Touring Yosemite: Why We See the Things We See There

Photo: Courtesy special collections at Honnold Library Claremont Colleges
Photo: Courtesy special collections at Honnold Library Claremont Colleges

The last two years have been rough at Yosemite National Park. Last summer, the number of deaths soared -- river torrents swept away incautious tourists; climbers fell; a funeral pall of smoke hung over the iconic valley.

This summer, death has crept up on the unsuspecting, an invisible and difficult-to-diagnose disease. Because they inhaled airborne fecal matter that deer mice left behind in cabins and tents in Camp Curry and in the backcountry, eight individuals so far have contracted hantavirus; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is investigating the outbreak, describes the virus as incurable. To date, three have died.

The fact of these fatalities is directly tied to the facts of the place. Since the mid-19th century, Yosemite has been lauded as America's wonderland, its playground -- beguiling, transformative, divine.

To serve this ethereal role, it must also be down-to-earth, a pragmatic landscape dotted with campgrounds, hotels, restaurants, and tents; bathrooms, dumpsters, sewer lines, and water mains. The millions who have tramped its trails, scaled its rockfaces, or sat in awe of its brilliant sunsets or luminous moonrises need their creature comforts.

Such infrastructure had to be invented, just as Yosemite had to be "discovered." The origins of this Euro-American invention date back to the Gold Rush, to a pre-Civil War California, and they are the subject of a new exhibit at the Honnold-Mudd Library of the Claremont Colleges. Touring Yosemite draws off the library's extensive collection of western American documents, and displays as well some invaluable materials that a private collector has loaned for the occasion.

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Archivist Lisa Crane and I curated the exhibit, and as we shifted through stacks of books and journals, lithographs, correspondence, and photographs, we started to ask a series of questions that framed how we then structured the information now encased in the library's north foyer. How had 19th-century tourists heard of Yosemite and how did these evidently well-heeled men, women, and children reach this rugged valley? Once there, where did they stay, what did they see, and why did they fixate on some sites and not others? When they left, what impressions did they carry away with them and how were these expressed?

The desire to see Yosemite depended on and left behind a paper trail, archival litter that tells us a great deal about that era's cultural imagination, its reach and limitations, insight and blind spots.

For Yosemite to become a tourist Mecca (and later a national park) required a tectonic shift. The native peoples who lived and foraged along the valley, fished and hunted its creeks and rivers, meadows and woodlands, had to be expelled. This occurred in ways violent and exploitative, as the U. S. Army exerted its control over California after it became the 31st state in 1850. Their lives were crimped further as miners and speculators swarmed over the Sierra Mountains in search of gold, a rush that echoed across that century's middle decades and brought tens of thousands of migrants to California. Like locusts, they took over the land.

With them, too, came new technologies, among them the camera.

An example of a stereoview image. | Photo: Courtesy special collections at Honnold Library Claremont Colleges
An example of a stereoview image. | Photo: Courtesy special collections at Honnold Library Claremont Colleges

It is striking how quickly that cumbersome tool of communication and representation showed up in Yosemite, an inaccessible valley folded into the central Sierra. In June 1859, Charles Leander Weed snapped what is believed to be the area's first photograph, "The Yo-Semite Fall. 2500 feet high"; a stereoview reproduction of it is included in the Honnold Library exhibit. What is even more noteworthy is that Weed's and the other early images became templates for all those that have been taken ever since.

Yosemite, after all, must be one of the most photographed places in North America; what the professional and amateur have captured on glass, film, or chip is predicated in good measure on the form, shape, and subject matter that Weed, Eadweard Muybridge, Carleton Watkins, and others, turned their lens on more than 150 years ago.

Because their photographs were widely disseminated, tourists coming to Yosemite in the mid-19th-century, and who arrived on foot, horse, or wagon, and lodged in the valley's many hotels, knew exactly what to look for. They were coming to experience up close what they had viewed from afar. As Touring Yosemite suggests, it was the photographs they were coming to see.

Galen Clark at Glacier Point. | Photo: Courtesy National Park Service.

Reinforcing this selectivity were the guides whom the visitors hired to lead them around the landmark, such as Galen Clark and James Mason Hutchings; and the heavy guidebooks these travelers lugged with them across the continent. Inevitably, these travelers made a bee line for the best vantage points to gaze over views they had imagined in their mind's eye.

When it came time to reflect on the scenes they had witnessed -- in letters, diaries, memoirs, novels, and treatises -- many of these impressionistic reactions were photographic in quality and imagery.

