A friend alerted me to this opportunity, and seeing as how I’ve been devoting most of my writerly energies to science and anger, I knew I would be mentally all the better for having written about my favorite weirdo, Joaquin Miller. So go read it!
UPDATE, 9/2014: Since the Greenfriar redesign, this post has been removed. I’ve included the original in its entirety below.
AH! there be souls none understand;
Like clouds, they cannot touch the land.
Unanchored ships, they blow and blow,
Sail to and fro, and then go down
In unknown seas that none shall know,
Without one ripple of renown.
Call these not fools, the test of worth
Is not the hold you have of earth.
Ay, there be gentlest souls sea-blown
That know not any harbor known.
Now it may be the reason is,
They touch on fairer shores than this.
–Joaquin Miller, Sea-Blown
I didn’t consider myself outdoorsy until I moved to California. Shortly after the boxes were unpacked, Ken Burns’s series on the National Parks (now on Netflix) came out on PBS. I learned two things from the first installment: 1) California is GORGEOUS, and 2) John Muir was INSANE.
I’ve been here almost five years now, and as I pass the halfway mark in Muir’s biography, I dogear each time he gets lost in a swamp for days, weeps hysterically at the sight of a single orchid, or swings from the top of a pine tree during a thunderstorm. Burns described Muir as “an ecstatic holy man.” I knew right then I had to read his biography, but it took me a while to get to it–I wended my way through some other California history classics on my way there: from Steinbeck’s East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath to Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels and Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue.
It makes sense, when you read these histories, that California is a land of weirdos. One kind of weirdo fascinates me most: the weirdos whose land I explored before I knew anything about them. I went backpacking in Henry Coe Park. Turning your cell phone off, setting out into the woods, and coming upon a swimming hole at the height of your sweaty fatigue is magical. And when you come back to the ranger’s station, grabbing a cold bottle of water out of the fridge and placing it to your forehead, you ask the rangers questions about the person who decided that the land she grew up exploring was so magical it needed to be shared. Needed to be open to all. You emerge from the woods filthy-skinned but with a cleansed soul, and you want to thank them. It turns out Henry Coe Park was a ranch until it was handed over to the county by the rancher’s daughter, Sada Coe Robinson, who the rangers describe, tantalizingly, as “a brassy lady.”
It’s a heady blend, the excitement of exploring a swath of nature that occasionally offers up a little signature of its history. An abandoned cabin, a bench bearing a placard. After falling in love with brassy Sada Coe, I noticed she wasn’t the only beautiful weirdo who had made it a personal mission to preserve land for future generations.
But none of these weirdos manages to intrigue in quite the same way as the utterly wackadoodle Joaquin Miller, “the Poet of the Sierras.” This man, born Cincinnatus Hiner Miller in 1937 near Liberty, Indiana, would later change the day and year of his birth to November 10, 1841 and say he was “born on a wagon going west.” This single fact should give you a pretty good idea of what he’s about. He was not just a poet–he was a lawyer, a judge, a teacher, a gold prospector, a pony-express rider, a tree hugger, and a thrower of famous Bohemian ragers. He was, somewhat damningly, “Oakland’s first hipster.”
I figured out that I could take a bus almost all the way to a back entrance of the park–just a little trailhead off a small cul-de-sac. Taking public transit to go for a hike is a fairly amazing thing that the carless do here. It feels like cheating. It’s great. A ridge of hills abuts the easternmost edges of the towns just across the bay from San Francisco. And once you drop over the ridge, a string of public parks awaits, the rest of which are run by the comparatively well-funded East Bay Regional Park District. But little Joaquin Miller Park is the manic pixie dream park of the East Bay. Like the man himself, Joaquin Miller Park has some rough edges. And it will charm the everliving fuck out of you.
The park may be thought of as mouse-shaped, and the Palos Colorados trail is the mouse’s tail. You get off your bus, you stop in the gas station to pee and grab a bag of Cheetos because you realize that apple you brought was a dumb snack. After a quick jaunt along a road where you will almost certainly be joined by pairs of power walkers in mom jeans and visors, you come to the trailhead. Once, I came up here by myself “to clear my head,” and because you’re still more or less surrounded by some posh neighborhood in the mouse-tail here, I could hear a church choir sing as I ducked into the cool creekside shade, light streaming through the redwoods all around me. All I could think was, “Why the hell isn’t there anyone here to verify that this is real life?!” Even with the phones off, it’s usually still good to bring a friend or three. You’ll need these verifications a few more times while you’re here.
The cool greens of thick ivy and coniferous brush turn vibrant in the sunlight, and the bark of redwoods takes on a lurid, reddish-green quality. Their elegant spindles begin in the creekbed beneath you and end in the sky above you. You are in Fern Gully. You are Mary Oliver. You are, like John Muir, an ecstatic holy man. Aside from the members of that neighboring church’s angelic choir, mankind has ceased to exist. It’s just you and the fairies now, and you haven’t even left city limits. As you make your way in, the embankments on either side of the creek rise increasingly higher. The net effect of this is that the opposing bank appears as an elaborate show set up before you in a lengthy natural ampitheater. “Welcome,” Gaia seems to purr. “See anything you like?” And you do.
