Rants from the Hill: Will the real fake John Muir please stand up?

Searching for authentic identity in Chautauqua season.


Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of western Nevada’s Great Basin Desert.

Now that Chautauqua season is nearly upon us I feel compelled to rant about this bizarre cultural practice, which Teddy Roosevelt once called “the most American thing in America”—never mind that this honor obviously deserves to be shared by baseball, blues, and bourbon. Chautauqua is defined by its practitioners as “a public humanities educational event in which scholars portray historical characters.” A more helpful definition was offered by our seven-year-old daughter, Caroline: “it’s when grownups play dress-up and act like dead people they really like in a tent.” It remains unclear to me why a form of education intended to be accessible to the entire community was given a name that even sober people can’t pronounce, much less spell. I am also troubled that Chautauqua is described as “living history,” a term every bit as logical as “congressional action,” “industrial park,” “clean coal,” “serious comic,” “adult male,” “true story,” and, in honor of this Rant, “act naturally.”

I am uncomfortable with Civil War reenactors, department store Santas, and Chautauquans, all of whom I suspect of being not only impostors, but also drunkards and pedophiles. That said, I agree with Chautauqua’s core presumption, which is that anything is better than reading a history textbook. Given the choice between a scholarly tome and a lawn chair and a cooler of IPAs, the decision to support Chautauqua isn’t so difficult after all. And if the concept is, as I understand it, to trick benighted Americans into learning something meaningful about our country’s past by seating us in the shade of a tent in a park and letting us drink beer, well then I’m all in.

My favorite thing about Chautauqua is that, like other entertaining spectator sports, it can go off the rails in a heartbeat. The source of this peril is the fact that folks in attendance at the event are permitted to ask questions of the performers, who are obliged to answer while remaining in character. I once saw a Chautauqua performance of Henry David Thoreau in which the would-be Transcendentalist was excoriated by an older woman for supposedly failing to do his own laundry. “Get a job, you bum!” she yelled at the hapless Thoreau. I’ve seen FDR interrogated about repealing Obamacare, Harriet Tubman asked when the Underground Railroad to California was completed, Christopher Columbus exhorted to condemn the team name “Redskins,” and Mae West called out on her claim to have been Snow White before she drifted (“That just seems confusing,” observed the earnest young woman from the audience). I’ve even seen Will Rogers verbally abused because of his “obviously entirely super false claim” to have never met a man he didn’t like. I should add that the inquisitor in this case was such a bloviating asshat that his behavior went a fair piece toward making his point.

My buddy David Fenimore, who is the most gifted of the one Chautauquans ever to visit the Ranting Hill, has stories that last until the last bottle is empty. Once, while portraying gold baron John Sutter, David’s audience included a drunk guy dressed up like a Forty-Niner—a “One-Eyed Snaggle-Toothed Shaggy-Haired Hillbilly” who pulled a wagonload of pickaxes and gunny sacks behind him and shouted “Kick mah mule!” throughout the performance. On another occasion David was playing Woody Guthrie to an appreciative crowd when a lady in a wheelchair rolled herself up to the stage and began loudly accusing him of being “a damned communist!” Imagine spending months studying every detail of a fascinating life—David preps by memorizing 1,000 5x7 cards with facts related to his character—and then being hollered at by a drunk miner and a handicapped libertarian. Now that is public education in the New West.

Known Chautauquan and suspected communist David Fenimore portraying Woody Guthrie.
Photo by Marianne M. Porter

In some instances the folks doing the portraying are every bit as batty as those on the receiving end of the performance. David related a wonderful story of a local mountain man who was a self-appointed Chautauquateer. “During the week he made these giant, crappy chainsaw sculptures of bears, but every Saturday he’d come to town wearing a leather do-rag and claim to be Benjamin Franklin,” David explained. “He really looked like Franklin, too—long stockings down below, long grey hair up top, big forehead, round specs—only everything he said was pure anti-federalist tirade. No more taxation of kites, that kind of thing. Sort of a Joe Chainsaw portraying Donald Trump portraying Rush Limbaugh portraying Ben Franklin. You shoulda heard him when he got going on getting rid of the postal service.”

