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Living and Writing in the Natural World

Through the Heart of the South: John Muir's 1867 Thousand Mile Walk

(Note: when I published my book on John Muir (Earth Wisdom) in 2016, little did I imagine he might ever stand accused of racism. When I heard of such an accusation with respect to Native Americans, I re-read the numerous biographies and all his journal entries I had consulted for my 2016 book. The results of that investigation (John Muir: Racist or Admirer of Native Americans?) were presented in a talk to the 2018 History Conference of the Eastern Sierra Interpretive Association, published as blogs on my website on January 23 and 24 of 2019, and later in the John Muir Exhibit of the Sierra Club website (sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/life/racist-or-admirer-of-native-americans-raymond-bennett.aspx).

    The same accusation of racism, now directed with respect to Blacks, especially as revealed on Muir's 1867 journey through the war-shattered South, has emerged recently.  I am now returning to the source materials once again to thoroughly and carefully investigate this new charge.  Meanwhile, my 2016 book's chapter on that journey, presented below, can serve as an initial overview of the topic, since it treats of his experiences with both Blacks and Whites.)


When in September of 1867 he scribbled "John Muir, Earth-Planet, Universe" on the opening page of his journal, Muir clearly saw his upcoming walk from Indiana to Florida's Gulf of Mexico as something special.  Even so, he could not have imagined it would spark the creation of a new way of looking at the world, a stance that a century later would provide the best hope for saving human civilization from the gravest threat of its entire history on the planet.


Muir had dropped out of the University of Wisconsin after two years, fascinated with botany and geology, but restless.  He had earlier spent months "botanizing" in Canada (prompting some in later years to accuse him of dodging the Civil War draft, a charge stoutly denied by others).  To keep himself in bread during his botanical studies, he had progressed from threshing wheat by hand in the summers, at which his strength and endurance were remarkable, to working in the country's largest carriage manufacturer, in Indianapolis. 


At this last enterprise his skill and sharp suggestions on efficiency had earned him rapid promotion and the offer of a partnership—until tragedy struck.  While tightening a machine belt with a file, the point of the file flipped and pierced his right eye, robbing him of his sight (as well as a considerable amount of aqueous humor, which he watched puddle in his palm, horrified, with his remaining eye).  Muir feared he would be blind in the injured eye, and resolved during his recuperation that he would waste no more time "on the inventions of man, and devote myself to the inventions of God," by which he meant God's creation of the natural world.


To Muir's surprise and relief, most of the sight of his eye returned within several months.  His resolve to devote himself wholeheartedly to exploring God's creation was unchanged, however, and he decided to introduce himself to the plants of the southern U.S. and then to press on to the Amazon basin.  On the second day of September, 1867, Muir walked across the bridge spanning the Ohio River from Jeffersonville, Indiana to Louisville, Kentucky, "joyful and free," he tells us in his journal.  He traversed the city without speaking a word to anyone, and on the southern outskirts spread a map before him.  "My plan was simply to push on in a general southward direction by the wildest, leafiest, and least trodden way I could find, promising the greatest extent of virgin forest…rejoicing in splendid visions of pines and palms and tropic flowers in glorious array."


Thus began a walk which would cover 1,000 miles, through Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, ending two months later with Muir flat on his back with malaria for three further months in a sawmill outside the Gulf hamlet of  Cedar Keys, Florida.  Muir traveled remarkably light: his small shoulder bag contained (beside his journal) a towel, soap, comb, brush, single change of underwear, map of the South, three slim books (Burns' Poetry, Milton's Paradise Lost, the New Testament) and one thick one (Wood's Botany, for keying out plants).  He also carried a plant press on his back, a light device of straps, wood slats, and rough-paper sheets with which to flatten and dry the many plants he collected, and periodically sent to his brother in Wisconsin for keeping. 


Though this luggage seems singularly light to us, in fact it was more than Muir would carry on his subsequent rambles throughout the length of California's Sierra Nevada mountains, where his ever-present journal, a box of matches, and several loaves of bread typically comprised his entire load, disdaining even a blanket or overcoat.


