Place  /  Biography

Jews in the Wilderness

One man's role in shaping the nation's best-loved long-distance footpath reminds us of the close bonds that Jews have formed with the North American landscape.

Like his forebears, his intrepid siblings, and a host of other confident and adventurous young Jews loosed in the land of opportunity, Theodore Solomons knew what he was doing, even when he didn’t know exactly where he was going. Late in his life, Solomons recounted that the dream of walking the length of the High Sierra had first come to him in the summer of 1884 (a year after his bar mitzvah) while he was out “herding [his] uncle’s cattle in an immense unfenced alfalfa field.” In an essay that he published in the February 1940 edition of The Sierra Club Bulletin, he tried to recapture the moment in which it had come to him. “The Holsteins were quietly feeding,” he wrote, “and I sat on my unsaddled bronco facing east and gazing in utter fascination at the most beautiful and the most mysterious sight I had ever seen.” Mesmerized by the “flashing teeth of the Sierra crest,” Solomons projected himself eastward and upward: “I could see myself in the immensity of that uplifted world, an atom moving along just below the white, crawling from one to the other end of that horizon of high enchantment.”

When Solomons reached the age of 18, with no educational or career goal otherwise occupying or distracting him from his love of the mountains, he made his first trip to Lake Tahoe. His family was hardly thrilled at this fairly unconventional choice of pastime. By the early 1890s, however, his father had died, his siblings had already launched their careers, and his mother, Hannah Marks Solomons—she, too, was lineally connected to a storied early Jewish American clan—had made her peace with his quirky interests. While the family had once known and would eventually regain financial prominence, the period of Solomons’ early manhood coincided with a decadelong downturn in their fortunes. Theodore funded most of his youthful mountain ventures through extended stints as a court stenographer.

By the time that he and Ernest Bonner were preparing for their July 1895 expedition, Solomons had spent the better part of three summers hiking through (and, on a few occasions, barely surviving) the rigors of the Sierras. He had thoroughly explored Yosemite’s Tuolumne Valley and had also ventured southward from there to the lesser-known area surrounding Mount Ritter, Banner Peak, and the Minarets (all three mountains now comprise a large portion of the Ansel Adams Wilderness). He had bagged peaks, glissaded down glaciers, subsisted for days at a stretch on berries and mule meat, and been pre-hypothermic more times than he could count. On most of these trips, he, his friends, and his pack animals lugged a large camera, tripod, and several pounds’ worth of glass plates along with them. The archives at Berkeley’s Bancroft Library contain 250 of Solomons’ photographs of the Sierras, all of which he took between 1892 and 1896.