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John Muir and the Desert Connection

by Peter Wild


(Reprinted from the John Muir Newsletter , Vol. 5, No. 2, Spring 1995)


"A bitter wind was blowing over the Mohave," says Linnie Marsh Wolfe, when an aging John Muir arrived at a desert ranch late in the winter of 1914 [1] . Most people know that Muir took sick with his final illness near an obscure desert town called Daggett. However, beyond that, little is known about his relationship to Daggett, to the Mojave desert, and to the friends he made there during the last seven years of his life. Yet the period is rich with Muir's personal involvement, with ironies, and his influence on others, and it is a period awaiting further exploration by students of Muir.

A mountain and ice man, Muir didn't go willingly to the California desert. Rather, it was the health of daughter Helen that forced him out there in his final years. He had spent much of 1905-1906 worrying over Helen's condition and trying to find a healing climate for her respiratory problems, first in the mountains of eastern Arizona, later at the Petrified Forest in the northern part of the state [2] . The cure seemed to work. Then, back in Martinez, in 1907 Helen suddenly took a turn for the worse, and Muir rushed her south to the Van Dyke Ranch, a mile east of Daggett.

The details of why Muir chose this ranch are not entirely clear. In fact, Daggett had a particularly evil reputation. On Saturday nights the boom town could wax riotous with miners pouring down from the rich silver claims in the nearby mountains--not at all the place either for gentle-mannered Muir or his young daughter. However, as it happened, the ranch was owned by Theodore Strong Van Dyke, a well-known outdoor writer of the day who shared Muir's sympathy for nature. Furthermore, Theodore had not only solved his own health problems by moving to the desert ranch some six years before, he often celebrated the healthful climate of the region in his books and articles. Given the small community of California's writers at the time, it is likely that Muir knew of Van Dyke and perhaps had met him prior to 1907. On top of that, since Theodore was Daggett's no-nonsense justice of the peace, a powerful position in a desert where the law was stretched thin, Helen likely would suffer no rowdyism from the locals [3] . In any case, Muir got Helen settled at the ranch and returned to Martinez. Word came from Helen that she enjoyed the outdoor life and the company of Theodore and his son, Dix, so much so that Muir sent her both Stickeen and her horse Sniffpony. Helen was in Daggett to stay. In a few years she married Buel Funk, the son of a nearby rancher. Thus Muir, alone and aging, had every reason to be a frequent visitor in Daggett.

In one of those rare strokes that can put flesh on the bare bones of history, fortunately for us Dix wrote a substantial memoir about life at the Van Dyke Ranch. He records not only some of Muir's visits but follows Buel's "sparking" of Helen and their subsequent marriage [4] . According to Dix, Theodore and Muir, two authors of about the same age, found each other "congenial souls," and both looked forward to times spent together at the ranch [5] .

At this point, however, the story becomes at once more complex and intriguing. Theodore, though a graduate of Princeton, an attorney, and a student of Greek and Latin of some accomplishment, had "gone native," shedding the pretenses of urban civilization. A mountain rover and naturalist of precise observation, he had earned the right, as had Muir, to speak with authority about California's vast and varied natural heritage. Not so Theodore's younger brother John C. Van Dyke. And here the ironies begin to turn on themselves.

In 1901, John published a landmark book, The Desert, the first volume to counter the common wisdom of the day condemning deserts as ugly wastelands [6] . Instead, with a poetry and power not since surpassed, The Desert praised the arid lands for their beauty, for their lava peaks that glow like hot iron after sunsets, and for their storms that whirl up in showers of gold. The hitch is that John was no outdoorsman but a refined professor of art history at Rutgers University, a familiar of the East Coast's toniest salons. Though because of his own health problems he started visiting Theodore in Southern California sometime in the late 1890s, the likelihood is very strong that the adventures in John's famous book, still in print, were more the stuff of his fantasy than experience. Whether or not John knew Muir through Theodore at the time John wrote The Desert is not known. In any case, some of the passages in the most famous book ever written about the Southwest not only echo Muir's writing, at times John uses Muir's very words and imagery [7] .

A lively personal element comes into play here, and sparks begin to fly. At one point, the paths of John and Muir crossed at the ranch, and things did not go well. Dix says that ". . . the two wrangled incessantly . . . ," with Muir stomping off in some heat [8] . In contrast, John's version of the meeting in his Autobiography all but lowers the mantle of sainthood around Muir's shoulders [9] .

These and other aspects of John Muir's days on the Mojave desert may never be resolved. Yet references to them keep cropping up in unpublished sources, and, again fortunately, the little town of Daggett remains much as it was when Muir knew it. The old general store he likely visited still stands in the center of town, as does the house out at the Van Dyke Ranch where Helen lived. A few hundred yards away is "Desertaire," the mansion Buel and Helen built after Muir's death, today in an excellent state of preservation. All await further investigation.

Footnotes

  1. Linnie Marsh Wolfe, Son of the Wilderness: The Life of John Muir (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1945), p. 347.

  2. Peter Wild, "Months of Sorrow and Renewal: John Muir in Arizona 1905-1906," Journal of the Southwest 29 (Spring, 1987): 65-80.

  3. For more on Theodore see Peter Wild, Theodore Strong Van Dyke (Boise: Boise State University, forthcoming.)

  4. Printed under various titles, such as "The Pioneer Story" and "Pioneer Days," Dix's memoir appeared on the intermittent Thursdays in the local newspaper, the Bartstow Printer Review, throughout 1953, the year after his death.

  5. Ibid., October 29, 1953.

  6. John C. Van Dyke, The Desert: Further studies in Natural Appearances (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1901).

  7. Compare, for instance, the closing paragraphs of John Muir's "The American Forests", Atlantic Monthly 80 (August 1897) 156-7, with Van Dyke's The Desert, pp. 60-1.

  8. Dix Van Dyke, Barstow Printer Review, October 29, 1953.

  9. John C. Van Dyke, The Autobiography of John C. Ban Dyke: A Personal Narrative of American Life, 1861-1931. (Editor: Peter Wild, Salt Lake City, University of Utah Press, 1993), pp. 167-8.


Peter Wild
Department of English
Modern Languages Building #67
University of Arizona
Tucson, AZ 85721
(602) 326-5562



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