David J. Weber, Book Review Editor
A Summer of Travel in the High Sierra. By Joseph N. LeConte. Ashland, Ore.: Lewis Osborne, 1972. Introduction and Notes by Shirley Sargent. Maps. 144 pages. $12.50.
Reviewed by Roderick Nash, Professor of History and Environmental Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara and author of Wilderness and the American Mind (1967, revised edition, 1973).
The name “LeConte” hangs in the High Sierra. Joseph LeConte, the father of the author of this account, was one of the first faculty members of the University of California in Berkeley, being appointed a Professor of Geology, Botany, and Natural History in 1869. On his vacations the senior LeConte discovered the Sierra and made the mountains a regular source of recreation and inspiration. LeConte knew John Muir well and, in 1892, became a charter member of the Sierra Club that Muir organized “to do something for wildness and make the mountains glad.” Later LeConte became a director and vice-president of the club. His son, Joseph N. LeConte, followed the same pattern of Sierra outings, a professorship (of engineering mechanics) at the University of California, and leadership of the Sierra Club. He came to know the high country as well as anyone, and “LeConte Point” (near Hetch Hetchy Valley), “LeConte Canyon” (near Muir Pass), and the “LeConte Memorial” (in Yosemite Valley) testify to the public’s recognition of this familiarity. This book is the delightful story of Joseph N. LeConte’s 652-mile summer camping trip in the mountains so closely associated with his family. The date was 1890, and LeConte was an undergraduate at the University of California in Berkeley.
For the historian the principal value of LeConte’s informal, diary-like account is in the possibilities of comparison with present conditions in the Sierra that it offers. Except for herding and grazing operations, which were more common in 1890 than today, the mountains LeConte visited were largely empty. When LeConte and his companions did encounter other people on the trail, it was a major event, carefully recorded. Backpacking was virtually non-existent. Before 1900 almost everyone (John Muir would be a notable exception) used stock. Even the well conditioned college boys in LeConte’s group drove three jackasses over every one of their 652 miles. On a few occasions, however, they did leave the animals in a base camp for an overnight side trip—a harbinger of the backpacking vogue currently in full swing. But in fairness to LeConte, he lacked the outdoor equipment that has revolutionized foot travel in places like the Sierra. Instead of light down sleeping bags, LeConte struggled with cumbersome blankets. Instead of freeze-dried food, he carried sacks of flour and cans of meat.
The country LeConte visited was far wilder, both literally and psychologically, than the Sierra today. Lacking maps, the Berkeley students made do with vague word-of-mouth reports and dead reckoning procedures. They also made mistakes, becoming semi-lost and laboriously retracing their steps. But the advantage of such a situation was the enormous sense of adventure associated with the trip. In a real sense they were explorers. In Lone Pine and Bishop people stopped them on the streets to inquire about the mountains. It wasn’t quite comparable to John Muir’s early rambles in the 1870s, but almost the equivalent when compared to present crowded Sierra conditions.
LeConte died in 1951, before the big boom in backpacking began, but were he alive today I suspect he would have agreed that the Sierra like other popular American wildernesses, is in danger of being loved to death. Its friends have turned out to be its worst enemies. Wildness can not stand the pressure of people—even people who covet wildness. Granted that the empty wilderness LeConte relished in 1890 is a thing of the past, still our management policies for wild country today should not lose sight of his experience as an ideal. If visitor quotas are necessary to prevent the John Muir Trail from becoming a hiking freeway and Yosemite Valley from becoming Disneyland, let them be instituted. Rules and regulations were not required in 1890. But the large numbers who have followed LeConte’s lead to the thrill of the high country make them essential today.
A Summer of Travel in the High Sierra, it should be noted, is the product of Lewis Osborne’s quality publishing house in Ashland, Oregon. The book is a delight to observe as well as to read. The limited nature of the edition assures that LeConte’s story will quickly become a prized item for collectors of Sierra history and lore.