Mark Grossi, a California reporter of long standing, recently retired, and his paper republished some of his best work, notably this recounting of a stretch on the John Muir Trail, walked in memory of Gross’s late father.
Mount Mendel’s jagged profile turned a surreal pink at sunset. Staring at the spectacle — it’s called alpenglow — I fiddled with a blister on my hand, and I couldn’t get my father out of my mind.
Cancer had just killed him. He died five days before I arrived here.
I am in my early 50s, but I was feeling like a 7-year-old without my dad. I had come to the High Sierra to hike and write about a section of the John Muir Trail. The trip would become a rite of mourning in a breathtaking outdoor cathedral.
It’s a wonderful story, and a reminder that the blunt style of newspaper reporting can be turned sometimes to storytelling purposes, if the writer has a grip on what is happening emotionally around the facts of the story.
I loved the honesty of this passage, about the pain that overtook him, thinking of his loss:
I woke up filled with regret at Colby Meadow on Wednesday morning. I realized I had made a terrible mistake coming up here.
My angst came to a head at Wanda Lake later that day. I wanted to hike faster to numb my racing mind: How is my mother? What will I say in the eulogy? Should I have skipped this trip and gone straight to Maui so they could schedule the service immediately?
That’s when Mike Nickau, 51, of Riverside strolled by camp. Nickau chatted with my partner Crosse. He mentioned he had just quit a great-paying job as a chef to hike the trail. Crosse asked him why.
“I just got done with cancer about nine months ago — Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I’m clean, ” he said. “I say, if you have the opportunity to do something like this hike, do it and stop worrying about everything else.”
It was like a bolt. My father seemed to be speaking to me through this cancer survivor.
Crosse sensed the moment, snapping photographs. I tried to interview Nickau further, but he waved me off.
“People don’t want to read about me, ” he said, sounding remarkably like my dad.
I didn’t need the interview. With a few words, Nickau had changed the whole trip. Suddenly it was better. Not good. But better.
Here in his homeland, however, Mr. Muir remains surprisingly little-known. Until recently there was not much to mark his memory apart from this statue and the small, white, pebble-dashed house across the road, where he was born in 1838 and which today houses the John Muir’s Birthplace museum.
Last year, Scotland inaugurated the John Muir Way, a new walking route that traverses the country west-to-east for 134 miles between the Firth of Forth and the Firth of Clyde. It was conceived both to resurrect Mr. Muir in the Scottish consciousness and, as environmentalist Keith Geddes, one of the Way’s architects, explained, to “help today’s young Scots develop a relationship with the countryside around them.”
The trail takes a few days, and has industrial and architectural parts as well as wild parts. But walking on past Loch Lomond, the first and most famous of Scottish national parks, Henry Wismayer finds a certain peace.
Throughout the afternoon we rarely saw another walker. And if we looked in the right direction at the right moment even here, 30 miles from Glasgow, we could glimpse the pre-human innocence Mr. Muir coveted, away from what he called the “tyranny of man.”
Perhaps, I thought, as we rolled down toward the Way’s end in coastal Helensburgh, the intrepid nature-lover, who described himself as “hopelessly and forever a mountaineer,” might have selected a trickier route through these hills.
But accessibility is what the Way is all about: coaxing people to dust off their boots, pack a bag and set out to explore the many colors of Scotland’s coastline and countryside. And that is no doubt a mission that Mr. Muir would have commended.
From the story, here’s a new statue of Muir stood up in his hometown, ancient Dunbar.