Two Book Artists in the Footsteps of John Muir

Just a few weeks ago, the Yosemite Conservancy released a new book titled Anywhere That is Wild: John Muir's First Walk to Yosemite. Drawn to both its subject (Muir and, more broadly, American nature writing) and its beautiful design, I picked up a copy. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the book is edited by Peter and Donna Thomas, names I recognized from the book art world. We did a feature story on them back in 2011. So I reached out to the couple to find out more--and I caught them just in time, as they are about to embark on a six-week tour of libraries in the Southeast, where they will teach book arts classes and exhibit at the FL Antiquarian Book Fair (April 20-22). Peter graciously answered my questions.

RRB: How did you become involved in the making of Anywhere That is Wild?

Courtesy of Yosemite Conservancy

PT: In 2005, Donna, an avid hiker and backpacker, was inspired by the urban myth that John Muir would just grab a few bags of tea and a loaf of French bread, throw a coat over his shoulder, step out his front door and walk to Yosemite. She wondered if she could walk from Santa Cruz to Yosemite, like John Muir would have done. After a little research she learned that Muir had walked to Yosemite in 1868, but could not find anyone who knew exactly where he had walked. In fact, as far as Donna could tell, no one had ever re-walked the route of John Muir's trip to Yosemite. The possibility of being the first to do it began a yearlong historical treasure hunt, as Donna and I searched for facts and clues that would help us recreate the story of the trip and follow Muir's footsteps across California. (See:

Six months into our research, we had gathered enough information to determine his actual route. But by 2006 Muir's little dirt roads were paved roads, busy city streets and highways, definitely not the ideal trip for walking. But by that time we were committed to the idea, even if it meant walking on roads. Undeterred, Donna told me, "We will just make the best of it, take our time, go slowly, use our own 'John Muir eyes' to see California and nature the way he would have done."

Although Muir was a prolific writer, he never published a complete account of this 1868 journey, and the diary for his 1868 trip has been lost, so the details of the trip have faded time. To find Muir's exact route we had to recreate the story of his trip. We found fourteen sources--articles, books, and letters--where John Muir wrote about the trip. Each was written for a different reason and so described the trip from a different perspective. For example, in the magazine article titled "Rambles of a Botanist" Muir focused on the flora, while in his book, The Yosemite, Muir was concerned with the landscape. This gave us a rough outline of the trip, but the details were all confused. We figured the only chance we had of understanding the whole story would be to combine all the accounts into a single narrative. Using Muir's own words culled from those articles and letters, we compiled a new first-person narrative of the trip. And this story became the text in Anywhere That Is Wild: John Muir's First Walk to Yosemite.

The spring of 2018 marks the 150th Anniversary of John Muir's historic walk from San Francisco to Yosemite. To celebrate the Yosemite Conservancy decided to publish the text we had written.

The title was chosen, quoting the words of the renowned conservationist, author, and founder of the Sierra Club, when he got off a ship in San Francisco and asked for the quickest way out of town. "Where do you want to go?" he was asked, to which Muir replied, "Anywhere that is wild."

RRB: Does Muir pop up in your book art as well?

PT: The University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee is working on compiling a bibliography of our work, which should be complete later this year. It lists 160 editioned books and over 300 one of a kind. A quick search finds more than a dozen titles listing Muir as author and many for reflect his influences on our lives.

In 1868 John Muir was just another of the many thousands of hopeful immigrants and curious visitors who have arrived in California hoping to make their fortune or have the opportunity to see the natural wonders of the state. Today he is internationally recognized as founder of the Sierra Club, the man who talked President Roosevelt into making Yosemite a National Park and the father of the environmental and conservation move- ments. He is also the man on the California quarter and he is there for a good reason. Like Washington and Lincoln, he is a hero. He shows us what one person can do, and why it is important to do what you feel called to. We feel called to make books, and make them with the same passion Muir had for writing about his love of nature.

RRB: What else are you up to?

PT: We are flying to Knoxville [this week], where our truck and trailer have been parked since October. We will be spending the next 1.5 months visiting libraries and book arts classes in Georgia, Florida, and North Carolina, as part of our 40 years of making books celebration. There will be shows of our work at UCF and Emory, and we will give presentations for them. We will also have a booth at the Florida Antiquarian Book Fair. We will leave the truck and trailer in North Carolina and fly home for the summer, returning East when schools start up again in the fall.

RRB: What will you be exhibiting/presenting at the FL Antiquarian Book Fair?

PT: We will have all our books still in print on display. Many people have looked at images of them on the internet and this will be a chance to see them in person, to view, hold, and even buy one.