Telling Tales in the Sierra : A Biographer for Yosemite

<i> Kay Mills is a Times editorial writer. </i>

Writer Shirley Sargent knows her place and lives it--Yosemite National Park.

For years she has been writing the histories that appear on bookshelves in park shops, books like “John Muir in Yosemite” and “Pioneers in Petticoats,” as well as those on the landmark Ahwahnee and Wawona hotels. The connections between her work and being are fundamental.

Yosemite fascinates Sargent, and she wants to help others know its spell. “Solitude is one of the reasons this park is so loved. This park to me is a magnet. It’s a lodestone. It’s a home to me and I’m lucky. It’s a place of singular beauty and multiple interests.”

Knowing about the people who fought to preserve the park and its solitude and who made it their home should enrich any visitor, Sargent believes. “It will mean more to them if they’re at Camp Curry and they know that the Currys started with seven tents and sleeping out in the rocks. Anytime you can make people real it helps,” said the writer who may have been a social historian long before it became academically acceptable.

“I don’t like just plain history with a lot of facts. I want something that makes the people real to me. I want the death and the blood and the tears and the triumph, too.


“Say you’re a tourist in the valley. You may look up and see a pillar of rock and say, ‘Wow, look that that,’ and then you remember from what you’ve read that a woman first climbed it in 1875. Wouldn’t that make it more singular to you, more exciting?”

Sargent’s books tell the Yosemite visitor what could have happened as well as what did. Not only was the Hetch Hetchy Valley dammed to provide water for San Francisco but there were plans years ago to dam the South Fork of the Merced River, which would have flooded the area around the present Wawona Hotel and golf course on the southern edge of the park. “There have been tons of threats against the park,” said Sargent, citing a present-day attempt to dam the Merced at El Portal, just west of the park boundary. “It’s all greed, greed, greed.”

Sargent, 58, first came to Yosemite in 1936. She lived with her parents in Tuolumne Meadows, at 8,600 feet in the high country, while her engineer father helped rebuild the park sections of the Big Oak Flat and Tioga roads. Several years passed before she came down from Tuolumne to see the valley because she remembers always being carsick on the winding roads. She had a nomadic experience as a child, living in national parks and attending two or three schools each year.

Today she lives off the Big Oak Flat Road a few turns and a few bumps beyond Big Meadow, just 200 feet outside the park’s western boundary. Her home occupies a clearing where you can hear the hot wind in the pines and catch the arresting scent of “mountain misery,” a pungent plant with medicinal aroma. The house stands on the foundations of a home once owned by Theodore Solomons, the man who mapped what became the John Muir Trail along the crest of the Sierra. The original stone fireplace from Solomons’ house keeps her warm during the long winters of snow and solitary writing for her next book, a biography on, of course, Theodore Solomons.

Sargent insists on downplaying one aspect of her life, a rare disease that has confined her to a wheelchair since she was 14. After she graduated from Pasadena City College in 1947, she said she wanted to continue her education and applied to several universities, “but in those days it was pretty difficult for a handicapped person to get accepted.” She was finally admitted by Whittier College, but by then she was already writing and decided “the best way to learn to be a writer is to sit down and work day after day.”

She acknowledges few limits. “Tuolumne is so level that there’s a lot of places you can go in a wheelchair. You can also go by mule or horseback. Of course that’s expensive. . . . You can’t always do everything. Old people can’t do everything, either.”

Nonetheless, she’s glad the improved Tioga Road went through in 1961--although many conservationists opposed it--to ease the trip to Tuolumne Meadows, “because it means many people, the old and the infirm, can see parts of the park they would never see otherwise. Now a lot of people are just too lethargic to tackle anything more than just a stroll. I’m a firm believer in getting out of the car and seeing, reacting.”

Sargent was a nosy kid who knew she wanted to write. “I had always been curious about the past. I’d wonder who lived in some old run down farm house. And I’d go ask.” Granny Meyer, who lived in a ranch house in Big Meadow and who had first come to Yosemite in 1883, could answer. Sargent put her and the women Meyer knew about--writers, cooks, innkeepers and hell-raisers--in “Pioneers in Petticoats,” published in 1966.

Elizabeth Meyer’s life “had spanned a tremendous amount of development here,” Sargent recalls. “She was witty and she made a good subject because I knew her. She turned me on to history. I was still writing fiction, teen-age novels. One of my teen-age novels was called ‘Ranger in Skirts.’ Guess where she was located? Yosemite.”

Most kids want to be a nurse one day, a teacher the next, Sargent recalled. “I was always going to a rich, famous writer. Here I am at the age of 110,” she added with a laugh, “rich in environment, in family and friends. And a writer.”

A writer whose books (most published by Flying Spur Press, which she co-owns) sell steadily. “John Muir in Yosemite,” published in 1971, is the biggest seller, and she says her book on the Ahwahnee sells about 2,500 copies a year. Her newest is “Dear Papa,” letters between Muir and his two daughters.

Sargent is the archivist for Yosemite Park & Curry Co., now owned by MCA, the giant movie and entertainment company. She says her relationships with the concessionaire are excellent. “They weren’t always that way.” When she was younger, she says, “I was a complete rebel. . . . I used to call it the Yosemite Park & Robbery Co.”

Does MCA ownership make any difference?

“When MCA came in here in 1974, it came in like gangbusters and they renamed Degnan’s (a landmark park restaurant) the Great Yosemite Food and Beverage Co. It was really tacky, one of those city-type names. There was talk of 10-story convention centers, which I knew would never happen because the Park Service controls all that. But within a very short time they calmed way down.”

With all she knows about park hotels, a visitor tells Sargent, she could have been the Arthur Hailey of Yosemite, writing about sordid scenes in the back country. She had, after all, wanted to call “Pioneers in Petticoats” by a steamier title, “Sex in the Sierra.”

Sargent now grins at the thought. “I have a friend who’s bugging me to do a novel about Yosemite. There’s lots of drama. But I know too much about recent history. There are things of course I didn’t put in ‘Yosemite and Its Innkeepers’ that might have made it a little spicier. But I didn’t want it to be. They’d say, ‘Oh, here she comes again, digging up all the dirt.’ Sure there’s dirt anywhere you go. There are power fights wherever you go. . . . It’s not that I avoid controversy but I don’t think I want to do the Great American Novel on Yosemite.

“You have to add so much sex, so much blood and gore to appeal to readers today. There’s enough drama in the geological forces in Yosemite.”