August, 1875 — While my great-grandfather John Robertson was herding every sort of livestock from oxen to turkeys overland from Little Lake (Willits) to Mendocino Coast boom towns like Pine Grove, a fellow Scotsman named John Muir set out from Yosemite to explore southward. Great-grandfather Robertson was already a settled parent in his early 50s (his two youngest boys aged five and three); Muir was 16 years younger at 37, having arrived in California nearly two decades later than Robertson.
It's a common misconception that Muir did all of his high country exploring afoot, carrying all that he needed in a simple sack on his back. That was true until that summer of 1875, when Muir took on a mule named Brownie to carry his goods and, occasionally, him.
Outside modern day Madera, Muir encountered John Nelder, who lived liked a hermit in a log cabin. Though the area was extensively logged by the Madera Flume and Trading Company beginning just three years later in 1878, one stand of the old timber, Nelder Grove, remains.
For two weeks in September 1875 Muir traveled through the San Joaquin basin. Near a branch of Dinky Creek he met up with a shepherd who had recently passed through the “Big Trees.” Muir asked if the Sequoia were really as large as some people claimed. The shepherd responded, “Oh, yes sir, you bet. They're whales. I never used to believe half I heard about the awful size of California trees, but they're monsters and no mistake. One of them over here, they tell me, is the biggest tree in the world, and I guess it is, for it's forty foot through and as many good long paces around.”
The shepherd guided Muir to the tree, which proved to be 32 feet in diameter, but allowing for the usual embellishment of the time a 32 foot tree was mighty impressive. For a comparison to coast redwood, consider that the biggest stump left on this part of the Albion measured nineteen feet in diameter when chopped down in the 1880s.
Muir dragged and shoved his “patient, much-enduring mule” through the brush and talus slopes of King's River canyons before climbing to the “Big Trees” at elevations between 5,000 and 8,000 feet. During his second day in what Muir would dub the Giant Forest, he wandered to the edge of an extended meadow where he exulted “in Nature's wild immortal vigor and beauty, never dreaming any other human being was near. Suddenly the spell was broken by dull bumping, thudding sounds, and a man and a horse came in sight at the farther end of the meadow, where they seemed sadly out of place. A good big bear or mastodon or megatherium [elephant-sized ground sloths from the Pliocene and Pleistocene epochs] would have been more in keeping with the old mammoth forest.”
The man Muir met was Hale Dixon Tharp. He was born and raised in Michigan, ten years older than Muir. In 1851 Tharp was employed by a widow with four children to drive her covered wagon to California. They settled in Placerville where Tharp and the widow, Chloe Smith Swanson married. Tharp mined in the gold country then in the summer of 1856 built a shake and brush shack east of Visalia and south of Three Rivers, near the confluence of the Kaweah River and Horse Creek. Hoping to establish a preemption homestead claim he returned in 1858 to build a full cabin and barn. While searching for higher ground to graze his cattle in summer, Tharp was lead into the mountains by a pair of Yokut Indians. He became the first European-American to see and climb the granite dome formation known today as Moro Rock. Farther up, amid the giant Sequoia, Tharp “discovered” Crescent Meadow then Log Meadow. At the edge of the latter, Tharp found a 70-foot long fallen log that had been hollowed by fire. Tharp split shakes for a door and a hinged “wooden window” as well as constructing a chimney at the edge of the hollow log which became his part time home for nearly three decades until the federal government turned the entire area into a national park. Tharp's rough-hewn table and benches as well as his bed can still be seen today after a hike of less than a mile from the nearest parking area. Tharp's horseshoe hinges are still intact on his handmade window. Visitors can step inside his door, but a barrier holds back those who might violate his cooking and sleeping quarters.