Humble Hut, Massive Effort

Doug Harnsberger at the John Muir Memorial Shelter dedication with the commemorative plaque, and the mule it rode in on. Photo by Sherman Thomas Photography

Doug Harnsberger at the John Muir Memorial Shelter dedication with the commemorative plaque, and the mule it rode in on. Photo by Sherman Thomas Photography

Don’t tell Swarthmorean Doug Harnsberger to take a hike. He may take you literally. Doug has been a hiker and backpacker since his early Boy Scout days in Marin County, California. At age 11, he first trod the Muir Trail through the Sierra Nevada range. “Our troop had gung-ho dads who led us on week-long 50 mile hikes in the summer. It was my first hiking experience.” Doug has been a hiker and outdoorsman ever since, frequently returning to the Muir Trail, and introducing his two children to the high country in their late teens.

Doug’s son John Harnsberger joined him this August on a particularly memorable trip. “Backpacking almost inevitably brings you closer,” Doug says. “You rely on each other; you have to learn how to work together closely.” And this trip had a particularly collaborative aspect; the Harnsbergers were among three groups converging at Muir Pass, 11,955 feet up, to celebrate the dedication of a plaque officially placing the John Muir Memorial Shelter on the National Register of Historic Places.

The designation effort and the logistics were led by Harnsberger, who as a hiker and architect was fascinated by the “exotic” octagonal structure and its place when he first saw it years ago. “One of the themes of this project was to raise the importance of this humble little shelter. It is a symbol of John Muir’s spirit. He is the man who founded the Sierra Club, yet the hut is the only thing that’s ever been constructed to honor him. And it’s in such a dramatic setting — only place on the John Muir trail where you can look 360 degree and not see a tree. You might as well be on the surface of Mars!”

This trip involved a few ceremonial totems and a large cast. Confronted by the late news that the 110 pound bronze bas-relief plaque was delayed, Doug made a photo replica of it. The two-by-three foot, foamcore mounted, plastic wrapped photo survived a spill in a mountain creek on the trip and was ready to serve in the ceremony Doug had prepared.

Father and son made it to Muir Pass on August 24. As the groups converged from various directions the next day, a surprise arrived at the hut via a mule train shortly before the scheduled noontime ceremony was to begin. On the back of one mule was a wooden crate containing the actual plaque created by Richmond, Va., sculptor Paul DiPasquale, which had been delivered through the intercession of the superintendent of Sequoia National Park, Woody Smeck. Another crucial element of the event, “John Muir” (reenactor Frank Helling) puffed into camp just in time to don his antique trail garb and Scottish brogue.

Doug and John Harnsberger on the trail with the replica plaque. Photo by Julia Marshall

Doug and John Harnsberger on the trail with the replica plaque. Photo by Julia Marshall

The ceremony began with Harnsberger and “Muir” sharing, respectively, historical and mystical observations on the shelter and the magical setting. Sierra Club’s association with the National Park Service was commended. The assembly entered the cozy confines of the hut, and the ceremony reached its emotional pitch in song — Loch Lomond and This Land Is Your Land — and in Harnsberger’s benediction. Thus the shelter became officially a national “historic place worthy of preservation.”

And how did the shelter take its peculiar form, which bears no relation to other structures in the Sierra? That’s a story in itself. Sierra Club secretary and backpacking pioneer William Colby had been trying find an appropriate way to honor Muir since the Scotsman’s death in 1914. In February 1930, a donor came to Colby with $6,000 to fund construction of a memorial hut at Muir Pass. At it happened, Harnsberger said, “That month’s issue of National Geographic featured a 40-page article on the trulli huts of southern Italy. Colby opened up the magazine and said ‘that’s the image of what I want to build.’” Colby and Muir will now forever face each other from either side of the plaque.

Another chronicle of the natural world, Sierra magazine (published by the club) has a feature article on the hut and its dedication in its February issue. Coincident with that publication, the Sequoia Parks Conservancy will host a page at sequoiaparksconservancy.com to receive donations toward needed mortar joint repointing and other maintenance at the Muir Shelter. Meanwhile, the dedication project and Harnsberger’s efforts are subjects of two documentaries which he hopes might be unified in one film, if a sponsor is found.

One step follows another…

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