The approach of Chautauqua season and the fact that today is John Muir’s birthday (born in Dunbar, Scotland, April 21, 1838) remind me of a memorable run-in I once had with some fake John Muirs. Having some years ago written a book on Muir (John Muir’s Last Journey), I was making the lecture circuit, blathering at anybody who’d listen. At one point I was booked at a conference of hard-core Muirites, where I shared the program with Lee Stetson, an experienced Chautauquan who’d been commissioned to do his acclaimed performance of Muir that evening. Lee has been doing his fake Muir thing since about the time Muir died in 1914, and it is honed. He has quite simply out-Muired Muir. Lee looks like Muir, acts like Muir—he’s even got Muir’s mild Scottish brogue nailed. I’d believe him if he told me that he smells like Muir. And don’t make the mistake I made, of pulling on Lee’s long grey beard, because his face foliage is as real as Muir’s own.

The trouble started that night, at the party that was held after Lee’s truly accomplished Muir Chautauqua performance. I wasn’t selling many books, so I abandoned the signing table for the libations table, pitching my camp next to a large tub of icy Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. After a half hour of energetic elbow bending I noticed Lee across the room. He was wearing Muir’s familiar, well-worn leather vest and signature weathered hat. A crook-handled Sierra cup dangled from his hand-tooled belt, and though he faced away from me I could just make out a bit of his flowing, white beard. I drained my ale, crossed the room, and tapped him on the shoulder to congratulate him on his excellent performance. But when he turned I was surprised to discover that this was not the real fake Muir, but rather was an interloping fake fake Muir, a second-rate wannabe who apparently had his own John O’Mountains fetish.

“Who are you?” I asked.

“Waahl, Laddie, of caarse I’m none otherrr than Johnny Muirrr!” he shouted at me. I cringed at his abominable brogue, which was closer to Mike Myers’s portrayal of Fat Bastard in the Austin Powers franchise than it was to Sean Connery’s portrayal of Agent 007 in the James Bond franchise. His costume was somehow too Muiry, as if he were suited up to play the famous preservationist during a spirited evening of trick-or-treating. Plus, this cartoonish Muir was unacceptably amped-up, as John Muir might have been had he lived in the era of the Venti Triple Cinnamon Dolce Crème Frappuccino. Needless to say, I beat a hasty retreat to the beer bucket.

The Scotsman who served as dialect coach to the fake fake John Muir.

After hoisting a few more ales I glanced up and, once again, saw the fake Muir across the room. But this time I noted that the tan of his leather vest appeared darker, and his hat had a slightly different cut to it—though the Sierra cup and beard dangled just as before. I surmised that this must be the authentic fake John Muir, and so I grabbed my ale, cracked a second one for him, and once again strode across the room, this time intending both to congratulate Lee on his performance and also alert him to the presence of the impostor fake Muir. As before, I tapped him on the shoulder, but when he turned I discovered, to my horror, that this was yet another fake fake Muir, disconcertingly different from both the real fake Muir and the first fake fake Muir, and considerably less convincing than either.

I looked him dead in the eye and took a long slug of first one beer and then the other.

“And who are you?” I asked.

“Why, matie, I be the man John Muir!” he exclaimed, with an enthusiasm every bit as cloying as that displayed by the other fake fake Muir. But rather than featuring a thick brogue, this guy just sounded like he was doing a flaccid imitation of a pirate, and his costume was much worse than a Halloween get-up. He looked like a transvestite outfitted to play Muir in a burlesque show. He also wore heavy makeup, and I picked up a whiff of what seemed to be pine-scented perfume.

“OK, this won’t do at all,” I said. “Go wait by the beer bucket, happy pirate. I’ll be right back.” I combed the room until I found the first fake fake Muir, and instructed that he also adjourn to the pale ale station. Then I asked around until I located the real fake Muir, who was sitting calmly outside on the porch, chatting with a friend.