You come to a most forboding cabin (“Sinawik Cabin”, on the map). Actually you don’t, because the last time I was up there, this had been demolished, so, here you have an historic document of a bygone era–you’re welcome. On seeing the empty site on which it had stood, I felt simultaneously relieved and nostalgic. This cabin was bad news, and yet it somehow gave the park some of its insouciant, poet-in-dungarees charm. Covered in graffiti and stuffed to the gills with empty 40s, it was the kind of place where you wake up in the opening scene of an episode of Law & Order: SVU that ends up not even being about you.
Approaching the cabin, always, ALWAYS against your will–always at the behest of some troublemaker friend, you become filled with the overwhelming sense that you have clearly entered a horror movie and are about to be violently murdered. The nauseous surreality hits you in waves as your friend insists on going INSIDE via a HOLE in the SECOND FLOOR wall. Indeed, a quick peek in this hole once revealed an entire pile of very damaged-looking high-heeled shoes. I mean, paging SVU: this stuff writes itself. Like kids exploring an abandoned summer camp across the lake, you laugh to slough off the enormous peer pressure.
Phew. That was close. Leaving the cabin, you reckon with a series of near-identical options as the jolly, bearded, twinned countenance of Joaquin Miller mocks you like the ghosts of Jacob and Robert Marley.
But hang in there, you’re almost to the best part. For you see, glorious wackadoodle that he was, Joaquin was a great builder of monuments. Now I, like Joaquin, lived for a spell in Washington, DC, so I have taken many a visitor to “see the monuments.” But now I am an assimilated Californian, and as such, I have learned that the monuments built by those who clawed their way out in wagons are scrappier, more insane. And you’re going to have to schlep a few miles up a hill to get to them.
Ladies and gentlemen, behold: the Funeral Pyre. This must really be a creepy find, if you were just trying to find a nice spot to take your dog for a walk. The charmingly misspelled, hand-lettered sign, I’m sad to say, has recently gone the way of Sinawik cabin, replaced with something slicker, more official-looking, more corporate, man. But, happily, ‘Hights’ (sic) is preserved–Miller’s pet name for his land.
Anyway, yes, he really did want to be cremated here, where everyone in the city below could see his old poet bones go up in a blaze of glory, but no dice. Most accounts I’ve seen make it sound like his family was like, no way are we getting the permits for that. Wikipedia is just glorious here:
His last words were recorded as “Take me away; take me away!” The poet had asked to be cremated by friends in the funeral pyre he built at The Hights with no religious ceremony and without being embalmed. His wishes were mostly ignored and the funeral on February 19 drew thousands of curious onlookers.
I’m sure he would have been furious. Miller, in case you haven’t noticed, was a bit of a diva. If it helps you get a sense of this, it was thought that Miller fled to London to have a pout when his work was criticized in America. There he became a “frontier oddity“– he once even “brought a miner’s pick to the Duchess of Devonshire’s reception in London.” But, like any Oakland hipster, he was also called a “poseur” and “a vulgar fraud.”
Say what you will about the man’s Country Bear Jamboree act, but as testament to his piety, there’s another monument to see. Miller was a big fan of Moses, and he thought, what better way to make up for the enslavement of the Hebrews in Egypt than to build MOSES his OWN pyramid! Which, though tremendously tacky and weirdly offensive, is perhaps on some level a nice thought, except that, ok, look. I’m not saying I could have done a better job or that I care about anything enough to make a pyramid out of rocks for it with my bare hands, but still. I just think this looks sort of like just a stumpy, globbily rugged pyramidal mound where teenagers probably go at night to, I don’t know, whatever the 2014 equivalent of seeing the Craft and being Wiccan for a week is.
However lacking in majesty this pyramid may be, it has a lot of heart. And we’ve skipped the Browning Monument, which is a monument erected to Miller’s most favorite poet, Robert Browning, because it is just sort of a weird stone pillar. So it’s safe to say that the Pyramid was Miller’s greatest monument. And so, you spread your picnic blanket. You pop your champagne cork. Maybe a friend has brought speakers and is playing something nice. You have your apple and (thank God) those Cheetos you almost weren’t going to buy. The view’s not bad, either.
And life is pretty good, because you got here on your own two feet, after taking a bus up into the hills, because you are spunky and self-sufficient and lucky as hell to be this free. Because you, my friend, are a frontier oddity. Tomorrow you’ll be staring at a computer screen again, but today, there is a meadow to frolic in. There are daisy chains to make. Some old hippie over there has been smoking grass and writing in his journal for hours and hasn’t minded that you are playing with his dog. We still have plenty of water and snacks. Joaquin Miller may not be whooping it up up on these Hights anymore, but it’s still gorgeous, and I think he’d be glad we’re here. Beautiful weirdos running around in nature, every one of us.