Wednesday, September 14, 2022

A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf by John Muir

Botanizing and philosophizing from Kentucky to Cuba
Shortly before his death in 1914, nature writer John Muir published his autobiography, The Story of My Boyhood and Youth. In that book, Muir chronicled his childhood in Scotland, his family’s emigration to America, and his life in Wisconsin up to his departure from the state around the age of 26. Then Muir spent some time in Southern Ontario before briefly settling in Indiana. While working in a wagon wheel factory, he suffered an eye injury that forced him to quit his job and rethink his life. It was this incident that inspired him to devote the rest of his life to his true love, studying nature. After a period of recovery, Muir left Indiana on a botanizing trip to find and collect plant specimens. It is here that the book A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf, published in 1916, picks up the story of Muir’s life. Compiled posthumously from Muir’s journals and letters, the book follows the course of his life up until the events covered in his memoir My First Summer in the Sierra.

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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