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Ode to Muir: Jeremy Jones, Elena Hight, and the Legacy of Conservation

Story by Sam Morse

I am losing precious days.

I am degenerating into a machine for making money. 

I am learning nothing from this trivial world of men. 

I must break away and get into the mountains to learn the news. 
- John Muir

The Poet’s Fight

Taking his first steps under the granite monoliths of Yosemite Valley, John Muir’s spirit soared at the sights rearing high above. The year was 1868, and in many ways, the wandering Scotsman was enjoying a second life — borrowed time — and justly, his heart was filled with gratitude.

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Three years earlier, an industrial accident had left him blinded, and for six weeks, he sat in a dark room, unsure if he’d ever be able to see again. Slowly, his vision returned, and with his regained sight also came an emerging sense of his life’s purpose. He would later write that recovering from the accident had caused him to at last "be true to [himself]” and pursue his passion for the natural world with a fierce and reckless abandon.

That first visit to the Sierra deeply affected Muir, and he soon built himself a small cabin over Yosemite Creek where he lived for several years writing prose dedicated to spreading the good tidings of the West. His words — scribed under the glacial walls of Yosemite — won renown, and nowadays we regard those works of creation as pivotal to the start of America’s environmental movement and national parks system.

  

But in his own time, Muir was just another artistic wanderer, a pilgrim of the natural world, the original dirtbag, on a search for fresh air and a reprieve from the modernity that had begun to starve his hungry, unquenchable spirit.

He fought depression, anxiety, homelessness, and all the ailments that we commonly associate with being human — not with a legend out of the history books. The wilderness, mountains, flowers and breath of the forests soothed his soul and gave him peace.

He fought battles that are still common today. Titans of industry clove through the ancient western forests. Vast herds of livestock, like clouds of locust, ate the land clean. Muir bore witness to the defilement and mourned what the world was losing. In response, he used his words to kindle the hearts and passions of those who would listen and fight for the sanctity of the natural world. If you enjoy national parks, or public lands, you owe him a debt of gratitude.

Today, the battles have changed, but the war remains the same. Each year, the Earth gets hotter, wildfires ravage the West, biblical storms grow more severe and the forces of industry continue to grind and prey on the apathy of civilization.

“No right way is easy in this world,” Muir wrote. “The battle for conservation must go on endlessly. It is part of the universal warfare between right and wrong. The gross heathenism of civilization has generally destroyed nature, and poetry, and all that is spiritual. We must risk our lives to save them.”

It's the slow things, the waiting, the watching, and the learning that Jeremy Jones treasures in a backcountry experience.

The Happy Warrior

Centuries later and a technological age away, snowboarder and environmentalist Jeremy Jones picks up where John Muir left off in his landmark film with Teton Gravity Research, Ode To Muir, in which he traverses the High Sierra with Olympic snowboarder Elena Hight.

Of course, hundreds of years separate Muir and Jones, but both hold the Sierra as a muse, a life-defining love that catalyzes their respective mediums. As a consummate poet, Muir harnessed the written word to get Americans into the wilderness, while Jones’ vessel of engagement has been through his snowboarding filmography and environmental advocacy with his climate organization, Protect Our Winters.

“The purpose of [Ode To Muir], of all my films, is what I call Eco 101: To inspire people to get outside. You’ve first gotta get into nature — to fall in love with nature — to want to protect nature,” Jones says of what is quickly becoming his life’s work.

Jones’ fondness for Muir’s work began about 15 years ago when he placed a sticker on one of his boards with the iconic Muir quote, “The Mountains Are Calling, and I Must Go.” Ever since, Jones has carried a copy of Muir’s writings (My First Summer in the Sierra, Wilderness Essays) on most, if not all of his extended backcountry trips. “Reading his work on these trips really adds another dimension to the mountains and makes me see things that I’ve never seen before. … It makes me see the land in a different light,” Jones says.

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Eventually, his love of Muir’s writing and environmental message resonated to the point that he felt compelled to direct an environmental snowboarding film for Teton Gravity Research, culminating in Ode To Muir.

The film — which Jones says is the most important he’s ever created — comes at a pivotal time in our nation’s history. With generation-defining elections coming this fall and dark money and political gerrymandering corrupting our electoral processes, Ode To Muir is set against a particularly dark backdrop.

Originally, Jones wanted his TGR trilogy Deeper/Further/Higher trilogy to have an environmental message, but he was worried about hijacking his audience. Around the same time, he began exploring the High Sierra more, and sought to film, but “failed miserably.” Once Higher was done, he went all in on exploring the Sierra and figuring out how to get further and further back into the range into areas that see less traffic. Slowly, he figured out the logistics to get cameras out there.

“I always felt that an environmental film should take place in my backyard,” Jones explains. “Ultimately, it comes down to, what’s getting me into the mountains everyday? What’s getting me out of bed without an alarm clock? And it turns out it was these hiking missions. So, I started having these goals to do an AK camping trip, but the film companies were not into it. And I was like: ‘Well, I’m making a movie and we’re doing it on foot.’ ” Fast forward several years, and Jones — along with the aid of a talented supporting crew — has realized his dream of producing a foot-powered, environmental snowboarding movie.

During the film, Jones often sounds off on the struggles of our times, decrying the absence of politicians from the outdoors and the way in which science has been called into question in our current atmosphere. “The most terrifying thing is the attack on science,” he laments. “That is really dangerous for society — painting science as a hoax. For humanity, disregarding science is a really dangerous trend.”

Take a moment, or three, to soak it all in.

