Today the windy town of Martinez on Suisun Bay is hemmed in by freeways, bridges, oil refineries, train tracks. It takes an effort to imagine the area 100 years ago, when a traffic jam in the orchard land called the Alhambra Valley might have consisted of two horse-drawn buggies meeting on a narrow road.
It was in Martinez that naturalist John Muir, a native of Dunbar, Scotland, married Louie Strentzel, daughter of a wealthy landowner. When Muir's father-in-law died, he and his wife and two daughters moved into the Victorian mansion that Dr. Strentzel built for $20,000 in 1882.
But while Muir successfully ran the ranch and orchards, and while he loved his wife and two daughters, his heart wasn't in the task. He wanted to be in Yosemite.
The interior of Muir's somewhat ghostly house right off Highway 4 at Alhambra Valley Road, a National Historic Site, gives visitors a spooky feeling. John Muir wrote in this study? He gazed out these windows?
Yes, he climbed these steps to the Italianate bell tower and looked out over the tops of palms trees into domestic orchards below where fig, pomegranate, orange, apple, peach and cherry trees grew then and grow today. He filled his lungs with the cool air, freshened by a hint of the ocean, and stared off into the distance, pensively, dreaming about the mountains.
Fortunately, after a decade of managing the ranch property, from 1880 to 1890, Muir achieved financial independence and was able to devote the rest of his life to the preservation of America's natural resources. His successes included convincing the government to create Yosemite National Park in 1890 and co-founding The Sierra Club two years later.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, essayist Edward Hoagland paid a visit to Muir's home. Hoagland, 60, came to California from his home in Vermont to join a group of nature writers teaching at the UC Davis ``Art of the Wild'' program in Squaw Valley in July. Hoagland, the author of 15 books, also is a frequent visiting professor at UCD. And when not at UCD, he teaches at Bennington College.
Hoagland was especially interested in visiting Muir's home because Sierra Club Books is republishing Muir's ``Steep Trails'' this spring and Hoagland has been asked to write the introduction.
``It shouldn't be out of print,'' said Hoagland. ``It's a terrific book.''
``Steep Trails'' was first published in 1918, four years after Muir's death. It consists of 24 pieces - letters, newspaper articles, sketches for local journals - that describe ghost towns in Nevada (he calls them ``dead towns''), hikes up Mount Shasta in sun and storms, hikes in his beloved Yosemite, of course (and his first fall down the side of a mountain in 1873), and trips to Oregon, Washington and Utah.
The essays collected in ``Steep Trails'' cover 29 years of Muir's life.
Hoagland is just the person to write the introduction. He is the general editor of the Penguin Nature Library, a collection of classics including four volumes by Muir, two by Henry David Thoreau and many other nature writers, some famous and others less well-known.
``The Mountains of California'' by Muir (his first book) is collected in the Penguin collection. Hoagland wrote the introduction to that book, too, and that essay, ``In Praise of John Muir,'' also can be found in his most recent collection of essays, ``Balancing Acts,'' which was published by Simon and Schuster last year and is due out in paper in the fall of '94.
In his essay, Hoagland compares Thoreau and Muir. ``Henry Thoreau lived to write, but Muir lived to hike,'' he wrote.
And what was Hoagland thinking as he walked through Muir's study, climbed the stairs, peered in his bedroom? (Muir would not allow curtains to be hung over his tall bedroom windows. He liked being awakened by the morning sun.)
``It may have been his home, but it was not his spiritual home,'' Hoagland said. ``Yosemite was his home.''
Some visitors may walk away from John Muir's restored home and modest grave site reflecting that, really, they hadn't seen very much. Not Hoagland.
Judged legally blind for several years before an operation in 1991 that restored his sight at least temporarily, Hoagland is thankful to see at all.
As soon as his surgeon judged that his eyes could withstand the rigors of travel, Hoagland got out his passport. Earlier this year he spent two months traveling in Africa and India.
He drinks in everything - the starving in Somalia, his daughter's face, the incense cedar trees at Muir's home and grave, and the sun in his eyes.