but when I tried to catch it, and got within a rod or two, it turned and walked softly away, choosing its steps like a cautious, stealthy, hunting cat. Then as if suddenly called or alarmed, it began to buck and run like a grown deer, lumping high above the fallen trunks, and was soon out of sight. Possibly its mother may have called it, but I did not hear her. I don't think fawns ever leave the home thicket or follow their mothers until they are called or frightened. I am distressed about Carlo. There are several other camps and dogs not many miles from here, and I still hope to find him. He never left me before. Panthers are very rare here, and I don't think any of them would dare touch him. He knows bears too well to be caught by them, and as for Indians, they don't want him.

    August 23. -- Cool, bright hinting Indian summer. Mr. Delaney has gone to the Smith Ranch on the Tuolumne below Hetch Hetchy Valley, thirty-five or forty miles from here, so I'll be alone for a week or more; not really alone, for Carlo has come back. He was at a camp a few miles to the northwestward. He looked sheepish and ashamed when I asked him where he had been, and why he had gone away without leave. He is now trying to get me to caress him, and show signs of forgiveness, -- a wondrous wise dog. A great load is off my mind. I could not have left the mountains without him. He seems very glad to get back to me.

    Rose and crimson sunset, and soon after the stars appeared the moon rose in most impressive majesty over the top of Mt. Dana. I sauntered up the meadow in the white light. The jetblack tree-shadows were so wonderfully distinct and substantial-looking, I often stepped high in crossing them, taking them for black charred logs.

    August 28. -- The dawn a glorious song of color. Sky absolutely cloudless. A fine crop of hoar-frost. Warm after ten o'clock. The gentians don't mind the first frost, though their petals seem so delicate; they close every night as if going to sleep, and awake fresh as ever in the morning sun-glory. The grass is a shade browner since last week, but there are no nipped, wilted plants of any sort as far as I have seen. Butterflies and the grand host of smaller flies are benumbed every night, but they hover and dance in the sunbeams over the meadows before noon with no apparent lack of playful, joyful life. Soon they must all fall like petals in an orchard, dry and wrinkled, not a wing of all the mighty host left to tingle the air. Nevertheless new myriads will arise in the spring, rejoicing, exulting, as if laughing cold death to scorn.

    August 30. -- This day just like yesterday. A few clouds, motionless and apparently with no work to do beyond beauty. Frost enough for crystal-building, -- glorious fields of ice-diamonds destined to last but a night. How lavish is Nature, building, pulling down, creating, destroying, chasing every material particle from form to form, ever changing, ever beautiful.

    Mr. Delaney arrived this morning. Felt not a trace of loneliness while he was gone. On the contrary, I never enjoyed grander company. The whole wilderness seems to be alive and familiar, full of humanity. The very stones seem talkative, sympathetic, brotherly. No wonder when we think that we all have the same Father and Mother.

    August 31. -- Clouds .05. Silky cirrus wisps and fringes so fine they almost escape notice. Frost enough for another crop of crystals on the meadows, but none on the forests. The gentians, goldenrods, asters, etc., don't seem to feel it; neither petals nor leaves are touched, though they seem so tender. Every day opens and closes like a flower, noiseless, effortless. Divine peace glows on all the majestic landscape, like the silent, enthusiastic joy that sometimes transfigures a noble human face.

    September 6. -- Still another perfectly cloudless day, purple evening and morning, all the middle hours one mass of pure, serene sunshine. Soon after sunrise the air grew warm, and there was no wind. There is a suggestion of real Indian summer in the hushed, brooding, faintly hazy weather. The yellow atmosphere, though thin, is still plainly of the same general character as that of Eastern Indian summer. The peculiar mellowness is perhaps in part caused by myriads of ripe spores adrift in the sky.

    Mr. Delaney now keeps up a solemn talk about the need of getting away from these high mountains, telling sad stories of flocks that perished in storms that broke suddenly into the midst of fine innocent weather like this we are now enjoying. 'In no case,' said he, 'will I venture to stay so high and far back in the mountains as we now are later than the middle of this month, no matter how warm and sunny it may be.' He would move the flock, slowly at first, a few miles a day until the Yosemite Creek Basin was reached and crossed; then while lingering in the heavy pine woods, should the weather threaten, he could hurry down to the foothills, where the snow never falls deep enough to smother a sheep. Of course I am anxious to see as much of the wilderness as possible in the few days left me, and I say again, -- May the good time come when I can stay as long as I like with plenty of bread, far and free from trampling flocks, though I may well be thankful for this generous, foodful, inspiring summer. Anyhow, we never know where we must go, nor what guides we are to get, -- men, storms, guardian angels, or sheep. Perhaps almost everybody in the least natural is guided more than he is ever aware of. All the wilderness seems to be full of tricks and plans to drive and draw us up into God's light.

