When you hike a trail you honor the life, the legend, the man, the beard: John Muir himself.
“This great Scottish-American conservationist can be considered the father of our National Parks, and founder of the modern environmental movement. More than anything, though, he loved a walk in the woods.”
So speaks the trail sign on my family’s newest walking path, The John Muir Trail, in our new home-park—Van Cortlandt—down the street from our new New York City apartment. I walk it, almost daily, with my best new companion: Baby Liz.
We start and finish our adventures by the park stable, counting horses and crumpling our noses. A driveway opens into a tunnel of trees, and asphalt yields to dirt.
Trailside forests range from wet to wetter and are tall, storied, with tulip trees, sweetgum, maple, oak, and sassafras.
This path offers a bit of everything: topography, laudable tree cover, and a belvedere of the park’s parade ground, cloudscape, and Manhattan skyline.
It’s a solid choice for a home trail, and I’m an enormous fan of its namesake. But I can’t say I expected to find John Muir in the Bronx.
Muir has always been a personal hero, as he is to most Yellowstonians, Yosemites, park lovers and wanderers of wilderness. Back at “the park” (because Yellowstonians refer to their home ground the same way New York City residents call theirs “the city”), climbing mountains on weekends, my friends and I were always in pursuit of what we called “John Muir moments”—adrenaline-soaked glimpses of the sublime, like our annual hike to watch spring runoff thundering over Osprey Falls.
Chancing across a trail with Muir’s name on it struck me the way moments-in-nature so often do here—as a pleasant, if perplexing surprise. What I know about Muir I learned from Ken Burns; I’m not an expert but I don’t recall any ties to the lower Hudson, to the urbanity of the East. And so, walking his trail, I began to wonder: why do we love him so much? What’s so pulling, so endearing about Muir’s story and character that he’s made it all the way east to “the city”?
Here’s what I’ve read: Muir was a Scotsman by birth, then a Wisconsonite. Worked farm-hard every day by his father, he found solace and recreation in the woods, and though intellectually and manually capable he grew up to be one of those people not destined for conventional employment. He invented, carved, wandered, worked here and there. When he had recovered his sight after a traumatic eye injury, Muir doubled down on his passion for wild places and began his famed thousand-mile walking meditations. He landed–as much as a wanderer can land–in California’s Sierra Nevada.
His humble home there became a salon of sorts—a gathering place for poets, transcendentalists, botanists. Muir too became a prolific writer, authoring articles and books celebrating wild America and encouraging efforts to preserve and protect it.
Few writers in the canon have so profoundly penetrated our commonplaces, quotebooks, and psyches. Here are a few of John Muir’s gems:
“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.”
“The mountains are calling and I must go.”
“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.”
There’s a special place in my heart for those who find peace, joy, and solace through the twin acts of walking and writing. I cannot separate one from the other; my hiking mind, meandering within the confines of a trail (or not) is kin with my writer’s mind, which dips down from the conscious and weaves in bits of the trail, reaping layers of content, thought and memory I hadn’t realized were there.
Perhaps what I love most about Muir was that passion for the page, that ability to channel walked experience into written treatise.
What a joy, three weeks into a new chapter and residency, to locate admiration for a wilderness pioneer usually associated with wider, Westerner wildernesses.
Channeling Muir in the Bronx has filled me with hope that–urbanity be damned–the longing for nature is universal.