True to his resolve to immerse himself in the forests of the South, Muir avoided towns, passing through only 22 his entire journey.  He spent roughly half his nights indoors, in the attics of taverns or spare rooms of scattered farmhouses.  The remainder of his nights were spent on the ground under the stars, with mosquitoes buzzing around him and beetles scurrying over his limbs.  Food was many times given freely to him, usually cornbread and bacon, sometimes after suspicious questioning.    But hunger was never far from Muir, and often enough desperately present.  He averaged about 25 miles per day, though one day in Georgia, he writes, he "traveled to-day more than forty miles without dinner (lunch) or supper.  No family would receive me, so I had to push on to Augusta."


Muir's principal object in his thousand-mile walk was encountering the forests and plants of the South.  Here he was not disappointed.  "Far the grandest of all Kentucky plants are her noble oaks," he proclaimed early on. "They are the master existences of her exuberant forests. Here is the Eden, the paradise of oaks."


In the Cumberland mountains of Tennessee, Muir observes "There is nothing more eloquent in Nature than a mountain stream, and this is the first I ever saw. Its banks are luxuriantly peopled with rare and lovely flowers and overarching trees, making one of Nature's coolest and most hospitable places. Every tree, every flower, every ripple and eddy of this lovely stream seemed solemnly to feel the presence of the great Creator…Near this steam I spent some joyous time in a grand rock-dwelling full of mosses, birds, and flowers. Most heavenly place I ever entered." 


It was in Florida that Muir most anticipated encountering new, exotic subtropical plants.  He saw his first palmetto in a grassy opening on the edge of swampy woods.  "A plain gray shaft, round as a broom-handle, and a crown of varnished channeled leaves…whether rocking and rustling in the wind or poised thoughtful and calm in the sunshine, it has a power of expression not excelled by any plant high or low that I have met in my whole walk thus far…They tell us that plants are perishable, soulless creatures, that only man is immortal, etc.; but this, I think, is something that we know very nearly nothing about. Anyhow, this palm was indescribably impressive and told me grander things than I ever got from human priest."


This first of Muir's lifetime of "saunters" was unusual in that he regularly encountered people throughout the journey.  His descriptions of the people of the South, Black and White, are perceptive and entertaining, and give A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf, his journal entries assembled by his Sierra Club friend William Frederic Bade after Muir's death, a different feel than Muir's other writings, as well as a valuable rendering of the South in the near aftermath of the Civil War. 


Muir made this walk through the heart of the South a scant two years after the cessation of formal hostilities.  The region remained wracked by the war, the economy shattered, men solitary and in bands roaming the countryside murdering travelers for food and whatever money they might carry.  Repeatedly Muir was warned by those he encountered, being assured that his life was in jeopardy.  And repeatedly Muir ignored the good advice, and set off for yet another day through the ravaged countryside.  The only danger that Muir did not face and survive was malaria, but that felled him only after he had reached the Gulf. 


Early in the trip, on a level sandstone plateau amongst desolate fields in the Cumberland mountains, Muir towards sundown came in sight of ten men watching his progress closely.  "They all were mounted on rather scrawny horses, and all wore long hair hanging down on their shoulders.  Evidently they belonged to the most irreclaimable of the guerrilla bands who, long accustomed to plunder, deplored the coming of peace…Without halting even for a moment, I advanced rapidly with long strides as though I intended to walk through the midst of them.  When I got within a rod or so I looked up in their faces and smilingly bade them 'Howdy.'  Stopping never an instant, I turned to one side and walked around them to get on the road again, and kept on without venturing to look back or betray the slightest fear of being robbed…I was not followed, however, probably because the plants projecting from my plant press made them believe that I was a poor herb doctor."


Muir's closest brush with violence came near the end of his trip, in Florida.  "In a lonely, swampy place in the woods, I met a large, muscular, brawny young negro, who eyed me with glaring, wistful curiosity…He inquired where I came from, where I was going, and what brought me to such a wild country, where I was liable to be robbed, and perhaps killed.  'Oh, I am not afraid of any one robbing me,' I said, 'for I don't carry anything worth stealing.'  'Yes,' said he, 'but you can't travel without money.' 


