John Muir wasn't really a tramp; he was an early advocate of wilderness preservation and the founder of the Sierra Club. Theodore Roosevelt, the Rough Rider and the 26th president of the United States, seemed to be most proud of his charge up San Juan Hill to free Cuba from Spanish rule. In 1903, the two men went on a four-day camping trip together in Yosemite National Park.
President Roosevelt initiated the meeting, having sent Muir a letter asking to meet him in Yosemite. “I want to drop politics absolutely for four days and just be out in the open with you,” the president wrote.
But of course, there was no way that politics would be avoided. Muir, who's been called the father of the National Park Service, thought big and wanted to tell the president about all the land that needed protection.
That meeting is the fodder for a popular two-man play that often can be seen in Yosemite during the summer, though on occasion it travels to other parts of the country. The script is a retelling of one evening of that camping trip. The setting is a campfire on Glacier Point, overlooking the Yosemite Valley, with just the two men. No Secret Service, no handlers; they didn't have to deal with the press until the next day. The two men just camped and talked. At the time, the United States had established just five national parks and did not yet have a National Park Service.
Around the campfire, Muir knew that this was his chance to talk to the president about the importance of putting Yosemite Valley under federal control. Yosemite was partly owned by the state of California, which the conservationist thought was not doing a good job of preserving the beauty and pristine quality of the Valley. Shabby businesses of all types had set up shop in the Valley. Though Muir didn't mention tie-die T-shirt shops, there was the 1903 equivalent in the form of ramshackle hotels and saloons. With today's lodging, restaurants, art galleries and wireless Internet access, one might say that things have not improved in the Yosemite Valley.
Lee Stetson plays John Muir with a Scottish burr and quiet tenacity. Mr. Stetson has written several plays based on the life of John Muir including The Tramp and the Roughrider. He's been performing since 1983 and appears regularly in one-person presentations in the Yosemite Valley auditorium. He played Muir in the Ken Burns series, The National Parks - America's Best Idea. In this play, Muir is dressed in a beige casual suit with a brown vest and white button-down shirt. He has a Fedora that he takes on and off throughout the play.
Joe Wiegand is the perfect larger than life Teddy Roosevelt. Mr. Weigand looks uncannily like his character and plays him with extraordinary enthusiasm. He calls himself a "reprisor" and tours the country doing monologues. In this performance, President Roosevelt wears a jacket over a blue pullover sweater that covers his large belly. He has on cowboy boots, the outdoor shoes of the times.
Muir tried to impress President Roosevelt with the conservation issues of the day, while the president wanted to impress Muir with his scars, broken bones (19 of them so far in his lifetime), and his physical exploits.
Muir's nemesis was Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service. Pinchot showed that scientific management of forests could be profitable. According to Muir, Pinchot believed in cutting trees and damming Hetch Hetchy for San Francisco's water supply. Some have called Hetch Hetchy "an elegant solution in the early 1900s to the water needs of San Franciscans." Others are still petitioning today to remove the Hetch Hetchy dam. Muir asked the president to stop Pinchot, or better yet, to remove him from his powerful post. President Roosevelt's reply to all of Muir's requests was always "all in due time."
Teddy Roosevelt is credited as the first "conservation" president. In the play, he pulls out his conservation accomplishments starting with saving the pelicans on Pelican Island in Florida. "Four acres of hope and protection," President Roosevelt called it. He created Pelican Island by executive order, without congressional approval. Muir was impressed until he learned that the island was just four acres. Nevertheless, with Pelican Island the president started the concept of national wildlife refuges.
But on the camping trip, President Roosevelt didn't really want to talk politics. He was more interested in recounting his exploits with a bear that he hunted down. Muir was against hunting and believed in preservation. He used the phrase "to preserve and protect for future generations," a theme that later came to define the mission of the National Park Service. President Roosevelt, though, was a conservationist who believed that hunting was good for the environment. That difference is basically the difference in mission between the National Park Service (preservation) and the U.S. Forest Service (conservation).
The play is sometimes a polemic as Muir and Roosevelt work in the conservation issues of the day. But lots of history comes out in the discussion. Together the two men mourn the passing of the passenger pigeon, which by 1903 was a species on its way to extinction. President Roosevelt also recalls how he went to the Badlands in 1884 to ride horses and hunt to cure his sorrows. Earlier that year, when he was just 25 years old, he had lost both his young wife and his mother. He believed that being active and outdoors could help everyone, an idea finally accepted today.
Lee Stetson and Joe Wiegand are terrific actors, whether separately or together. If they come to your neighborhood, don't miss them. To see where they'll be performing, check out this website.