The Second Coming of John Muir

Alden Olmsted
9 min readJun 14, 2024

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Was my father, John Olmsted

What a shot.

The photo is featured in ‘John Muir: Nature’s Visionary’ by Gretel Ehrlich (2005), published by National Geographic.

The final chapter is titled ‘People inspired by John Muir.’

Page 165 — Photo courtesy Lynn Johnson

‘Inspired by John Muir’— What a GREAT summary of dad.. ah if only someone had told me that earlier. .

That book became one of the many tools dad would use to raise funds for the trail.

Raise funds — How do you raise funds with a book?

And why does a trail need money?

And which trail?

Independence Wheelchair Trail, Nevada City California
John O. in the Hans Jenny Pygmy Forest at Jug Handle Creek, Caspar California

These are all great questions.

But don’t feel bad, growing up I had LOTS of questions too.

Most went unanswered.

My father was John D. Olmsted, son of Rhodes’ Scholar and University of California Riverside founder Jack Olmsted and yes cousin to the one and only Frederick Law Olmsted.

To say our roots run deep in parks and trails is an understatement of geological proportions.

Dad grew up in affluent West Los Angeles in 1938, born during a historic flood on March 2, where the doctor actually lost his car on the way to the home delivery, on Glenroy avenue just below Sunset Blvd.

My grandmother bought the doc a new ride.

Years later, sometime after college when dad was hiking near the bottom of his favorite L.A. peak, San Gabriel’s towering 10,000' Mt. Baldy (Mt. San Antonio), he noticed a huge boulder that was in a precarious spot on Coldwater creek, and surmised that the last time it had moved was from the very same flood into which he was born.

100 years after Muir.

John Muir: April 21, 1838
John Olmsted: March 2, 1938

Dad would ride that 100-year coincidence until the wheels came off.

His entire life was shaped and pushed by the natural world. Sometimes by things out of his control, like a flood as he was being born, and many times events that were John-made, connections and serendipitous happenings made all-the-more important by their inclusion in John’s story.

And oh how his story grew!

When I say “his story” I am telling you (those who’ve not met him) that everything John did, every park John saved, every dollar John collected, every random person John convinced to follow his pied-piper tour of trails and parks for all — all of it was added and retold constantly, in a stream-of-consciousness wonderful and poetic and sometimes maddening story, as only John could do.

How do I know it was maddening?

Because when dad was given six months to live, I became his caregiver.

And yes. It was maddening.

It was also wonderful.

So wonderful I recorded our reconnection and turned it into my first documentary:

My Father, Who Art in Nature (2012)

When it came to my father, for the first 25 years of my life, I didn’t have much to say.

Dad was out of the picture when I was one, and it would take a gift of a luxury car for the weekend combined with the ending of summer camp employment leaving an empty social calendar, to draw me up to California’s foothills, to dad’s doorstep, to begin the reconnection process as two adults.

See while dad was saving Mendocino’s Pygmy Forest (1972) I was turning one, and when he was building the Independence Wheelchair Trail (1978–84), I was a shy and skinny pre-teen, growing up fatherless in Sonoma, California.

I would deliver papers before school to pay for genuine Vans shoes — the only thing I was interested in saving was my reputation on the schoolyard.

One Saturday in the early eighties (I now know the exact date), probably in between Atari 2600 video gaming — my mom turned on the television and said:

“Well there’s your father — hiking across the bridge.”

And she was right.

Hikanation 1980 — Sponsored by Postum
Accompanied by Bagpipes Dad and hundreds of others headed down to Ocean Beach, to touch one ocean before heading to the other — April 12, 1980

MY DAD?? On TV??

Normally that’s something you’d brag about. Something you’d tell your friends the next day at school.

“Hey guys guess what — my dad was on Channel 2 yesterday, walking across the Bay Bridge with a bunch of hippies hiking across the country!”

Obviously you can guess I did the opposite. I kept my mouth shut.

Tight.

Having no dad sucked.

Having John Muir as a dad (at the time), felt worse.

I often thought it’d be better if he was off living an extravagant second life, hedonistic or adventure-seeking. At least then I could tell stories.

But as a ten year old it was hard to even know how to explain a dad like John Olmsted.