"I started to walk on, but he blocked my way.  Then I noticed that he was trembling, and it flashed upon me all at once that he was thinking of knocking me down in order to rob me.  After glaring at my pockets as if searching for weapons, he stammered in a quavering voice 'Do you carry shooting-irons?'  His motives, which I ought to have noted sooner, now were apparent to me.  Though I had no pistol, I instinctively threw my hand back to my pistol pocket and, with my eyes fixed on his, I marched up close to him and said, 'I allow people to find out if I am armed or not.'  Then he quailed, stepped aside, and allowed me to pass, for fear of being shot.  This was evidently a narrow escape."


Muir navigated the inherent dangers of solitary travel in the immediate post-war South through luck, bravado, and a strict prohibition of camp fires in his many nights in the open, so as not to advertise his presence to "prowling mischief makers."  He was conscientious, though, to note the numerous instances of generosity and kindness to him by both Whites and Blacks.  On 6 September, Muir "Overtook an old negro driving an ox team. Rode with him a few miles and had some interesting chat concerning war, wild fruits of the woods, et cetera…I asked him if he would like a renewal of these sad war times, when his flexible face suddenly calmed, and he said with intense earnestness, 'Oh, Lo'd, want no mo wa, Lo'd no.'  Many of these Kentucky negroes are shrewd and intelligent, and when warmed upon a subject that interests them, are eloquent in no mean degree."


Regarding the White folks he met, Muir praises their courtesy but does not overlook the common prejudice towards Blacks.  He comments on "that open, unconstrained cordiality which is characteristic of the better class of Southern people." In Georgia, he "was received at the house of Dr. Perkins…Heard long recitals of war happenings, discussion of the slave question, and Northern politics; a thoroughly characteristic Southern family, refined in manners and kind, but immovably prejudiced on everything connected with slavery."


Despite the bleakness of the landscape and society, Muir was ever ready to appreciate the humor in a situation.  In the Cumberland mountains, after much back-and-forth amongst "roads (which) never seem to proceed with any fixed purpose, but wander as if lost," Muir "reached the house of a negro driver, with whom I put up for the night. Received a good deal of knowledge which may be of use should I ever be a negro teamster."


And "In Murphy (North Carolina) I was hailed by the sheriff who could not determine by my colors and rigging to what country or craft I belonged. Since the war, every other stranger in these lonely parts is supposed to be a criminal, and all are objects of curiosity or apprehensive concern. After a few minutes' conversation with this chief man of Murphy I was pronounced harmless, and invited to his house, where for the first time since leaving home I found a house decked with flowers and vines, clean within and without, and stamped with the comforts of culture and refinement in all its arrangements."


Accustomed as he was to the hard-working, tidy immigrant community of his youth in Wisconsin, to which his family had emigrated from Scotland when he was twelve years old, Muir's frequent encounters with back-country living in the South, particularly in the mountains, did not impress him.


"All the machines of Kentucky and Tennessee are far behind the age," he observes.  "There is scarce a trace of that restless spirit of speculation and invention so characteristic of the North. But one way of doing things obtains here, as if laws had been passed making attempts at improvement a crime…This is the most primitive country I have seen, primitive in everything. The remotest hidden parts of Wisconsin are far in advance of the mountain regions of Tennessee and North Carolina.".  He recounts a philosopher in the Kentucky hills mocking the uppity ways of an ambitious neighbor:  "'There's a place back heah,' said my worthy entertainer, 'whar there's a mill-house, an' a store-house, an' a still-house, an' a spring-house, an' a blacksmith shop—all in the same yard!  Cows too, an' heaps of big gals a-milkin' them.'" Such a thing!


Given his time amongst such places and peoples, Muir particularly relished his days in the natural beauty of trees and streams.  Describing Bonaventure Graveyard outside Savannah, Muir observes that "You hear the song of birds, cross a small stream, and are with Nature in the grand old forest graveyard, so beautiful that almost any sensible person would choose to dwell here with the dead rather than with the lazy, disorderly living."