“Lee, have you seen this shit?” I interrupted at first sight of him. “This place is crawling with fake Muirs, man. They look awful and they sound worse. One of them even smells like cheap air freshener. We have to put a stop to this.” I thrust a beer his way. He thanked me, took a slow sip, and replied calmly that a proliferation of Muirs was surprisingly common. Speaking in the kindest tone imaginable, he added that he not only tolerated but even provided friendly encouragement to these bogus fake Muirs wherever he might encounter them.

Lee Stetson as John Muir.
Flickr user E. Howe.

Lee’s reply was so humane and compassionate that I paused momentarily before returning to my senses. “Nope, no, no, no, no, nope,” I said. “Absolutely not. We are not going to encourage this kind of thing. This party isn’t big enough for more than one fake Muir. Come with me.” I coaxed Lee up, and into the reception we went, where we found both of the fraudulent fake Muirs waiting, as instructed, by the ale tub.

I whistled to draw the attention of the sixty or so people at the party. “It is intolerable to have three guys walking around acting like Muir,” I declared. “We’ll settle this hot mess right now. We’re going to have a Muir-off. Side betting is allowed, but no assisting of any Muir will be permitted. The two losers must never again pretend to be a fake John Muir.” I popped open another brew and began peppering the men with questions.

“In 1866 you saw your first piece of writing published. What was its title?” I asked.

“‘A Glorrrious Saunterrr’,” guessed thick-brogued Muir.

“Be it ‘A Botanical Ramble’?” asked whitebeard the pirate.

“The Calypso Borealis,” answered Lee Stetson, quietly.

“Calypso Borealis is correct,” I said. “In 1867 you set out on a walk that took you a thousand miles from Indianapolis to the Gulf of Mexico. But what was your original destination?”

“Florrrida!” yelled broguey fake Muir, enthusiastically.

“It be Cuba!” trumped pine-scented burlesque fake Muir.

“The Amazon,” said Lee in a mild voice.

“The Amazon is correct,” I said. “And before you started on that journey you were temporarily blinded when you accidentally struck yourself in the eye with what object?” I asked.

“A scrrrewdrrriverrr,” replied Fat Bastardy fake Muir.

“It be a file,” answered crappy pirate fake Muir.

“The tang end of a file,” corrected Lee, gently.

“The tang end of a file is correct,” I confirmed. Switching my beer to my left hand in order to rest my right hand on Lee’s shoulder, I announced the verdict. “I hereby declare victorious the only guy at this party who both stabbed himself in the eye with the tang end of a file and also knows what the hell the tang end of a file is. This, my friends, is the one-and-only true, original, authentic, genuine real fake John Muir.” There followed a robust round of applause. Lee smiled graciously, without a hint of condescension.

“You there, Fat Bastard and Swashbuckling Crossdresser,” I solemnly addressed the pair of impostor fakes, “relinquish your beards.” The two men sheepishly removed their fake beards—which weren’t even glued on but rather were strapped to their faces with cheap elastic cords—and laid them down on the table. I handed each of them a beer and gave each a consoling slap on the back, which triggered a second round of applause. The crappy pirate Muir retreated honorably, and returned to the party soon after dressed like an English professor. The broguey Muir became quite drunk, strapped his fake beard back on, and claimed to be the nature writer John Burroughs.

The real John Muir, circa 1875, who only slightly resembles a fake John Burroughs.
Carleton Watkins

Of course it’s easier to rag on a Chautauquan than to be one, which is why I’m a reclusive humor writer and not a public performer of “living history.” But I am in sympathy with all those fake Muirs out there. And the counterfeit Thoreaus, Tubmans, and Twains too, the impostor Stowes and Lincolns, and the imitation communist Woody Guthries—even the do-ragged chainsaw bear sculpting libertarian fundamentalist Benjamin Franklins. Given that most of us spend a fair amount of energy pretending to be somebody we aren’t, we might as well aim high. I’d say we could do worse than to emulate the guy who kept the Wal-Mart out of Yosemite Valley. So Happy Birthday, John. Here’s a pint of Sierra Nevada in the air to the hope that we could all be a wee bittie more like you.

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