The same week my book Restless Fires: Young John Muir’s Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf in 1867-68 came out, my wife and I saw “Lincoln,” Spielberg’s tour-de-force from the same Civil War era. I was delighted to see the screenwriter’s reference to Lincoln’s pivotal journey at age 17. He witnessed slavery first-hand when desperate runaway slaves sought to commandeer his flat boat while on a trip down the Mississippi to New Orleans. Many historians believe his moral revulsion to slavery kicked in at this point, and led to his later passionate efforts to pass the 13th amendment to abolish slavery forever.
I became intrigued with the profound influence of such youthful travel in shaping a person’s future leadership while accompanying college students throughout Central America. For 25 years, I taught in Whitworth University’s Central America Study/Service program, which opened my eyes to the transforming impact of immersion travel. As young adults experienced the life and culture of El Salvador, Nicaragua, Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and then lived and worked alongside Honduran families for a month, travel changed them.
As I watched such students mature and contribute creative leadership to their communities as adults, I drew connections with the ways journeys influenced well-known American leaders such as Jane Addams, Frederick Douglas and John Quincy Adams. Because I’ve always loved to backpack and visit national parks, this led to investigating John Muir’s early journeys before he became the famous environmental leader we know today. After assigning his journal, A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf, while teaching a class, I longed to know more.
It became clear this commitment to become a wandering botanist gave firm roots to John Muir’s growing insights on our relationship to nature and his eloquent advocacy of preserving wilderness spaces. Later, his influential writings appeared in more than 300 articles and 12 books, inviting readers to recognize the vulnerable treasure of our mountains, rivers and forests.
One glorious autumn in 2007, I traveled the thousand-mile route that he took 140 years earlier. I also hiked the 20-mile John Muir Trail along the Hiawassee River created by the Youth Conservation Corps in 1976. It’s still possible to see first-hand “the miles and miles of beauty that has been flowing into me in such measure.” I, too, was charmed by the welcoming Kentucky oak trees, waving palms, tropic flowers, large leafed Magnolias, tumbling rocky streams, and the beauty of mountain ridges.
With Muir’s leadership as the “father of our national parks,” I shudder to imagine how different our own country would be without the sequence of events that influenced his choice to leave his successful work as an inventor and urban factory manager.
Questions abound. What if he hadn’t been temporarily blinded while operating a machine—an event that gave Muir courage to finally follow his heart to be a wandering botanist and “see God’s inventions rather than man’s?” What if he succumbed to the criticism of a farmer/blacksmith who said “picking up blossoms doesn’t seem to be a man’s work at all in any kind of times”? What if he hadn’t been broke in Savannah? Famished with hunger, this forced his stay in the vibrant Bonaventure cemetery where his journal writings left a lasting legacy of his spiritual ponderings on life and death. What if, when he collapsed feverish with malaria in Cedar Keys, the Hodgson family hadn’t rescued him and nursed him back to health for three long months? Most of all, what if he followed his life-long dream of exploring the Amazon and Africa while in frail health, instead of heading to Yosemite?
I immersed myself in the life of John Muir at a time when his inspiring writings and actions proved healing. Shortly before researching Muir, our family experienced a devastating loss with the death of our 25-year-old daughter, Krista. She was volunteering with her husband in Bolivia when their speeding bus plunged over a cliff. Her death altered the landscape of our lives. My wife and I found growing joy in tending plants and gardens on our hillside land, feeding birds, and beginning the Krista Foundation for Global Citizenship. What I discovered while accompanying Muir in his journal was his exuberant daily gratitude for creation, despite whatever trials he encountered. Living with gratitude proved empowering and I even began to keep a Gratitude Journal so that I’d be attentive to the daily miracles of life amidst the sorrow.
His invitation to Americans to treasure the wild places our souls needs likely influenced my choice to hike 74 miles of the Cascade Crest trail with my brother this past summer. However, my brother is a long-distance hiker, has traversed the entire 2,500 miles and likes to hoof it. I’m sure my sauntering pace frustrated him, but Muir taught me to savor . . . to stop and see . . . look at the lilies, the ferns of the fields. I did . . . with no apologies!
Jim Hunt grew up in Kirkland and earned his Ph.D. in history from the University of Washington. Throughout his teaching career at Whitworth University in Spokane, he traveled with students to Central America, Berlin, Washington D.C. and New York. He is co-founder with his wife, writer Linda Lawrence Hunt, of the Krista Foundation for Global Citizenship, which encourages young adults engaged in a year or more of service in America’s urban centers, developing nations or with environmental projects. Restless Fires is his first book.
Join him January 12 at 2 pm at Auntie’s Books in Spokane, or January 26 at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle at 2 pm, or at Village Books in Bellingham January 27 at 4 pm.