    September 9. -- Weariness rested away, and I feel eager and ready for another excursion a month or two long in the same wonderful wilderness. Now, however, I must turn toward the lowlands, praying and hoping Heaven will shove me back again.

    The most telling thing learned in these mountain excursions is the influence of cleavage joints on the features sculptured from the general mass of the range. Evidently the denudation has been enormous, while the inevitable outcome is subtle, balanced beauty. Comprehended in general views, the features of the wildest landscape seem to be as harmoniously related as the features of a human face. Indeed, they look human, and radiate spiritual beauty, divine thought, however covered and concealed by rock and snow.

    Mr. Delaney has hardly had time to ask me how I enjoyed my trip, though he has facilitated and encouraged my plans all summer, and declares I'll be famous some day, -- a kind guess that seems strange and incredible to a wandering wilderness lover with never a thought or dream of fame, while humbly trying to trace and learn and enjoy Nature's lessons.

    The camp stuff is now packed on the horses, and the flock is headed for the home ranch. Away we go, down through the pines, leaving the lovely lawn where we have camped so long. I wonder if I'll ever see it again. The sod is so tough and close it is scarce at all injured by the sheep. Fortunately they are not fond of silky, glacier meadow grass.

    The day is perfectly clear, not a cloud or the faintest hint of a cloud is visible, and there is no wind. I wonder if in all the world, at a height of nine thousand feet, weather so steadily, faithfully calm and bright and hospitable may anywhere else be found. We are going away fearing destructive storms, though it is difficult to conceive weather changes so great.

    September 17. -- Left camp early, ran over the Tuolumne divide and down a few miles to a grove of sequoias that I had heard of, directed by the Don. They occupy an area of perhaps less than a hundred acres. Some of the trees are noble, colossal old giants surrounded by magnificent sugar pines and Douglas spruces. The perfect specimens not burned or broken are singularly regular and symmetrical, though not at all conventional, showing infinite variety in general unity and harmony. The noble shafts, with rich brown, purplish, fluted bark, are free of limbs for one hundred and fifty feet or so, and are ornamented here and there with leafy rosettes. The main branches of the oldest trees are very large, crooked, and rugged, zigzagging stiffly outward, seemingly lawless, yet unexpectedly stopping just at the right distance from the trunk and dissolving in dense bossy masses of branchlets, thus making a regular though greatly varied outline, -- a cylinder of leafy, outbulging spray masses terminating in a noble dome that may be recognized while yet far off, upheaved against the sky above the dark bed of pines and firs and spruces: the king of all conifers, not only in size but in sublime majesty of behavior and port. I found a black charred stump about thirty feet in diameter, and eighty or ninety feet high, a venerable, impressive old monument of a tree that in its prime may have been the monarch of the grove; seedlings and saplings growing up here and there, thrifty and hopeful, giving no hint of the dying-out of the species. Not any unfavorable change of climate, but only fire threatens the existence of these noblest of God's trees. Sorry I was not able to get a count of the old monument's annual rings.

    Camp this evening at Hazel Green, on the broad back of the dividing ridge near our old camp-ground when we were on the way up the mountains in the spring. This ridge has the finest sugar pine groves, and finest manzanita and ceanothus thickets, I have yet found on all this wonderful summer journey.

    September 21. -- A terribly hot, dusty sun-burned day, and as nothing was to be gained by loitering where the flock could find nothing to eat save thorny twigs and chaparral, we made a long drive, and before sundown reached the home ranch on the Yellow San Joaquin plain.

    September 22. -- The sheep were let out of the corral one by one this morning and counted, and strange to say, after all their long adventurous wanderings in bewildering rocks and brush and streams, scattered by bears, poisoned by azalea, kalmia, alkali, all are accounted for. Of the two thousand and fifty that left the corral in the spring lean and weak, two thousand and twenty-five have returned fat and strong. The losses are, ten killed by bears, one by a rattlesnake, one that had to be killed after it had broken its leg on a boulder slope, and one that ran away in blind terror on being accidentally separated from the flock; thirteen all told. Of the other twelve doomed never to return, three were sold to ranchmen, and nine were made camp mutton.

    Here ends my forever memorable first High Sierra excursion. I have crossed the Range of Light, surely the brightest and best of all the Lord has built. And, rejoicing in its glory, I gladly, gratefully, hopefully pray I may see it again.

  • See Part I
  • See Part II
  • See Part III


    "My First Summer in the Sierra" (Part IV), The Atlantic Monthly; April, 1911; Volume 107, No. 4.
  • m_nv_cv picture m_nv_un picture m_nv_am picture m_nv_pr picture m_nv_as picture m_nv_se picture