John Muir Vs. Teddy Roosevelt
by Yosemite “Ahwahnee” National Park
You’ve seen it, I’ve seen it, we’ve all seen the photo of John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt standing on the edge of my big old valley. They look like best buds, right? Wrong! Those two guys hated each other’s guts. True story!
John Muir got off the boat in San Francisco and walked until he found me. He had been searching for a pure, wild, and beautiful place to worship. Papa Muir wasn’t the first to climb my cliffs or rest in the shade of my trees. The Ahwahnechee people thrived all over my valley and called me “Ahwahnee.” The tribe would have stayed had they not put up a fight with the gold miners, which got them evicted and killed.
When Papa Muir moved into the valley he found work at a sawmill that helped a hotel bring more visitors to enjoy my sparkling personality. Aside from the Ahwahnechee, nobody knew me as well as he did. All his time and energy went into exploring every epic view and tiny hiding spot behind my waterfalls. He got so into me that he even climbed up into one of my trees during a storm just to know what it felt like to be tossed around in the wind. He wrote love notes that got published in magazines. He really loved me, and he wanted to protect me.
Love is a funny thing, though. It can make people very possessive. It can make people claim “secret spots” or “private property.” Papa Muir could have gone the “secret spot” route and become a bitter old hermit who yelled at tourists, but he didn’t. He realized that sharing me was the best way to protect me. He became my personal spokesman and fought to keep the bastards from turning me into private property. He started the Sierra Club in 1892 to protect wild places like me, but since the state owned me— my forests were still logged, my gold was mined, and my misty meadows were pooped on by domestic animals (you know who you are).
While on a publicity tour in 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt sent Papa Muir a letter asking to meet him in my valley: Papa Teddy wrote, “I want to drop politics absolutely for four days and just be out in the open with you.” Papa Muir accompanied the entourage—which included California’s governor, the secretary of the Navy, the surgeon general, two college presidents, Papa Teddy, and his personal secretary—on the train ride from Oakland. “What a showboat,” Papa Muir must have thought. “Is this faker trying to use me to get street cred with the authentic folk?” The huge parade came into my valley and posed for photos with my old-growth Sequoia forest before heading to the hotel to party. Papa Muir and Papa Teddy stayed behind while the crowd wasn’t looking. Papa Teddy had a secret plan to ditch the party all along. He was like that. He loved secret plans. Presidents, right?
Sitting around the campfire, awkward laughing stumbled around when Papa Muir asked, “Mr. President, when are you going to get over this infantile need to kill other animals?” My two dads had a lot in common and a lot in conflict. They both wanted to protect wild places, but for different reasons. Not all conservationists are vegan.
They slept tent-less under my trees, mountains, and the stars. They talked for days about protecting me and other places like me. They saw beyond themselves and realized that together they could do more good than they could apart. After that little campout, Papa Muir wrote, “I never before had a more interesting, hearty, and manly companion.”
Eventually Papa Teddy had to go back to the train station to resume his press tour. At his next stop, the California State Capitol in Sacramento, he gave a speech about how, “Lying out at night under those giant Sequoias was lying in a temple built by no hand of man… They are monuments in themselves, [and] I ask for [their] preservation… We are not building this country of ours for a day. It is to last through the ages.”
After that, California let me become federal property and if you pay taxes that means I’m yours. Right? I think so. Anyhow, in 1916 the National Park Service was formed and the government agency became my official protector.
I am grateful for my two dads, because they saw beyond themselves and helped all sorts of people come together to care for me.