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John Muir on What You're Missing Today in Yosemite

"No mountain top could be better placed."
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Yosemite Valley from Tunnel View. (PHOTO: DAVID ILIFF)

Yosemite Valley from Tunnel View. (PHOTO: DAVID ILIFF)

Read from Europe (and a Spanish IP, which sorts news differently) most commentaries on the U.S. government's lack of full services today mention the closure of national parks. Obviously. They make particularly poignant examples of the cost of short-term thinking. But they don't lend themselves to a moral reading. For that, we have a parallel focus on the fate of programs like Head Start, the storied education success, or the lesser-known Women, Infants, and Children program, which provides basic foodstuffs to people in need of them. The political advantage of focusing on access to that second group of programs for foreign readers is obvious too: it reads, and probably manifests, as cruelty resulting from indifference.

The shuttering of access to the parks cuts differently. Something like the Grand Canyon, which is so old as to make the time between 1776 and the passage of the Affordable Care Act just a blink, isn't essential to anything. Particularly when compared to subsidized baby formula. The Head Start and the WIC stories, to pick two at random, are good arguments for seeing the shutdown in urgently human terms, rather than comforting geologic ones.

"Eastward the crowds of peaks at the head of the Merced, Tuolumne and San Joaquin Rivers are presented in bewildering array; westward, the vast forests, yellow foothills and the broad San Joaquin plains and the Coast Ranges, hazy and dim in the distance."

But the parks are serving, as they always have, as the better metaphor. Freedom from mandated insurance purchases is easy to describe, on a news program or the House floor, as representative of the soul of the nation. But the argument falls apart if you try to make it at the foot of El Capitan, the famous cliff face in Yosemite Valley. That none of us can see El Capitan today can suggest—I am arguing it does, whether you agree with the message or not—a rejection of America as a nation of laws rather than of people. Yosemite exists because a law established the system to protect it. Its protection connected the American experiment to vast, embarrassingly grandiose concepts of land, or history. Here the right to go uninsured, and its suggestion of states' rights or individualism or federalism, is one sort of metaphor that people understand because they get the cowboy myth. But the parks make a greater impact, if one that's harder to describe. The existence of a human mechanism that confers rights to a stone, protecting something that predates humanity, and will exist long after we do, is quite another kind of claim to greatness. It's snazzy. It's what I brag about to people here in Europe when they want that sort of theater. Inevitably, someone will reply that the parks are all well and good, but if they twist their ankle on their boring little trails here, at least the national health service sets it for them.

Less dreamily, and more practically, the national park system is one of the things much of the world still thinks Americans get right. Getting the parks right reads as tending to a future the experiment will live to see. In our movies, Captain Kirk goes to Yosemite. By comparison, here in Europe the famous Pyrenees, which Charlemagne struggled over, are like poorly-managed foothills. Hannibal was not nearly as impressive as billed. The bears here are so few they all have names, like the condors used to in California—before their numbers increased, repopulated in part across the parks.

You can't visit Yosemite today. However, with the fiscal year and everyone's patience, something else expired recently that's useful for keeping this week in perspective. The copyright on The Yosemite, John Muir's classic 1912 study of the land that became the famous national park, is (more or less) in the public domain, via the Sierra Club. Reading it is as close as you'll get to visiting Half Dome this week. But it's not far off.

Below, an excerpt from the famous guide to the little-known Sierra mountains, then still a frontier for adventuresome (also monied) Americans. Here, Muir recommends a favorite day hike:

If I were so time-poor as to have only one day to spend in Yosemite I should start at daybreak, say at three o'clock in midsummer, with a pocketful of any sort of dry breakfast stuff, for Glacier Point, Sentinel Dome, the head of Illilouette Fall, Nevada Fall, the top of Liberty Cap, Vernal Fall and the wild boulder-choked River Cañon. The trail leaves the Valley at the base of the Sentinel Rock, and as you slowly saunter from point to point along its many accommodating zigzags nearly all the Valley rocks and falls are seen in striking, ever-changing combinations. At an elevation of about five hundred feet a particularly fine, wide-sweeping view down the Valley is obtained, past the sheer face of the Sentinel and between the Cathedral Rocks and El Capitan. At a height of about 1500 feet the great Half Dome comes full in sight, overshadowing every other feature of the Valley to the eastward. From Glacier Point you look down 3000 feet over the edge of its sheer face to the meadows and groves and innumerable yellow pine spires, with the meandering river sparkling and spangling through the midst of them. Across the Valley a great telling view is presented of the Royal Arches, North Dome, Indian Cañon, Three Brothers and El Capitan, with the dome-paved basin of Yosemite Creek and Mount Hoffman in the background. To the eastward, the Half Dome close beside you looking higher and more wonderful than ever; southeastward the Starr King, girdled with silver firs, and the spacious garden-like basin of the Illilouette and its deeply sculptured fountain-peaks, called "The Merced Group"; and beyond all, marshaled along the eastern horizon, the icy summits on the axis of the Range and broad swaths of forests growing on ancient moraines, while the Nevada, Vernal and Yosemite Falls are not only full in sight but are distinctly heard as if one were standing beside them in their spray.

The views from the summit of Sentinel Dome are still more extensive and telling. Eastward the crowds of peaks at the head of the Merced, Tuolumne and San Joaquin Rivers are presented in bewildering array; westward, the vast forests, yellow foothills and the broad San Joaquin plains and the Coast Ranges, hazy and dim in the distance.

From Glacier Point go down the trail into the lower end of the Illilouette basin, cross Illilouette Creek and follow it to the Fall where from an outjutting rock at its head you will get a fine view of its rejoicing waters and wild cañon and the Half Dome. Thence returning to the trail, follow it to the head of the Nevada Fall. Linger here an hour or two, for not only have you glorious views of the wonderful fall, but of its wild, leaping, exulting rapids and, greater than all, the stupendous scenery into the heart of which the white passionate river goes wildly thundering, surpassing everything of its kind in the world. After an unmeasured hour or so of this glory, all your body aglow, nerve currents flashing through you never before felt, go to the top of the Liberty Cap, only a glad saunter now that your legs as well as head and heart are awake and rejoicing with everything. The Liberty Cap, a companion of the Half Dome, is sheer and inaccessible on three of its sides but on the east a gentle, ice-burnished, juniper-dotted slope extends to the summit where other wonderful views are displayed where all are wonderful: the south side and shoulders of Half Dome and Clouds' Rest, the beautiful Little Yosemite Valley and its many domes, the Starr King cluster of domes, Sentinel Dome, Glacier Point, and, perhaps the most tremendously impressive of all, the views of the hopper-shaped cañon of the river from the head of the Nevada Fall to the head of the Valley.

Returning to the trail you descend between the Nevada Fall and the Liberty Cap with fine side views of both the fall and the rock, pass on through clouds of spray and along the rapids to the lead of the Vernal Fall, about a mile below the Nevada. Linger here if night is still distant, for views of this favorite fall and the stupendous rock scenery about it. Then descend a stairway by its side, follow a dim trail through its spray, and a plain one along the border of the boulder-dashed rapids and so back to the wide, tranquil Valley.

The full text of Muir's The Yosemite is online here.