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The Muir Family in Arizona

by Lilian Whiting


(Reprinted from the John Muir Newsletter Vol. 5, no. 2, Spring, 1995)


(Editor's note: We reprint below an excerpt from the New York Times, July 22, 1906, by Lilian Whiting, a Times correspondent. At Adamana [Arizona] she found John Muir and his two daughters, Wanda and Helen. They had arrived the year before, hoping the high desert air would clear up Helen's respiratory problems. Helen lived there more than a year before returning to California, but recurring bouts of pneumonia brought her back to the desert late in 1907, this time at Daggett. Although the following excerpt only incidentally mentions John and Wanda, and says nothing about Helen, it provides a glimpse of the desert life and the scenery that so attracted Muir and his daughters. From a clipping in the John Muir Family Papers, Holt-Atherton Library.)

ADAMANA, Arizona, July 18

Arizona is the land of enchantment.
A spell is laid on sod and stone
Night and day are tampered with

It is the region in which the gods have held high carnival. Every journey one may take, every trail one follows, leads into strange and fascinating locality; and Adamana, the gateway to the petrified forest, has its own spellbinding power for the tourist. Adamana consists of a pump, the station, and two bungalows in one of which very comfortable entertainment is offered and in the other of which dwells a character whom all travelers meet, Adam Hanna, a distant relative of the late Mark Hanna, the original settler of this region. For a long time the place was known as Adam Hanna's and when, with advancing civilization, this designation became too colloquial for an up-to-date twentieth century world, the elision of two or three letters gave the present attractive name--Adamana.

It was the witching hour of 5 a.m. when I left the comfortable ease of a Pullman sleeper to stop over at Adamana and visit the petrified forest. Left to myself I should have emulated the example of the man who journeyed to the north pole to see a sunrise that occurred only three days in the year. On the first two mornings he refused to rise on the plea of the further extension of his opportunities; on the third, when his servant reminded him that it was the 'last call', he turned over and philosophically remarked that he would come again next year. But the dusky porter allowed me no such margin for reflection, and I was standing in some wonderful place east of the sun and west of the moon and the long train was vanishing in the distance almost before I knew whether I had exchanged the land of dreams for the land of day and daylight realities--this weird and mystic panorama of the infinite desert of the bluest of turquoise skies already lighted by the blazing splendor of the June sunrise and the grotesque uncanny buttes scattered at intervals all over that vast plain. The intense silence was unbroken save by the voice and footstep of the mn representing the little bungalow termed the Forest Hotel. Contrary to one's preconceived ideas of an Arizona desert, the morning was cold and the blazing fire and hot coffee were most grateful. But where was the 'Petrified Forest'? one marveled. Away on the horizon gleamed an evanescent palpitating region of shimmering color. Yet this was not the 'quarry of jewels,' but the 'Bad Lands' which have at least one redeeming virtue, whatever their vices--that of producing the most aerial and fairylike color effects imaginable.

John Muir, the well know California naturalist with his two daughters has been passing the Winter at Adamana living in a tiny green adobe house of two rooms and a tent adjoining by the side of the bungalow that does duty as a hotel. All Winter Mr. Muir has been exploring the entire region and he has discovered another petrified forest twelve miles from the one heretofore known, one whose prevailing tone of color has led him to name it the 'Blue Forest'. This one is on the border of the Bad Lands, six miles south of the station while the other is six miles to the north.

It was Miss Wanda Muir--her quaint name coming from her mother, the daughter of a Polish nobleman--who drove me out to this marvelous forest of stone. A graduate of Berkeley College, and a constant companion of her father in his wanderings, Miss Muir was indeed an ideal guide, and under her hand, the two horses sped along over the rough stony ground at a pace to set every fibre tingling. One of the features of the Arizona desert is the arroyo, a dry stream, a ready made river, so to speak, minus the water. Some of these even have a stream of flowing water, only it is under the bed of the river rather than on top of it, for Arizona is the land of magic and wonder and of a general reversal of accepted conditions.

"Sometimes in driving out here" said Miss Muir, "a cloudburst comes up and returning the horses have to swim this dry stream. Once the water was so high it came into the wagon. Not infrequently when we go out to the forest some one comes dashing after us on horseback to warn us to get back as quickly as possible or the torrents of water from a sudden cloudburst will cut us off altogether, perhaps for a day and night." The pleasing uncertainty of life in Arizona may be realized from this danger of being suddenly drowned in the arid sands of a desert, and being confronted with a sudden Lodore that descends from the heavens on a midsummer noon. Arizona is the land of surprises. No known laws of meteorology or of any form of science hold good here. The mountain peak transforms itself into the bottom of a sea and the sea suddenly upheaves itself in air and figures as a mountain. Arizona is nature's kaleidoscope. It is the land of transformation.

