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Muir immortalized in performance

Jeff Munson, Tribune city editor

The spirit and passions of turn-of-the-century naturalist John Muir will return Thursday in an acclaimed one-man show, “Vagabond John,” at the U.S. Forest Service Lake of the Sky Amphitheater.

The transcendentalist whom many call the first environmentalist of the Sierra Nevada, and whose journey from Ohio to California in the 1880s is chronicled in hundreds of letters and essays, is played by accomplished stage actor Bill Ritch of Sacramento.

“The life of John Muir is as deeply fascinating as is his love of the Sierra,” Ritch said. “When you come to read him, you are stunned by Muir’s connection with his own personal freedom and the exuberance for life.”



The presentation, which begins at 7 p.m. is part of the Forest Service Tales from Taylor Creek summer program. The amphitheater is located 3.5 miles north of the South Lake Tahoe “Y” on Highway 89, just past historic Camp Richardson.

The setting at the amphitheater lends itself to Muir’s time, place and spirit, Ritch said.



“Of course the Sierra has changed dramatically over the years, but, still, you can walk out and look up at the mountains, and see what he saw.”

The play, first presented at Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival and later in London and New York, reveals the naturalist’s love of the mountains and his personal struggle to remain true to his heart.

Using some of Muir’s most famous passages from essays, Ritch was able to weave an hourlong story of those personal struggles, including people close to him who wanted him to leave the wilderness behind and live a more civilized life.

“For John Muir, you really get the sense that he found himself and was the most comfortable with himself in the wilderness,” Ritch said.

In fact, Muir purists will tell you that his essays, which were collected for books, compared with the books he wrote for a publisher, are vastly different.

“I read one of his books. I thought I was reading someone else,” Ritch said.

Identifying with Muir and his appetite for freedom is what brought Ritch realization that Muir’s work touched a nerve within himself.

As a decorated Vietnam War veteran who retired in 1985 from the U.S. Army as a major, and later taught military science at UC Davis, Ritch found himself unfulfilled in some areas of his life.

He wanted to take it to another level.

He founded the “Theater of the Heart” in northern Scotland, the boyhood home of Muir. The theater uses techniques that blend arts with spirituality. After spending two years in Scotland, Ritch returned to America to take his Muir show on the road, where he has been performing it since 1997.

This year, having spent part of the summer in Bali studying dance and theater, and as an assistant director for a Minneapolis theater troupe, Ritch has brought back “Vagabond John” with a fresher perspective.

“I think the audience will really connect,” Ritch said. “I’ve added some new dimensions I think many people will find inspiring.”

The Forest Service and the Tahoe Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports environmental education programs conducted in the Tahoe Basin, is sponsoring Thursday’s program.

Proceeds from the event will be used for future environmental education programs. The cost is $5 for adults and $3 for children.


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