Of all Muir’s works, this may be the one that I most anticipated.
My First Summer in the Sierra, with its frank and straightforward title, evokes a sense of wonder and discovery. So many of John Muir’s quotations were culled from this book.
As an avid backpacker and thru-hiker (more or less compelled to worship John Muir), this reads as the ultimate trail journal. The story is presented as a series of daily notes, complete with calendar dates.
The book chronicles his experience working as a shepherd in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains in the summer of 1869. He was 31 years old.
Though it was published later in his life, My First Summer in the Sierra was based on Muir’s original notes. His youthful voice is left mostly intact in the final book. The writing is full of romantic exclamations that don’t sound like the musings of an older man.
From June through September, Muir was fortunate to be hired by a “Mr. Delaney” to accompany a crew that would manage a herd of sheep throughout the summer. They’d gradually move the herd up from California’s sun-blasted lowlands to its lofty mountain pastures.
Delaney was evidently a fan of Muir and his passion for working as a naturalist, telling Muir at the close of the summer that he’d be “famous some day.” Muir seemed to have a limited amount of true shepherd’s work to do, with ample time to roam and immerse himself in the mountains.
Reading mostly as a journal with evocative descriptions, the book is like a love-letter to the Sierra Nevada – endlessly waxing on about the various facets of its beauty. A familiarity with the terrain (or at the very least a familiarity with Yosemite National Park) is extremely helpful in appreciating the book. We all love Muir’s poetic take on the outdoors, but I find it to be most approachable in small doses. Too much continuous time within these pages dulls the otherwise magnificent prose.
The descriptions are interspersed with actual events, which are sometimes even sprinkled with humor. Such accounts include the time Muir first hiked up to the brink of Yosemite Falls, and felt compelled to climb down a cliff for a better view of the cascade.
Most notable and astonishing is the day when he was sitting and sketching on North Dome. Muir was suddenly struck with a telepathic knowledge that this friend was in the Yosemite Valley, far below. So sure of his insight, Muir virtually ran all the way down to the valley that afternoon. He finally found his friend professor JD Butler near Vernal Falls, conveniently at a moment when the professor was having a difficult time retracing his steps to the lodge.
We all tend to feel more in-tune with such phenomena after extended time in the mountains, but this is extraordinary! Muir claims to have had no foreknowledge that is friend intended to visit the Sierra Mountains, only that Butler would possibly take a trip “out west” that summer. Muir called the experience “the one well-defined marvel of my life, of the kind called supernatural.”
Other memorable events include numerous bear encounters – everyone loves a good bear story!
Having heard that a black bear will run from his bad brother man and deciding I would like to see his gait in running, I rushed and shouted at a large cinnamon colored fellow. To my dismay, he did not run. On the contrary, he stood his ground, ready to fight. Then, I suddenly began to fear upon me would fall the work of running.
More anecdotes include meetings with Indians, tales involving Rocco (his adopted St. Bernard), and musings about the real work at hand – the behavior of the flock of sheep. Muir seems to get greedy with his limited time at the end of the summer, going on lengthier sojourns that include his first ascent of Cathedral Peak.
Otherwise, My First Summer in the Sierra is comprised of the first definitive (American) descriptions of quintessential backpacking experiences, observed not as harsh realities of life on the frontier, but simply for the love of it. Take, for example, this description of a simple campfire:
Here, we are camped for the night, our big fire, heaped high with rosiny logs and branches, is blazing like a sunrise, gladly giving back the light slowly sifted from the sunbeams of centuries of summers; and in the glow of that old sunlight how impressively surrounding objects are brought forward in relief against the outer darkness.
See his observation of detail in the play of light and shadow – as backpackers I think we’ve been here at one time or another, staring mindlessly at nature’s work:
How beautiful a rock is made by leaf shadows! Those of the live oak are particularly clear and distinct, and beyond all are in grace and delicacy, now still as if painted on stone, now gliding softly as if afraid of noise, now dancing, waltzing in swift, merry swirls, or jumping on and off sunny rocks in quick dashes like wave embroidery on seashore cliffs. How true and substantial is this shadow beauty, and with what sublime extravagance is beauty thus multiplied.
Muir has a quotation (from a different work) where he expresses a disdain of the word “hiking” as opposed to the word “saunter.” The particular quote always struck me as pretentious and perhaps even elitist, implying that so-called “hikers” are less observant and thoughtful than others in the outdoors.
Here in My First Summer in the Sierra, I couldn’t help but notice that Muir does, in fact, make good and natural use of the word saunter. Now upon finishing the book, I realize that the word hike, or any of its variations, fails to show up even once.
As a final note, this is the work in which the title “Range of Light” was coined for the Sierra Nevada Mountains:
It has the brightest weather, brightest glacier-polished rocks, the greatest abundance of irised spray from its glorious waterfalls, the brightest forests of silver firs and silver pines, more starshine, moonshine, and perhaps more crystal-shine than any other mountain chain, and its countless mirror lakes, having more light poured into them, glow and spangle most. And how glorious the shining after the short summer showers and after frosty nights when the morning sunbeams are pouring through the crystals on the grass and pine needles, and how ineffably spiritually fine is the morning-glow on the mountain-tops and the alpenglow of evening. Well the Sierra be named, not the Snowy Range, but the Range of Light.
This review is part of my goal to read the entirety of this definitive volume of John Muir’s writings. My First Summer in the Sierra is the second book included in the volume.