Leaving the Mountaintop: A Local Historian's Journey on the John Muir Trail

Three weeks on California's John Muir Trail showed a local historian that God and tradition follow us wherever we are willing to take them


By Michael Hoberman / Special to the BJV

In the summer of 2021, I hiked the 200-plus mile-long John Muir Trail through California’s High Sierra. Doing this was something I had dreamed of since I was a teenager, after I discovered the outdoors and read Muir’s books on the splendors of the Sierra Nevada for the first time.

My decision to hike the JMT came less than a year after the Sierra Club’s “cancellation” of its naturalist founder – the group cited “derogatory comments,” made in his youth, “that drew on deeply harmful racist stereotypes.” As a historian, I can’t say that I was surprised to hear that Muir, who died in 1914, had been outed for having made disparaging comments about American Indians, Blacks, and members of other minority groups. Nor did his associations with Henry Fairfield Osborn, a prominent anti-Semitic eugenicist of the era, come as a shock to me.

John Muir was a pioneering activist for wilderness preservation, environmentalism, and the creation of our national parks. He deserves credit for those endeavors. His intrepid exploration of the Sierra Nevada’s wildest places, during which he spent weeks at a time wandering fueled by cups of tea and stale breadcrumbs, accords him respect among lovers of those mountains, myself included. Like so many late-19th-century American authors, Muir was an Emersonian, which meant that he was a committed individualist who rejected society. Muir’s love for the wilderness was the love of a person who, as Emerson put it, sought and found a mirror image of his sovereign self in the natural world. He went there to avoid human company. As industrialism and urbanization dirtied the skies and waters and despoiled the forests of North America, people like John Muir were desperate to turn the tide. The destroyers were human beings. The destroyed was the wilderness. The answer to such a crisis involved human beings vacating “pristine” places like the Sierra, but Muir also happened to be one of the privileged few who got to stay there when everyone else was supposed to leave.

Although he was not a professedly religious person, Muir didn’t hesitate to refer to God in his descriptions of the Sierra Nevada. He craved what the mountains possessed on a massive and unrelenting scale — physical grandeur. Evidence of human smallness is on display everywhere in the Sierra. As he experienced the mountains’ majesty in his solitude, he had no one around to remind him that he was not a single soul surrounded by a resplendent universe but, in fact, one of millions upon millions of other human souls — a significant number of whom happened to have darker skin than his, not to mention different cultural values than the ones he held in high esteem.

My experience of the JMT brought me to an even more important awareness of the limitations of Muir’s imagination, however, than did the revelations concerning his cultural prejudices. During my three-week hike, I learned that the gift of time spent in the wilderness has less to do with the sanctification of solitude that Muir championed than it does with the promotion of human values, including the profoundly Jewish notion that communal well-being should matter more to us than individual transcendence.

I won’t deny that I experienced several elongated moments of reverie and exhilaration as I hiked the JMT. Several coincided with periods when I walked alone, like the morning that I summitted Muir Pass (11,898 feet). That’s the site of the Muir Hut, a remarkable round stone emergency shelter that is also a registered National Historic Landmark. Each turn in the 10-mile ascent to it from the Middle Fork of the Kings River yielded a new wonder: a small lake in a sea of rocks, the sudden view of a glistening glacier, a tiny garden-like meadow full of Indian paintbrush flowers. Ascending mountain passes can be a tricky experience, mentally. You think you see the point in the distance where you will break through to the other side of the range you are in, but then the trail makes a sharp turn, and you have no idea how you will emerge from behind the wall that contains you. At one point, I turned a corner and found myself on a height of land that I thought was the pass, only to see a massive lake set in a moonscape of boulders. Had I taken a wrong turn and lost the trail? In fact, the pass lay on the far, southwestern side of the lake and higher still than I’d imagined it would be.

Hiking along the perimeter of Helen Lake, I greeted a guy who’d passed my campsite early the previous evening. He was, as the trail lingo has it, a “PCT-er” – that is, one of the 3,000 or so people who each year attempt to hike the 2,600-mile plus Pacific Crest Trail. The PCT stretches through California, Oregon, and Washington from Mexico to the Canadian border and runs contiguous to the JMT for 160 miles. An hour after I passed his camp on my way to the top, he and I were sitting together on the stone steps of the Muir Hut chatting away.

Hiking the JMT is a profoundly social experience. No matter which section of it you are traveling, you will encounter at least a dozen fellow hikers each day you are out there, if not more. If you crave solitude, you should go to Alaska, or at least someplace that is more than a five-hour drive from two of the nation’s most populous metropolitan areas. It probably isn’t what John Muir would have had in mind for the Sierras’ future. Modern-day thru-hikers are native to a densely populated and interconnected modern world. In addition to their “Jetboil” stoves, “Ultra Lite” packs, and tents colored so brightly you can spot them over a mile away, they carry solar panels to charge their phones. While there is minimal cell service available along the JMT, a phone is also a camera and a source for music and podcasts for hikers seeking audio accompaniment. Like most other hikers I met, I also carried a Garmin “inReach” GPS tracker that enabled me to stay in touch with friends and family both on and off the trail. It’s not just the technology that Muir— he of the tin cup and woolen trousers—might have found objectionable. The desire to stay connected, to make the pilgrimage in the natural world an experience of our common humanity as opposed to an eschewal of it, would likely have struck Muir as ill-fitting.

