Curious Matters: A Tin Cup with a Story

July 23, 2015 Posted by: HG - Museum Intern
John Muir’s cup with inscription possibly added by T.P. Lukens. Lukens’ daughter donated the cup to the museum many years later.Sometimes John Muir seems like a myth. Like a fantastical Greek god that strolled the forests belaying his unquestionable wisdom upon the creatures of uncharted lands and the withered pages of his notebooks. As he trekked through the backcountry of Yosemite, he triumphantly carried "only a tin cup, a handful of tea, a loaf of bread, and a copy of Emerson." The fact that the Yosemite Museum has his tin cup in its collection has fueled accusations of hero-worship. With his quotations written in italics on the walls of most buildings in Yosemite Valley, he seems more like a prophet than a fallible traveler, a young man getting lost in the woods. But from most accounts, John Muir was shy. He was sensitive and had flaws, just like any of us. 

His tin cup reminds us of the human John Muir. Not only is it a tangible object that he carried and cleaned and tossed about in his pack, but it is a relic of a mistake. Muir left the cup behind, alongside a trail while he was camping through Hetch Hetchy in August, 1895. It was an accident. He forgot something, like everyone does. Maybe he had that feeling as he was walking onto the grass that day that he was forgetting something. Or maybe it had completely slipped his mind until he wanted a sip of hot tea the next night. Either way, we can empathize. We can feel, if only in this moment, like we understand and are equals with the fabled woodsman. In a world where Britney Spears' chewed gum sells for $14,000 on eBay, we're accustomed to sanctifying objects that have come in contact with our idols. And yes, John Muir did touch this cup. But that's not the only reason it matters. More importantly, this rusted and mundane chunk of tin grounds the legend and myth back to the reality of an imperfect and utterly human man. A man we can relate to.  

Photograph of John Muir with a cup beside him, relaxing somewhere in the Sierra. This hand-colored photograph was donated by Lukens’ daughter Helen Lukens Gaut, and may have been taken by her.

Curious Matters

5 Comments Comments icon

  1. July 29, 2015 at 10:38

    my dad and uncle left their camera behind when chased off Spence Field in the Smokies by a black bear. hikers found the camera weeks later and took selfie's with it before returning it!

  2. July 29, 2015 at 10:38

    my dad and uncle left their camera behind when chased off Spence Field in the Smokies by a black bear. hikers found the camera weeks later and took selfie's with it before returning it!

  3. July 27, 2015 at 10:24

    Having just left my camera on a shuttle bench in the park last week, this story makes me feel in good company. The beautiful vistas at every turn make it hard to be aware of yourself, let alone the stuff we carry with us. I can picture John being distracted by the changing light on the treetops and walking away forgetting his cup.

  4. July 27, 2015 at 09:40

    Growing up a country boy, from the deep South ----I never knew there was a mountain range west of the Rockies. On our first trip to the high serria at age 30- we were -- quite by chance, among the first handful of cars to drive the Tioga road the day it opened in late May. The image the Toulemne Meadow- dressed in half snow was a life changing moment. I returned home and began collecting and Internalizing what we now call our John Muir Library. We returned to Toulumne the next year, and the next, and many more times - using John Muirs writings as our guide, often seeking to follow his favorite suggestions and travels while backpacking the Yosemite high country. Muirs writings, and thinking, and inspiration coupled with Yosemite National Park, breathed a wonderful High Mountain breeze across our lives and changed the trajectory of everything that followed. My daughters now hike the mountain passes-- along with the dog they named Stickeen after Muirs Alaska hiking companion. Peace to all who drink from the mountain streams and appreciate the humble simplicity of a tin cup. Peace and Thanks to all who keep Yosemite Park, Toulumne and the Muir legacy - protected and thriving.

  5. July 26, 2015 at 09:27

    i have lived in Mammoth almost half of my life. I will be 60 in a few months. I hiked in the Sierra today, and had a wonderful picnic on a rock on the shoreline of Skeleton Lake with the woman I love. I understand the passion John Muir had for the Sierra. He was an amazing man. His memory will be here forever.

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Last updated: July 23, 2015

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