Friday, March 20, 2015

B.T. Raven - Ace Detective

About 5 years ago, I discovered a Sierra Club newsletter reprint authored by Peter Wild, who disclosed he was flummoxed by the connection between John Muir and Theodore Strong Van Dyke.

The newsletter article was dated 1995, which is the same as brand new to a researcher.

"A mountain and ice man, Muir didn't go willingly to the California desert. Rather, it was the health of daughter Helen that forced him out there in his final years. He had spent much of 1905-1906 worrying over Helen's condition and trying to find a healing climate for her respiratory problems, first in the mountains of eastern Arizona, later at the Petrified Forest in the northern part of the state. ... Helen suddenly took a turn for the worse, and Muir rushed her south to the Van Dyke Ranch, a mile east of Daggett."

"The details of why Muir chose this ranch are not entirely clear. In fact, Daggett had a particularly evil reputation," Wild wrote.
Left to right: Wanda Muir, Helen Muir, Louie Muir, John Muir at the house in Martinez

Muir's last day on this earth was spent in that desert railroad town, which still exists along a wide place in the road about 5 miles east of Barstow.

Muir was pronounced dead at Los Angeles' California Hospital on Christmas Eve, 1914,  soon after he arrived by rail, ill with pneumonia. It is possible Muir expired on the train and was pronounced dead at the hospital so the Santa Fe Railroad would not have to summon the county coroner in the dead of night.

Everyone knows Peter Wild is the premier (and only) scholar on the life of T.S. Van Dyke: Writer, naturalist, irrigator, ex-wife ducker.

The last item is how he got from San Diego to  Daggett, which was the western terminus of the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad (after that the Santa Fe railway took over the tracks and the freight).
Peter Wild about 1979

When I read that Wild did not know how Muir and Van Dyke were connected, I became very excited, because I knew the answer to this enigma: Van Dyke and Muir became associated through Theodore Parker Lukens (letter to Muir), of whom I am the premier (and only scholar). (reply from Muir)

I immediately made plans to contact Wild at the University of Arizona campus in Tucson. I knew Wild would be thrilled to solve the riddle.

Only to find out that Wild had gone to the grave in 2009, at the age of 69. Trust me, there is nothing worse than having possession of a secret, and having no one to tell it.


Wild was a great writer. A professor of English, ardent backpacker, and writer about Old West personages whom you have never heard of. His interest in the Old West had nothing to do with being rich or famous. Clearly, there is nothing better. It helps to have a reliable day job that involves 3-month unpaid holidays during the summer.

Much of Wild's writing was for the High Country News, a very eclectic journal of god-knows-what, in the gazillion square miles surrounding the Escalante Plateau.
Drawing of T.S, Van Dyke on cover of Wild's chapbook: #121 of the Western Writers series.

Wild also authored a chapbook on Van Dyke for the Western Writers series, published by the University of Boise. He also edited a book based on the papers of  Dix Van Dyke, son of Theodore, who, as an old man published a rememberence of the old days in the Barstow Printer Review newspaper before it was renamed the Desert Dispatch. I called it the Screaming Eagle, because of its idiotic banner.

What really ticks me off is that I worked for the Dispatch in the late 1980s and beyond and never knew of Van Dyke nor the demise of John Muir, right in my neighborhood. I spent a lot of time tramping the desert back then and cannot believe I missed this piece of western minutiae.

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