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Home for John Muir’s Outdoor Mind

The last time I passed through the entrance at John Muir National Historic Site, I was in fifth grade. Admittedly, our overnight trip as a class, a co-ed sleepover, had us less interested in the legendary figure than in pre-teen pranks. My worry, then as now, was where to find the bathroom in the middle of the night. Despite these distractions, I left with an admiration for Muir, a Santa Claus of the parks. My feelings would grow as I earned my Junior Ranger patch in Yosemite that summer.

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Wandering through the rooms of his grand Victorian, I see that face everywhere. Muir appears a kind of holy man, a seeker who after a time in the isolated wilds of Yosemite Valley came to stay in one place to ranch, live a family life, and write. And fight. From the “scribble room” upstairs, Muir created the intellectual and emotional grounds for an environmental movement that would span the continent and beyond. While he took trips to the wilderness, including his beloved Sierras and Alaska, he recognized that the people and organizations that could help his cause lived in the cities. Martinez, his father-in-law’s house, became campaign headquarters.

John Muir’s scribble room became an epicenter of political writing and advocacy, reflection and remembering. From 1880 to 1913 he lived in the Alhambra Valley, in the town of Martinez, ranching and writing. These were the years following his four-year stay in Yosemite wilderness and travels through California. The scribble room generated more than a dozen publications. They ranged from the series that would save Yosemite Valley to memoirs of his childhood and a children’s book about the family dog, Stickeen. His advocacy would lead to the creation of several national parks and the founding of the Sierra Club.

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So many years since that fifth grade field trip, I still struggle between the need to wander and the security of a nearby familiar bathroom and hot running water. Home and the world. I want them both. I asked Ranger Nate how Muir could possibly have stayed in one place for more than twenty years. I realize I was asking for myself and my own never ending restlessness. Here was a question centered on the balance between wandering and the hard work of polishing one’s character in the day-to-day experiences with your own community.  Experiences with the people you come across in daily business and allies and political antagonists, alike.

The interior of the John Muir House may seem frozen in Victorian, but the exterior soundscape rumbles with modern life. Up against both a railroad trestle and a freeway, the world is too much with Muir and a bit of a slap against his legacy. Both Ranger Nate and I bemoaned the loud hum of Highway Four, a few yards from the perimeter of the house. It splits the house and fruit orchard from Mount Wanda and the rest of the sprawling property. I’ve written about the railroad trestle here. It has everything to do with a contemporary battle over fracking and the transport of highly volatile crude oil by rail. It throws a shadow over Muir’s orchards. That the crude trains lumber so close to his home speaks to the persistence of the monied interests that he fought a century ago. This site reminds visitors of the ongoing urgency of his work.

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The John Muir House National Park is open daily from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm and admission is free.

Events run year-round, check out the events page (features).  Upcoming Full Moon Walks are scheduled in August, September and October. Hiking at Mount Wanda is a short jaunt to the other side of the freeway. Beautiful views, moderate inclines.

The address: 4202 Alhambra Ave  Martinez, CA 94553  (925) 228-8860 ext. 0  The Park suggested reading: “Son of the Wilderness, The Life of John Muir“, written by Pulitzer Prize-winner Linnie Marsh Wolfe.


“The battle for conservation must go on endlessly. It is part of the universal warfare between right and wrong.” – John Muir

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