Total Miles: 199.0
It’s easy to love John Muir, or at least the idea of him. That’s the appeal of idealists. Soaring rhetoric and a righteous cause in the proper hands can bring a groundswell of change that compounds like an avalanche. But it is a rare idealist who is able to effect change in the world. John Muir was certainly one of them.
If idealists are the avalanche of intellectual thought, pragmatists are the glacier. Unnoticed, but grinding inexorably, until the world is slowly shaped to their liking. It is a rare avalanche that makes substantive change, but the march of a glacier is one that always leaves its mark.
Climbing to our 6th pass of the JMT, Pinchot Pass, it was plain to see the work of the glaciers that had polished the granite basins all around us. And it was easy to imagine the roar of avalanches down these same slopes when buried beneath the snows of a Sierra winter.
But it was the namesake of this particular pass, Gifford Pinchot, that had me thinking about the metaphorical kind of glaciers and avalanches. As the first head of the United States Forest Service, Pinchot was the visionary who saw the nation’s natural resources as just that: resources, and ones that with “wise use” and management, could be sustainable in perpetuity.
John Muir saw it differently. To him, natural resources were to be protected first and foremost, ever fighting the encroachment of commercialism into our wild places. Thus was born the battle between conflicting ideologies: conservation versus preservation, with Pinchot on one side and Muir on the other. Pinchot and Muir: the glacier and the avalanche.
Initially friends with a common cause, their relationship disintegrated rapidly over a disagreement about grazing in national forest lands and was then fractured irreparably when Pinchot supported the construction of the Hetch Hetchy Dam in Muir’s beloved Yosemite. Fighting not only Muir, but timber companies intent on harvesting forests far more quickly than could be sustainable, Pinchot resorted to the same pragmatism at the US Forest Service that Stephen Mather had at the National Park Service.
In the end, Pinchot’s legacy was that of the glacier. He may have lacked Muir’s romantic narrative that drew fellow preservationists to his cause of protecting nature above all else, but his professional pragmatism is what ultimately enshrined the notion that nature is not solely to be protected, but to be used wisely for the common good. Preservation versus conservation. What Muir and Pinchot both failed to see, was that they were two sides of the same coin.
Cresting the top of Pinchot Pass, and absorbing its striking view, it occurred to me how appropriate it is that the last three passes we’ve traversed are named in the sequence that they are—Muir, Mather, and Pinchot. Two icons, two faces of seemingly opposed movements, separated by Mather—in some ways a perfect amalgam of the two, of idealism and pragmatism—sitting in the middle.
Down the south side of Pinchot, the treeless expanse meant the sun could yet again have its way with us. Another hot afternoon by High Sierra standards, I could feel my head slowly sizzling within the sauna of my sun hoody. For elevations of 11,000 and even 12,000 feet, you’d expect a breeze to be pretty much the norm. And yet, for as many days as we’ve been on this hike, it continues to be as enigmatic as ever.
Another form of relief was slowly amassing in the eastern sky, however. White, puffy cumulus clouds began to invade the blue sky that has been a permanent backdrop. By early afternoon, rolls of distant thunder had perked our ears while even a few scattered raindrops were brave enough to touch down on the dry, sandy trail. You could count them on two hands.
But as much as the sky seemed to be building towards a tantrum, it was a meltdown that never came. Within hours, the mood had passed and back came the sun and blue sky, ushering the storm clouds offstage while we clawed our way back up toward tomorrow’s prize of pass number 7.