Working vacations–in 1903

Much has been made in recent years about how attached to the office many workers are, with expectations of checking email and texts and such not even while on vacation. Its not even clear Americans know how to go on vacation anymore (when working in New Zealand some years back and getting to know a number of Kiwis, some of whom worked in meeting with tourists, it was said that the most uptight, demanding and annoying tourists were either Americans or Israelis; the most relaxed and easygoing were the Aussies).

So a quick visit to the past is in order.  Consider the 1903 Sierra Club High Trip, which, in retrospect, is sort of an odd combination of a wilderness backpack and a cruise. The trip lasted four weeks, with more than 200 participants. The party rode stages to Mineral King and then walked over Farewell Gap and Coyote Pass to reach the Kern River near the Kern Canyon Ranger station.  Camp was set up on private land that would later host the Lewis Camp backcountry store and tent-hotel, a site now reduced to some pounded down coarse sand near the century-old ranger station. The 30,000 pounds of gear for this group came on mules over the same trails.  A group of cooks were employed (dominantly Chinese) and there was a commissary, where Sierra Clubbers lined up to get their drinks, bread, soup and meat.  After their meal, they would gather around a bonfire for camp songs and to hear a lecture from one of the members of the party. It wasn’t all cushy: the High Trippers slept in sleeping bags that were, often, just that: canvas bags surrounding their blankets.

A major attraction of the trip was to climb Mt. Whitney; most of the party took a roughly week long sojourn up to Crabtree Meadow and on up to Whitney.  Otherwise the vacationers would fish or take day hikes or just enjoy the vicinity of camp.  There was a postal run that came and went a few times by mule, but by and large the group enjoyed their time with little regard for the outside world.

It is hard to imagine taking a month off for most of us in this day and age.

But there were some on a working vacation even then.  Andrew Lawson, professor at Berkeley, and Grove Karl Gilbert, a noted scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, had never been to the southern Sierra before participating in this trip (Gilbert had never travelled within the range to that point; it is unclear if Lawson had either).  The two men spent considerable time geologizing about the area, taking notes about aspects of the landscape that they found interesting.  Gilbert was fascinated by specific evidence of glacial action, granite jointing and erosion, and the large expanses of exposed and unweathered granite.  Lawson’s notes are a bit sketchier but seemed more focused on the overall shape of the landscape, including the development of the Kern Canyon.

"Stream meanders, Volcano Creek, Tulare County, California. 1903." from GK Gilbert photos collection, USGS. Andrew Lawson is in foreground; the two were considering the gentle high topography of the region.

“Stream meanders, Volcano Creek, Tulare County, California. 1903.” from GK Gilbert photos collection, USGS. Andrew Lawson is in foreground; the two were considering the gentle high topography of the region. View is over Big Whitney Meadow; a nearly identical modern photo is online in a hike blog. The meadow’s name was because the creek was originally Whitney Creek; the name was moved after Clarence King’s mistaken climb of the wrong peak was identified. Volcano Creek was not accepted as a replacement name, and the creek is now known as Golden Trout Creek.

The photos and notes formed the basis for a paper that Lawson wrote (with some further input from Gilbert) that was published in 1904 (“The Geomorphogeny of the Upper Kern Basin,” Bull. Dept. Geol. Univ. Calif., v 3 , pp. 291-376).  A few others on the trip were also working at times: Joseph N. LeConte, for instance, was scouting Mt. Whitney as a possible site for meteorological studies (a few years later, an observatory was built on the summit for an attempt to measure water vapor in the Martian atmosphere; the building remains to this day).

This illustrates a few things: that vacations used to be vacations, not hurried tours of checklist items, that geologists are not really on vacation so long as there is some geology to see, and maybe if we are to have working vacations, geological versions are maybe the best kind to have.

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