Make no mistake, I’d already gathered that my dad wasn’t like the other kids’ dads, not being around wasn’t even what gave it away.

It may have been the owl in the freezer I found one day after high school, when mom answered with “oh your father was passing through and dropped it off, it’s in good condition so he probably saved it to show his class.”

Which class? I thought.

It could have been any number of them, classes of the kids in the ‘earth bus’ shuttled from Bay Area schools to sites along the Lincoln Hwy. aka Interstate 80.

It could have been classes of kids in Mendocino or maybe Nevada City, where he regularly led hikes out to so many of the amazing spots in Northern California.

If the owl hadn’t tipped me off it also could have been the beard.

Or it could have been the thrift store clothes.

Or it could have simply been the incessant interest in things I had no interest in —

Like words.

Words?

Yes words.

Words I would hear from my dad that I didn’t hear anywhere else. Not in school, not on TV, not among my friends, not anywhere.

And let me tell you words are powerful.

What words?

Well, let me tell you…

Words like:

  • Hetch Hetchy.
  • Jug Handle.
  • Bridgeport.
  • Pygmy Forest.
  • John Muir.

Words that to my mind were well, weird.

Years later as a Hollywood screenwriter-to-be, I finally watched Chinatown, and exclaimed a jolt of admiration upon hearing those same words — I thought HEY! Water rights and urban development crimes can be cool — you just need Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway.

And one of the top scripts ever written.

Dad obviously did not have any of those things.

And he was writing his story in real time.

Dad was a crusader — a true crusader of the first order.

Crusader — One who participates in a crusade, as in a person who makes an impassioned and sustained effort to bring about social or political change.

See what I mean?

Look it’s not like I don’t appreciate what dad did, the parks he created and the land he saved. I do.

Want proof?

In 2011 California went on an ill-advised crusade of their own — this time to shutter 70 state parks due to a supposed budget crisis (shocker — there wasn’t one).

I guess I became an accidental crusader — I asked every Californian to ‘Give a Buck’ — and I raised enough funds to stave off the intended closure of Jug Handle, dad’s first park.

A few years later in 2016 I made sure his legacy was secure, designing and installing this interpretive panel with State Parks at Jug Handle Beach:

Installing a long-overdue panel about how dad and friends saved Jug Handle, with Loren Rex, CA State Parks
Jug Handle Interpretive panel — by Erica Fielder and Alden Olmsted

Most recently, after the California lightning fires of 2020, when dad’s amazing wheelchair-wooden-flume-trail burned to the ground, I directed a film about it that you can watch right on PBS (click here).

A Wild Independence (2021), Produced by Bear Yuba Land Trust, Directed by Alden Olmsted

Down from the mountains

At the ripe age of 40, John Muir finally married. He met a woman, had two daughters, and ran a fruit ranch in Martinez, California.

In other words, he got domesticated.

John Olmsted, by comparison, would be dissolving marriage number two around the same age, enjoying the completion of his two biggest accomplishments in Mendocino and Nevada City respectively, but now seeing his two boys about to enter college and adulthood, with little connection to their father.

I heard someone say once

It’s nice that he idolizes his dad.

Idolizes? Apparently they never watched my first documentary.

Honors? Yes.

Idolizes? No.

However —

IF one is going to leave their family AND be a crusader, it’s hard to be too disappointed if they do something noble and worthwhile on the crusade.

Like save a beautiful beach and pygmy trees from reckless development.

Or build a wheelchair nature trail out of an old mining ditch.

Or film 80 ish hikers trekking across the United States and preserve the footage in his basement for me to find later.

And that’s what my dad did. And so much more.

Celebrating the Hikanation walk at Cape Henlopen, DE May 27, 1981
Celebrating Dad’s 70th on his favorite trail, the Buttermilk Bend above the S. Yuba River
Two Olmsteds in Yosemite, one a Muir disciple, the other a modern day cowboy
John and Alden, just after dad’s 70th birthday

So to answer the most important question — how was it to have the second coming of John Muir as my dad?

Well, I guess it was pretty cool.

Cheers to you dad, Father’s Day isn’t the same without you.

— Alden Olmsted

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Alden Olmsted

I was born in a small town in Northern California just another latch-key kid obsessed with BMX and Tom Petty. Now I make films and travel and write when I can.