It takes two double vodkas and a few Valiums to shovel my friend K onto an airplane. And then of course he has to have the window, where he will sing along with the safety video and dance a little in his seat. Which is why, flying East with him once, I was dubious about something he said over the Sierra Nevada mountains. "John Muir walked all of that, eating nothing but bread and tea," he said, flapping the laminated emergency exit instruction card as if to emphasize the point.
Later I would learn that K had understated the case. John Muir not only wore out a tremendous amount of shoe leather in the Sierra, but he once, en route to South America, walked from Louisville, Kentucky to the Gulf of Mexico, a trip immortalized in his A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf. Felled by malaria in Florida, Muir changed his mind and caught a boat to San Francisco. South America's loss was the world's gain, because it was here in Northern California that Muir found the great cathedrals and temples where he would worship to the end of his days -- the glorious raw spaces of Yosemite. Later in life, Muir had two homes -- the great wild outside, and his house in Martinez where he organized his notes into the books, lectures, and articles that would awaken the nascent American interest in conservation and lead to the creation of the Sierra Club.
Willows Theatre Company artistic director Richard Elliott grew up on the East Coast, where local theater groups often celebrate the past with historical spectacles. When Elliott moved to Martinez, he wondered why John Muir wasn't being properly feted. So he pulled together lyricist Mary Bracken Phillips and composer Craig Bohmler, several big sheets of butcher paper, and got to work on the extravaganza that would become Mountain Days: The John Muir Musical. Now in its third year at an outdoor amphitheater in the Martinez marina, Mountain Days, with its "Muir Village" and huge cast, is more an event than a play. With an environmental message and a rousing score, it's a welcome antidote to the sort of big, hollow musical so easy to find everywhere.
This is not to say it's flawless. I'm uncomfortable with the amount of artistic license that's been taken with Muir's story to keep the narrative moving smoothly. While it's more dramatic to portray his relationship with his father as an exercise in complete acrimony, for instance, the reality is more nuanced. Daniel Muir, who grew ever more rigid in his faith, didn't approve of his son's calling, but he still sent money when he could, and upon his father's death, the younger Muir wrote of a tender heart under his father's stern exterior. Another example dramatizes the naturalist's move from Scotland to America at the age of eleven. According to his biographers, Muir was excited about the move, anticipating a new world of wilderness, plants, and animals he'd never seen. The young man wasn't disappointed, spending plenty of time exploring with his younger brother, David. Yet as Mountain Days would have it, Muir didn't want to leave Scotland, and once his family arrived (another adjusted story) they did nothing but work their fingers to the bone homesteading in Wisconsin. The play is littered with this sort of oversimplification. As entertainment, the musical moves well, but as a document, it's questionable at best.
The event itself is also rife with irony. Supported in large part by oil money (Shell and ChevronTexaco are both major donors), the show is located out of BART reach so if you don't live in Martinez, your options come down to driving or taking Amtrak. Despite the fact that many people interested in a show like this might be vegetarian, the numerous food stands in "Muir Village" offered few vegetarian options beyond salad. So after driving a fair piece through the cow-flecked hills to Martinez, theatergoers can chow down on barbecued cow while gazing out over the Carquinez Strait at oil refineries.
That said, the performances are engaging and high-quality. Jon Marshall and Lee Strawn are young and old John Muir, respectively. The cutoff between the two happens in Muir's late thirties, when he met the forward-thinking Louie Strentzel (the delightful Marsha Mercant), who would disprove his notions about women as "traps" with her insistence that he continue his travels after their marriage. Marshall is fresh and vigorous as the younger Muir, climbing the "rocks" of the monotone brown set as he sings. It's a little harder to tell what's going on with Strawn as older Muir, probably because his fake beard so totally conceals his face, but he conveys well with his body the barely controlled energy of a man who can't stand being in houses or cities for long. Julian Lopez-Morillas' Daniel Muir is a fearsome presence, loose hair flying, Bible tightly in hand; at the point late in the second act where he returns as a ghost, we see that John has in many ways become his father. One of the funniest performances comes from Richard Adamson, all boyish glee as Theodore Roosevelt, hale, hearty, and anxious to shoot things "for museum purposes." Camping and the outdoors are "bully," he sings at his first meeting with Muir, although not so bully if shared with a woolly -- a dig at the sheep pastured at that time in Yosemite.
Be sure to go early. Two hours before the play begins, the gates open so theatergoers can attend "Muir Grove," where you can hear presentations from naturalists, educators, artists, and writers about Muir's legacy. There's also a picnic area with musicians, artists, and booths hosted by environmental organizations.
This November, San Francisco voters will have an opportunity to chime in on the fight that occupied the latter part of Muir's life: on the ballot is a bond measure to seismically retrofit the dam that creates Hetch Hetchy reservoir. Muir's losing battle to preserve Hetch Hetchy valley from flooding likely contributed to his death -- devastated by the loss, he developed pneumonia soon after passage of the bill that allowed the damming of the Tuolumne River. Muir described Hetch Hetchy as second only to Yosemite in beauty, and a growing chorus is urging that the dam be knocked down and the valley restored. For more information, try the nonprofit organization Restore Hetch Hetchy (www.hetchhetchy.org) and the Sierra Club (www.californiasierraclub.org/hetchhetchy). The Sierra Club site includes artist David English's drawings, which depict what the drained valley might look like, including a "bathtub ring" left by the reservoir's waters.
For those interested in finding out more about John Muir, an excellent source is John Muir: His Life and Letters and Other Writings, edited by Terry Gifford. This massive book, published in the US by the Mountaineers, contains several of Muir's essays, drawings, and letters, as well as photos and commentary.