There are three petrified forests, each separated by a mile or two, the first reached by a drive of some six miles, while the third is more than twice as far. The second is the largest and the most elaborate and in the aggregate, they cover an area of over 2,000 acres. The ground is the high rolling mesas, and over it are scattered thick as leaves in Yallambrosa, the jewel like fragments of mighty trees in deposits that are the wonder of the scientist. From the huge fallen tree trunks, many of these being over 200 feet in length and of similar proportions in diameter to the mere chips and twigs, the forests are transmuted into agate and onyx and chalcedony. Numbers of these specimens contain perfect crystals. They are vivid and striking in color--rich Byzantine red, deep greens and purples and yellow, white and translucent or dark in all color blendings. Great blocks of agate cover many parts of the forest. Hundreds of entire trees are seen. When cut transversely these logs show the bark, the inner fibre and veining as perfectly as would a living tree. And over all these fallen monarchs of a prehistoric forest bends the wonderful turquoise sky of Arizona and the air is all the liquid gold of the intense sunshine.

At Tiffany's in New York may be seen huge slabs and sections of this petrified wood under high polish. A fine exhibit of i was made at the Paris exposition in 1900, and I had the pleasure of presenting a specimen to Rodin, the great sculptor, who was incredulous of the possibility that this block of onyx would have been wood. Through all the forests are these strange rock formations called buttes rising in the most weird and uncanny shapes from the sand and stones and sagebrush of the vast desert. What a treasure ground of antiquity. This region, which seems a plain, is yet higher than the top of Mount Washington, and the altitude insures almost perpetual coolness. Scientists seem to agree in the theory that the petrified forests are a deposit and that the trees have not grown on the land they now cover. Wherever they grew, it is believed a mighty sea arose--perhaps as the present Salton Sea in Southern California--and engulfed them. Subsequent ages washed down mineral deposits, other ages buried them in sand, again floods came and washed them down and on; and then the mighty waters subsided, erosion set in, and the result we now behold. Had Emerson some clairvoyant perception of this wonder region when he wrote:

And many a thousand Summers
My gardens ripened well
And light from meliorating stars
With firmer glory fell.
I wrote the past in characters of rock and fire the scroll
The planting of the coal.
And thefts from satellites and rings
And broken stars I drew
And out of spent and aged things
I formed the world anew.

All around this high plateau rise on the horizon surrounding cliffs to the height of 150 and more feet, serrated into ravines and gorges, variegated with the sandstone formation in their shimmer of colors, and indicating that this basin was once the bottom of a sea.

It is the paradise of the ethnologist as well as of the geologist. Besides cliff ruins and hieroglyphics almost anywhere by chance may one find traces of submerged walls and following these a man with an ordinary spade may dig up prehistoric pottery, skeletons, beads, and rings, and occasionally necklaces. The pottery both in design and in scheme of decoration shows a high degree of civilization. Who were these prehistoric peoples who had built their pueblos and created their implements and pottery and were already old when Plymouth Rock was new? Much of the symbolic creation here still awaits its interpreter.

From the millions of tons of glistening, shining, block and segments and tree trunks the tourist is not now allowed to carry away specimens carte blanche, as formerly. The Petrified Forests are now a Government reservation although not yet one of the Government parks. Small specimens within a reasonable amount are permitted the tourist as souvenirs.

Sitting on the little plaza in the evening I watched a panorama of Kaleidoscopic wonder. Afar to the horizon the Bad Lands shimmered in a faint dream of colors under the full moon. The stars seemed to hang midway in the air and frequent meteors blazed through the vast mysterious space.

Adamana is seventy five miles west of Gallup in New Mexico, the nearest large town. It is nine hours from Albuquerque, the metropolis of New Mexico, and five hours distant from Flagstaff to the west. All the thousands of acres of desert lands about require only water to render them richly productive. But water is unattainable. There are no mountain ranges near enough to produce water storage and unless the twentieth century scientists discover some way of creating rain, these arid regions must remain as they are.

Yet even here American life and energy and progress are seen. The scattered settlers unite in maintaining public schools six months in the year, and with only from twelve to twenty pupils the teacher is paid from $70 to $80 a month--more than twice the salary paid in the country schools in New England. In this little bungalow here at Adamana, where Mr. Stevenson, the guide and guardian of the Petrified Forests makes tourists strangely comfortable in their desert sojourn. I find a piano, a well selected little library and young people whose command of the violin and piano offer music that is by no means unacceptable. The children get music lessons--no one knows how. They are eager for any instruction in language and acquire French and Spanish in some measure and in all ways the National ambition is sustained. From Albuquerque comes a daily paper and only one day behind date the Los Angels papers arrive. One is not out of the world, even on the Arizona desert....


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