It may take a while for a young adult in their twenties to figure out what they want to do with their life. This is especially true for those who have multiple talents and gifts. John Muir (1838-1914), America's renowned wilderness advocate and founder of numerous National Parks, was one such twenty-year-old coming of age in the mid-nineteenth century. He was a clever inventor and machinist. Prior to the Civil War, he attended the University of Wisconsin for two years, studying biology. Abhorring war, he made his own peace with the U.S. Civil War by moving to Canada, a nineteenth century draft dodger. There he embarked on a career as a skilled machinist. He thought this would be his future, with his ramblings in nature simply an enrichment to a machinist's career. After the end of the war, John Muir returned to the U.S. and continued to work in machine shops of Indianapolis, Indiana. One day, while working on a lathe, a cutting tool flipped up into one of his eyes and punctured it. Fluid flowed out. John Muir faced the prospect of partial blindness. His other eye became affected by a form of sympathetic blindness.
At twenty-nine Muir feared that he would never see flowers, birds, trees, plants and the delights of nature ever again. After about four months of living in a darkened room with bandages over his eyes, he, fortunately, regained his sight. In the wake of his new found power of vision, Muir decided to embark on a thousandmile walk from the Ohio river, through the South to Florida, across the Florida panhandle to Cedar Keys, and then on to South America. He kept a journal of this journey through the Southern wilderness which gives testimony to a compelling new vision for his life. It is a prelude to the great symphony of his irrevocable commitment to the role of the wilderness as an essential necessity of human well being and spiritual nurture.
In many ways, John Muir's thousandmile walk was like a pilgrimage during which he wrestled with his theology, his vocational passion, and conventional thinking instilled by his farmer father about the uses of God's nature. What can we learn about how Muir, with multiple talents, found his way to a new vision for his life, a new vocational passion, and a new set of skills that would inform his leadership in the environmental movement by creating wilderness areas for future generations of Americans? What did Muir learn on his thousand-mile walk?
James Hunt is a professor of History at Whitworth College in Spokane, Washington and President of the Board of The Krista Foundation. He has been deeply involved in leading groups of college students for study, service and travel in Central America since 1981. His academic research focuses on how the significance of youthful travel shaped leadership formation in major historical figures. His current research focus is on John Muir, founder of the American Conservation movement and the Sierra Club.