While following Jones and Hight through the Sierra, the narrative tackles California’s water shortage, agricultural challenges, wildfire intensity and how climate change plays into and exacerbates each of those issues. But on an even deeper level, Ode To Muir contemplates the relationship between man and nature and the ways in which humanity relies on the natural world for mental health and physical survival.

“He was writing during the time of westward expansion,” Jones explains of his philosophical forbear. “Everything was looked at like: ‘There’s this huge forest, and there’s so much timber and we can cut it all down and send it back east.’ Land at the time was looked at as a resource to be pillaged. Muir introduced the idea that these resources were precious, but for the soul, and that we need to protect that.”

Reaching a New Hight

Muir often wrote about the aesthetic beauty of the outdoors, but he also argued that immersion in the natural world is essential for the health of mind and spirit. Confined to urban landscapes, detached from the timelessness of nature, Muir believed that the human soul loses itself, grows stagnant and must seek out wild places to be “rid of rust and disease.”

He wrote: 

“Few places in this world are more dangerous than home — fear not, therefore, to try the mountain passes. They will kill care, save you from deadly apathy, and call forth every faculty into vigorous, enthusiastic action.”

Shadowing Jeremy Jones during the filming of Ode To Muir — high over the Sierra —these words took on a special meaning for Elena Hight. For most of her adult life, Hight, now 28, chased her dream of becoming an Olympic snowboarding champion. Her first competitive event was when she was 13, and from that point onward, her life was driven by the fire of competition and the will to succeed. “I got put on the pro circuit and never looked back,” she remembers.

In 2006, at 16, Hight accomplished one of her long-term goals and went to the Winter Olympics, where she placed sixth. In 2010, she placed tenth. But in 2014, she missed the Games entirely.

In 2018, she again didn’t qualify.

Sharing his experiences with others, especially ones as accomplished as Elena Hight, is part of the process for Jones.

Having spent 15 years — more than half of her life — dedicated to this one pursuit, and then have it taken off the table, was devastating.

Over the years, the grind of competition had begun to corrupt the sport she’d grown up loving in South Lake Tahoe. Turning her childhood passion into a career had robbed her of the pure joy associated with the pursuit. She was no longer snowboarding purely for fun, so eventually, it stopped being as enjoyable.

“I felt the highest highs, but also the lowest lows,” she admits. 

"As a competitive person, I’ve always felt there’s never an end. There’s always another event to be won, the next biggest thing to be done. And that has really shaped my snowboarding and motivation for a really long time.”

So, when she came up short of the 2018 Games, she was shattered, wondering what all the blood, sweat and tears had amounted to. It was in the midst of this depression that she was approached by Jeremy Jones. He suggested she join him on a foot-powered film project traversing the High Sierra.

“It’ll be good for you” he told her.

She had never been winter camping, but accepted anyway, because, when Jeremy Jones asks you to go snowboarding, you say yes.

A day into the trip, her mind was still racing — not making the Olympics, insecurities, the little failures — the demons filled her mind, and refused to let go.

But after a couple days, the stress lifted. “All I was focusing on was the moment at hand,” she recalls, “the mountain we’re going to ride, where we’re sleeping, where we’re going to get water, learning from Jeremy. It was really wild to go from something that was so life shaking — that sense of failure — to having that go away so quickly. Even after having had time to deal with it, it was almost instant.

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She was quickly learning that, unlike society, the mountains didn't give a shit. The trees didn’t notice that she hadn’t won a gold medal. The streams took no mind of her Instagram followers, and the breeze and moon paid no heed to her pain.

The Earth was indifferent to the stories she was telling herself.

“It’s less of an escape, and more of a connection,” she says of her healing experience in the mountains filming Ode To Muir. “I discovered that our day-to-day lives — being so connected to our world, our feeds and what everyone else is doing — is really creating this huge disconnect between human existence and the natural world."

Eco 101

The connection Elena experienced — the release from her anxiety— was a major undercurrent that guided Muir’s life. The same wisdom is fundamental to Jones’ Eco 101 philosophy, that once a human experiences the healing potential of nature, they’ll want to protect it.

Modern society, laden with smart phones and Instagram and “social” networks that leave people more isolated than connected, needs the medicine of the natural world more than ever. Despite the challenges of the 21st century — a warming climate and digital isolation — Jones remains ever-optimistic, what English poet William Wordsworth once called the Happy Warrior, understanding the magnitude of his fight, but fighting anyway, finding meaning and beauty in the struggle.

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“The pendulum goes both ways,” Jones says of the conflict Muir began in the 1870s. “Of course, we’ve gotten more addicted to phones and the digital stuff. But the upside is, I do believe that more and more people are getting outside. And ironically, social media might play a big factor in that. I joke about it, but nobody wants to see you going to Home Depot on Saturday, they want to see the post where you’re raging at Squaw Valley.”

When discussing his expectations for Ode To Muir, Jones is hopeful, but realistic. Unlike almost any other ski or snowboarding film, the pace is mellow, the snow is average, and delightfully, there’s a beginning, middle and end. In many ways, watching Ode To Muir is similar to actually being on a long tour in the backcountry: long bouts of gentle, ponderous contemplation, accentuated by brief bursts of thrill and excitement.

And Jones knows it’ll piss some people off. He understands his work as a climate activist and environmental advocate anger certain demographics, but at this point, he’s willing to take the heat for the sake of the cause he believes in, hopefully in the process inspiring more Americans to fall in love with nature. “I’ve never made a film remotely like this. It’s real. It’s honest. It’s who I am and what I’m doing with my snowboarding.”

“I don’t know if it’s the best film I’ve done,” he continues, “but it’s easily the most important.”