Botanizing and philosophizing from Kentucky to Cuba
Muir departed from Indianapolis on September 1, 1867. Taking a train to the Ohio River, he began his epic walk in Kentucky. His ambles would subsequently take him through Tennessee, Georgia, and Florida before boarding a boat to Cuba. Muir had dreams of going all the way to South America and trekking through the jungles of the Orinoco and the Amazon, but illness and poverty drove him to reconsider. Even without reaching that ultimate goal, however, he accomplished an adventure to be proud of. Muir occasionally received packets of money sent by his brother, but for the most part he roughed it and traveled very frugally, often sleeping in the open or relying on the kindness of strangers for a meal or lodging. During his travels through the American South, Muir enjoyed the hospitality of both White and Black families, gaining him a unique perspective on social conditions in the region immediately following the Civil War. This book is also unusual in that in addition to nature writing it also relates Muir’s experiences of urban settings like Havana and New York.
The posthumous assembly of A Thousand-Mile Walk does have its disadvantages. If Muir had deliberately written a book on this period of his life, it would no doubt have proved a more satisfying narrative. Being compiled from journals and letters, the narrative does feel a bit unpolished and piecemeal compared to the eloquence of Muir’s other books. Much of the text is presented as dated entries, giving the impression that the prose is taken verbatim from Muir’s notebooks. This is a relatively short book overall, and only about two-thirds of it actually pertains to Muir’s thousand-mile walk. The last few chapters recount a nautical voyage to New York City and another to California. Like personal journals often do, the book ends at an arbitrary point, presumably having exhausted his writings up to the point at which My First Summer in the Sierra begins.
Despite the cobbled together feeling, however, there are really some fantastic passages in A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf, particularly when Muir turns away from the natural beauty before his eyes and holds forth on his person environmental ethic, theories of ecology, and philosophy of animal equality over anthropocentrism. Muir’s observations of nature, in this case mostly of plants, are pleasant to read, but it’s when he looks beyond the trees for the forest and expounds on the big picture of man, nature, and the universe that this book really ascends to a profound and inspiring statement. My Boyhood and Youth is a better written book, but A Thousand-Mile Walk is certainly a worthwhile read. Readers with an ardent sense of wanderlust will both envy and enjoy Muir’s cross-continental nature walk.
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