John Muir was a naturalist, an author and a co-founder of the Sierra Club; he’s also the man most responsible for preserving California’s wilderness. While usually associated with his work in the Sierras and other mountain wildernesses—Alaska’s Muir Glacier is named for him—the Scotsman also visited California’s low desert and camped out in the Palm Springs area.
It was 1905, and his wife, Louisa Wanda Strentzel Muir, had just died, leaving Muir with his two daughters: Wanda, born in 1881, and Helen, born in 1886. Muir also inherited the Strentzel family’s orchards in Martinez, Calif., at that time. Helen was in poor health, and Muir had been seeking a healthful climate for her. His colleague and fellow writer, historian Charles F. Lummis—whose home is now a Los Angeles museum—recommended the dry desert air of Palm Springs. Muir definitely appreciated the recommendation, as can be seen in this letter to Lummis, dated June 13, 1905:
Dear Mr. Lummis—
You made no mistake in sending us here. The water is cool and delightful, as are the nights. The days (are) hot enough and dry enough to evaporate every disease and all one’s flesh. On our arrival the first night we lay down under the olive tree in the sandy orchard, and the heat of the sand brought vividly to mind Milton’s unlucky angels lying on the burning marl. But O the beauty of the sky evening and morning and how charming the old doctor and his wife. Helen is better already …
That “old doctor” referred to was fellow Scotsman Dr. Welwood Murray, one of the Palm Springs founding fathers, who established the Palm Springs Hotel in 1887. Murray came to the U.S. from Edinburgh in 1858 at age 26. Highly literate, he worked as a copyreader for a New York publishing firm. He was not a medical doctor, receiving the honorary title for rendering aid to wounded men during the U.S. Civil War.
The visit of the esteemed John Muir to Palm Springs created a lot of excitement. It appears that the telegraph from Muir to Murray requesting accommodations only arrived on the morning of their arrival by train. It was summer—and the Palm Springs Hotel was officially closed. However, Muir was a prestigious guest, someone who had dined and camped with presidents (and he was a friend of another prominent Scotsman, the industrialist Andrew Carnegie)—so Murray knew he needed to get busy.
All the cottages, except for one being used by another summer visitor, were dusty from recent sandstorms and needed cleaning. Food had to be prepared, too, and the place was quickly in a whirlwind.
A couple of Native Americans hastened to help clean, and the other guest—Miss Helen Lukens, daughter of Theodore P. Lukens, a grower and pioneer of Pasadena, Calif.—was asked to accompany hotel employee Willie Marcus to meet the Muirs at the train station. It turns out Miss Lukens was a friend of the Muirs; she had previously been on outings with the family. (Her father had met Muir in 1895 in Yosemite.) Later, as Helen Lukens Gaut (1872-1955), she became a renowned photojournalist and contributed to numerous prestigious publications.
According to an article she wrote in the October 1948 Palm Springs Villager, Gaut noted that Mrs. Murray initially quickly prepared a simple dinner. After that, Muir’s older daughter, Wanda, sort of took over and prepared the groups meals.
Gaut added: “During the meal the two opinionated old Scotchmen had a lively talkfest, exploding (sic) their theories, sometimes in cordial agreement, sometimes in heated argument.” Gaut commented that Muir even chastised Murray for his pompous language, especially in talking to the Native Americans. For example, Muir heard Murray instruct a man named Ramon on digging a tree hole: “You must make the excavations of greater radius at the lower extremities than at the upper, in order that the wide-spreading roots will have greater opportunity for expansion.”
Murray was also heard, to the consternation of his guests, telling the Native Americans, in his thick Scottish brogue, to “exterminate the superfluous accumulation of dirt.” Regardless of the apparent pomposity of Murray, the two men enjoyed each other’s company and talked into the night.
With summer daytime temperatures hovering between 100 and 120 degrees that year, the group made daily forays into the nearby canyons for picnics. Then Muir—against Murray’s protestations that it might be too arduous for Helen—decided to camp in Andreas Canyon, which they did for six carefree days. Muir was an outdoorsman above all, and he thoroughly enjoyed his time in a different type of wilderness, where palm trees and a small stream provided refuge from the unremitting sun.
After his Palm Springs visit, Muir returned to Martinez (located in what’s now considered the East Bay, not far from San Francisco). In 1907, he came back south and found a desert place for Helen, this time in Daggett, near Barstow.
Wanda remained in Martinez, later marring one Thomas Hanna, while Helen stayed in Daggett, where she married Buel Funk.
In December 1914, Muir was visiting Helen and his new grandson in the cold high desert when he became ill with pneumonia. He died a few days later in Los Angeles, on Christmas Eve of 1914.
Glaciers, groves, peaks, trails and schools today are all named after Muir, honoring the man who made the whole country take a look at its natural resources.
A few years ago, I was fortunate to spend time with Robert Hanna, the great-great-grandson of John Muir, while he attended our Outdoor Writers Association of California outing. The descendent of Thomas Hanna and Wanda Muir, Robert often spends time backpacking in the Sierras, and is very much active in outdoors preservation—keeping the legacy of John Muir alive.
Sources for this article include Palm Springs: First Hundred Years by Frank Bogert, Palm Springs Heritage Association, 1987; Palm Springs Villager, October 1948, in which Helen Lukens Gaut wrote a firsthand account of the 1905 visit; and California Classics by Lawrence Clark Powell, Ward Ritchie Press, Los Angeles, 1971.