Years ago, I realized why long-distance hikers so frequently trade itineraries as they greet one another. Sure, they may be motivated by natural curiosity and even competitiveness. In the bigger picture, though, it’s about mutual preservation: if someone is reported missing a day or two from now, the hiker who recalls a conversation may be able to lend a hand in the rescue effort.

Human interaction on the trail is what makes hiking a memorable experience. During my first few days on trail, my adult son accompanied me, and the time we spent together deepened our bond. After he left, a friend from home joined me for several days, and our relationship prospered. New friendships are easy to strike in the atmosphere of the Sierras, where identities are quickly stripped down. I think that is why so many thru-hikers insist on being known by their trail names. (Being a JMT short-timer, by the way, I didn’t earn or pretend to deserve one — it’s the PCTers, out there for four or five months, who mostly follow the practice.) A trail name marks and recognizes the self-in-community and is removed from the trappings of off-trail conventions. It is a self that is named not by others according to societal expectation, aspiration, or traditional practice, but rather in relation to some demonstrable, if trivial on-trail truth — for example, a clumsy habit of shining a headlamp in fellow hikers’ faces early in the morning, or a preference for Twinkies as trail snacks.

For example, I heard a PCT-er complain that someone had recently asked him: “But what is your real name?”  

“My real name is BamBam,” he had answered, which was his way of saying that the trail itself is as “real,” and therefore as socially consequential, as any other environment.

The daily social exchanges on the JMT aren’t the only evidence that the trail is a human institution. After a few days of being overwhelmed by the absence of artifacts aside from tents and backpacks, the trail itself— a mere twelve-inch-wide — takes on the aspect of a superhighway. Like other highways, its most memorable points are marked, literally, by signs denoting junctions with other such “superhighways.” In my experience, these junctions are where one will most likely encounter other hikers on break. Why? Because they manifest a human presence and consciousness on the otherwise culturally-vacant landscape – plus, they are the places from which the distance one has traveled or has yet to travel are measured. 

Human-made signs are few and far between on the JMT. You might only see a half-dozen during a full day’s progress. More abundant are other indications that human beings made the trail by working together with a carefully thought-out plan devised by a group. You follow others’ shoeprints in the dust and sand, reassurance that you are on trail. You’ll find cairns placed on the rocky shelves where there is no dust, sand, or turf for the trail-makers to cut through. Switchbacks escort you to higher ground and make long climbs endurable. You pass intricately-constructed retaining walls and impermeable water bars, and then there are stretches of stairs — miles and miles of rocks that human laborers aided by horses and mules and guided by engineers’ plans picked up, carried, and levered into place.

The most famous and breathtakingly beautiful of those segments, the Golden Staircase, descends (or ascends, if you are a south-bound hiker) 1,500 vertical feet over a distance of two miles. Even without knowledge of the history of the trail’s construction (which took place over the half-century between its first conception in the 1880s and the completion of the Golden Staircase in the late 1930s), the casual hiker can’t help but note that the JMT is a powerful symbol of humanity’s presence in the wilderness. It is a 200-mile-long artifact whose construction necessitated the frequent use of dynamite at the cost of human lives and limbs. Its very existence is a human utterance in the void.

How often did I think about Judaism while walking the 230-odd miles from Cottonwood Pass to Yosemite? Was I reliving my ancestors’ 40 years of desert wandering as I lived inside the trail’s social bubble? Did I feel the presence of HaShem as I looked down from Glen Pass at miles of dazzlingly austere rocky terrain contrasted by the Caribbean blue of the Rae Lakes? Did I fear God’s wrath as my hiking partner and I foolishly tried setting up our tents on the shore of a nameless lake in the middle of a nasty hailstorm that could easily have resulted in at least one of us becoming hypothermic? Did I rejoice in God’s love as the storm subsided, the sun came out, and we managed to dry our tents well ahead of the evening’s temperature drop, with plenty of time left over for us to boil water for dinner? On the first evening that we spent on the trail, my more-observant-than-me son borrowed my compass in order to face Jerusalem for his davening practice. Did that make our experience of the trail a Jewish one?

I suppose it did. At least one of us hadn’t forgotten that God and tradition would follow us wherever we were willing to take them. For my part, the JMT experience was of Jewish significance because it reminded me, especially as I was witness to unmatched scenic wonders, that my true place in the world is with others, in my human cocoon, which consists of both the people I met on-trail and the ones I left at home.

As I hiked and camped “alone” during the final four days of my trip (my son and hometown buddy had both flown home by then), I formed new bonds with other hikers I’d just met. I completed the trail’s final descent into the Yosemite Valley in the company of a father and daughter I’d first encountered on the trail about a week earlier. Our celebratory swim in the Merced River was joyful and heartbreaking in equal measures. The two hours we spent with one another that day were as memorable as any other episode in my life. I can’t imagine that I will ever see them again.  

Moses wasn’t an inhabitant of Sinai, but a stranger to its craggy heights. Coming down off the mountain wasn’t easy for him, what with the riotous greeting he knew he would receive at the hands of the assembled Hebrews, who craved human sustenance more than they hankered for divine transcendence. If he was wise, it was because he knew, as Zora Neale Hurston once wrote, that the man of the mountain’s most important job isn’t to stay up, but to come down.

Michael Hoberman lives in Shelburne Falls, and is a professor of American literature at Fitchburg State University. He is a frequent presenter of historical talks for the Jewish Federation of the Berkshires’ Connecting With Community program.

The photo shows Hoberman at the Muir Hut, elevation 11,898 feet