Muir's low point on his thousand-mile walk occurred in Savannah.  He arrived with a dollar and a half in his pocket, and eagerly checked the post office for an expected money draft from his brother—it had not arrived.  "Feel dreadfully lonesome and poor. Went to the meanest looking lodging-house that I could find, on account of its cheapness."  The money package did not arrive the next day, nor the four next days.  Muir could not afford even the "meanest looking" hostel again, and had noted numerous menacing bands of ex-slaves checking out travelers in the city and its environs.  Where to sleep with reasonable expectation of avoiding robbery or worse?  He hit upon the Bonaventure Graveyard outside of town, where "no superstitious prowling mischief maker dares venture for fear of haunting ghosts."


The graveyard was Muir's resting place for five nights, where "On rising (in the morning) I found that my head had been resting on a grave, and though my sleep had not been quite so sound as that of the person below, I arose refreshed, and looking about me, the morning sunbeams pouring through the oaks and gardens dripping with dew, the beauty displayed was so glorious and exhilarating that hunger and care seemed only a dream." 


After several days subsisting on a few crackers in the morning and evening, though, Muir became weak and dizzy.  Unable to secure employment of any sort in the town, he would trudge from graveyard to post office each morning, only to be disappointed.  By the sixth morning, he was hallucinating. "I was becoming faint, and in making the journey to the town was alarmed to find myself growing staggery and giddy.  The ground ahead seemed to be rising up in front of me, and the little streams in the ditches on the sides of the road seemed to be flowing up hill.  Then I realized that I was becoming dangerously hungry." 


Finally the funds arrived.  "Gladly I pocketed my money, and had not gone along the street more than a few rods before I met a very large negro woman with a tray of gingerbread, in which I immediately invested some of my new wealth, and walked rejoicingly, munching along the street, making no attempt to conceal the pleasure I had in eating.  Then, still hunting for more food, I found a sort of eating-place in a market and had a large regular meal on top of the gingerbread!  Thus my 'marching through Georgia' terminated handsomely in a jubilee of bread."


Muir had originally planned to press on from the Gulf of Mexico to South America, forge Humboldt-like through the tropical forest to a tributary of the Amazon, and raft down the great river's entire length.  Muir himself in later years acknowledged that the idea was foolish; fortunately he was not able to find a ship to take him to South America, and settled instead on California, to see the Sierra Nevada's recently discovered Yosemite Valley. Muir more than reached his botanical goals on his thousand mile walk through the South, as he encountered, keyed, pressed and collected hundreds of new plants, reveling in their splendor. 


Reading Muir's journal entries during the ramble, one is struck by two things.  First, of course, is how foolish Muir was to trudge solitary through the American South but two years after the devastation of the Civil War.  Indeed, by his own account he was frequently in real danger of his life.  Only luck and his steely courage in tight situations brought him through.


Second, one is struck by how winning Muir's ways were with the vast majority of the people he met, White and Black.  With the Blacks, he is usually freely given food and lodging and enjoys the company.  With the Whites, sometimes the same is the case, though often there is initial refusal and considerable questioning and conversation before his acceptance.  This ability of Muir to attract and "win over" his fellows was a constant throughout his life, from post-bellum South to, later, the salons of San Francisco, New York, and London. 


That there were limits to Muir's likability and luck is clear, though.  The marauding bands of Whites and Blacks, thick in all the lands he traversed, were immune to Muir's charm.  He recognized this and avoided the dangers, for the most part, by eschewing camp fires, sleeping in a graveyard, and brazenly bluffing his way through the threat if all else failed. 


His journal entries reveal that the experience of wandering freely through new lands and societies, often braving danger, hunger, and loneliness, opened Muir to perspectives and possibilities not previously considered in his 29 years of life.  To a worldview, indeed, not previously well-explored anywhere in the West. 


In Muir's journal of this thousand-mile walk we find startling observations and thoughts regarding death, the nature of creation, the rights and roles of alligators, the place of humans in the world, and man's curious concept of God as "a civilized, law-abiding gentleman in favor either of a republican form of government or a limited monarchy."  


We will consider these radical, new views in later chapters.  Suffice it for now to note that his long ramble to the Gulf opened Muir's eyes and his mind, and took him a giant first step toward a way of viewing the world unknown in the Western tradition beyond hints and anomalies.  A way of viewing the world that would, over a century later, provide a ray of hope to rescue the human enterprise from an existential danger it was signally failing to resolve.



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