by Jason File
My friend and I were riding bikes on the sidewalks of Concord, California, heading towards John Muir’s house. We arrived in Concord by way of the BART train, a half hour’s ride from Oakland. The streets of Concord were wide and crowded with cars but the sidewalks we elected to ride on were empty of pedestrians and featured only the occasional deserted shopping cart to swerve around. We passed a number of beige buildings – Sam’s Club, Chili’s and Starbucks – fronted by large parking lots, as we continued into the neighboring suburb of Pleasant Hill. There were busy roads and a sketchy section where we had to thread a few lanes of traffic in order to avoid a freeway onramp. We rode over a creek and under the freeway. A bike lane soon appeared, just as Google Maps said it would, and we followed this bike lane up and into the town of Martinez, shifting gears. Rolling hills, newly green from rain and lush with oaks, suggested a possible pastoral existence close to the suburbs. Five miles later we found ourselves in the Alhambra Valley, where Muir’s house still sits on a small hill next to another freeway. My friend and I locked our bikes near the entrance and took in the view. Across the street from the national monument, a gas station.
I was getting ready to leave the Bay Area and for various reasons I had been thinking a lot about John Muir. For a man so closely affiliated with the Sierras and renowned for his efforts to create Yosemite National Park, Muir spent a majority of his time living, working, and writing in the Bay Area. I had spent the last eight years here, living in Berkeley, San Francisco, and Oakland. For a long time I assumed that I would stay in this part of the world forever but, as so often happens, my plans changed. As a result of my impending move, I found myself thinking about the idea of closure. I was wondering how to say goodbye to a part of the world that meant a great deal to me.
I did not discover the wilderness because of John Muir but through his writings I did find the clearest expression of the ecstatic experiences one can have while walking in nature. For my own health, both mental and physical, I cannot recommend the wilderness enough. The existence and access to such places have made me, I believe, a better human being. Muir found his ideal church in the mountains, in places where the evidence of human beings was sparse. I’ve sat in old churches and I’ve sat in the High Sierras and I can attest to a feeling of peace in both places. Although I am not religious, I do believe in beauty and the value of being humbled by something bigger than yourself. It is in large part because of Muir that our country has so many wild places that can provide these kinds of experiences.
John Muir’s house won’t wow you like the popular Muir Woods in Marin or the John Muir Trail in the Sierras. In comparison, Muir’s house is a relatively small National Historic Site, but the place makes for a unique day trip, especially if executed without a car. It is free to enter and in the few times I’ve visited, the grounds were tranquil and uncrowded. In addition to the big, three story house where Muir lived during the second half of his life, there is an old adobe at the back of the property, from the days when California was part of the Spanish empire. A small, bucolic section of Muir’s farm has also been preserved and there are grape vines, fruit trees, and even a large Sequoia that Muir brought home from the mountains as a tiny sapling. Picnic tables sit under mature Pecan trees, where my friend and I idled, splitting a bag of Doritos acquired from the nearby gas station.
Muir’s house is surprising both for its size and grandeur. Although he grew up in an austere, religious family, Muir married into wealth and eventually inherited this farm from his father-in-law, a successful doctor turned farmer. The house seems incongruous with our collective idea of Muir, someone we picture humbly spending his nights sleeping under the stars, as opposed to bedding down in an Italianate Victorian mansion. The most revealing part of the dwelling is Muir’s study, or what he liked to call his “scribble den.” The room is spacious and seemingly frozen in time, filled with books from Muir’s library as well as souvenirs from his travels. In the dim, dust-filled light it is easy to imagine that Muir has only snuck off for a breath of fresh air and a walk in the nearby hills; although he was a prolific and gifted writer, he found the process tedious, something he compared to the speed of a glacier.
This particular journey to the John Muir National Historic Site, complete with its various contradictions, is a good way to get to know Muir as well as the greater Bay Area. The region has long been in tension with various competing forces trying to shape it and these forces, development or preservation, private or public, are all on display. Although Muir’s house was our main objective of the day, the things we ended up doing along the way were equally memorable; we helped two women working at a Mexican restaurant to start their leaf blower, drank cold cans of beer at the top of a windswept hill in Martinez, and careened down empty bike lanes on the way back to BART. I suppose I am recommending this trip both as a journey and as a kind of pilgrimage, although an agnostic and somewhat ironic one; at the top of the environmentalist’s old house, in a small, glass-encased cupola, one can see the smokestacks of nearby oil refineries dutifully puffing away.
(Sequoical is a word Muir coined in an energetic letter to his friend Jeanne Carr. He loved those trees.)
Jason File currently lives in Santa Barbara, CA. More of his work can be found at his website, www.nomorebummers.net