Also: sentimental, yet another cultural construct, as evidenced in Therèse Yelverton's roman à clef, "Zanita: A Tale of the Yo-Semite" (1872).

Others came away with a reinvigorated sense of patriotism: Wallace Bruce's 1880 poem "The Yosemite" contains this stirring evocation of the United States as nature's nation: "Columbia dear, whose mountains rise/from fertile valley to sunny skies--/Stand firm and sure, and bold and free/as thy granite-walled Yosemite".

Yet what these writers saw and felt, or more exactly what they were trained to visualize and project, is not all that was there. Careful readers of Yosemite's complicated past, in short, need to be alert to what is not shown in the documents that constitute Touring Yosemite.

A clue to what lies outside these text's margins is embedded in Hutchings' "In the Heart of the Sierras" (1886). More than anyone, Hutchins, in his many roles as hotelier, booster, and writer, inscribed Yosemite with much of its touristic significance. Yet unlike his other books (or those of his competitors), this one unveils a part of the back story, however cursorily.

Illustration from James Mason Hutchings' "In the Heart of the Sierra." | Image: Courtesy Courtesy special collections at Honnold Library Claremont Colleges

As he led his readers step-by-step along what he dubbed the Mariposa Route, from San Francisco to Yosemite, he offers glimpses of the Indians that the new economy displaced; and of the immigrants -- Chinese, Irish, and the like -- whose back-breaking labor eased the travelers' way.

The photographs offer another pattern. Only a few of them contain human beings, and those that do position them in such a way to provide a sense of scale only. Big trees, steep cliffs, granite domes: the message is that this wilderness is empty, natural, profound. Devoid of the human stain, it is open to our projections. The most enduring and troubling of which is that wilderness is absent of us. In that negative is an admission of some of the enduring costs, human and environmental, associated with the making of "Yosemite."

So intense had this process become, so engrained were its features, that when John Muir arrived in Yosemite for his first visit in 1868, he followed a well-beaten path. Consider the apocryphal story so beloved of his biographers about how how this bearded, wide-eyed young man from Wisconsin learned of California's treasured landscape.

The narrative goes like this: after his arduous, life-changing 1000-mile tramp south to the Gulf of Mexico in 1867, during which he shook off the siren call of material wealth, Muir sailed to the Golden State. On the teeming streets of San Francisco, asked by an unknown passerby what he was looking for, Muir is said to have replied, 'anywhere wild.'

That he was directed to Yosemite, by then well known to Americans east and west, urban and rural, suggests how tightly bound wilderness was with the city he allegedly wished to escape. In time, Muir would forge these links ever more closely. What made him so palatable to the subsequent readers of his odes to Yosemite's wildness is how accessible he made its waterfalls and ragged cliffs, snowstorms, bright light, and crisp air. Thousands of "tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity," he once asserted. It was an assertion that propelled ever more folks to travel to Yosemite, to consume its scenes and services.

Yes, he affected to disdain its hordes of visitors. "Only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness. All other travel is mere dust and hotels and baggage and chatter." Yet his inspiring words, like the early photographs, guidebooks, and lithographs, were directly responsible for these peoples' boisterous presence.

Illustration from James Mason Hutchings' "In the Heart of the Sierra." | Image: Courtesy Courtesy special collections at Honnold Library Claremont Colleges

They also helped to elbow aside Yosemite's first peoples, the Miwok and Mono Indians; Muir and his peers announced they now were trespassing on what once had been their home ground. "Somehow they seemed to have no right place in the landscape," he wrote after one encounter with a group of Mono in high country, "and I was glad to see them fading out of sight down the pass."

Fade out: this photographic metaphor codifies what "John of the Mountains" and his contemporaries believed was the necessary, because inevitable, transition from barbarism to civilization. They institutionalized this expulsion as they fought successfully to turn Yosemite into a national park, a battle in which John Muir played a formative role.

That said, this effort to exclude some and include others -- to make Yosemite white -- had been initiated long before Muir joined the fray. It was a consequence of the mid-19th-century push to survey Yosemite's geological past, map its topography, and in print and image lay claim to its snow-kissed mountains, thunderous cataracts, and wildflower-waving leas.

We have followed that generation's lead, so much so that touring Yosemite has remained a cultural phenomenon, a rite of passage that by definition silences other experiences, other meanings. To fully function as a ceremonial space it must also contain another demarcation, a risk-filled boundary that only danger and death can provide.

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, author of "Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy" (Oregon State University Press), and editor of "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments every week on environmental issues. Read more of his columns here

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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