John Muir - Why Does He Matter?

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the death of John Muir, and tomorrow (April 21st) sees the official opening of the newly extended John Muir Way, a long distance trail across Scotland. Muir could just be the most famous Scot that most people on this side of the Atlantic have never heard of. Ronald Turnbull examines the legacy of the environmentalist whose campaigning work helped inspire the creation of American national parks, and wild land conservation as we know it today.


Most of us first heard of John Muir when something called the John Muir Trust bought up Knoydart and started running it for the benefit of its crofting inhabitants. Later, one became aware of the John Muir Trail, widely considered as one of the World's top ten walks. Later still, one's son went to live in the USA, and (at least if one happens to be me) one went over to California and actually walked this walk. Which is one way to find out about John Muir.

After the storm, Tunnel View in Yosemite, 141 kb
After the storm, Tunnel View in Yosemite
© Ice Nine, Mar 2012

"If you think about all the gains our society has made, from independence to now, it wasn't government. It was activism. People think, 'Oh, Teddy Roosevelt established Yosemite National Park, what a great president.' Bullshit. It was John Muir who invited Roosevelt out and then convinced him to ditch his security and go camping. It was Muir, an activist, a single person."

Yosemite climber and Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard 

In Scotland, Muir is obscure - though he is becoming noticeable as a source of somewhat soppy quotes for walking magazines and the signboards in the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. In America, John Muir is one of the 100 most famous Americans. Which is odd, because an American he was not, but a Scot. Well, so he considered himself all his life, though that life was, from the age of 11, in America.

Muir and Roosevelt in Yosemite
© Underwood and Underwood

The reason Muir matters is not much to do with his soppy prose, and hardly at all his Scottishness. It isn't his 1000 mile hike from Wisconsin to Florida in the immediate aftermath of the American Civil War, or his invention of an automatic get-out-of-bed machine and an all-wooden, clockwork precursor of the Kindle. It isn't his serious scrambling first ascent of Mount Ritter, or his pioneering geological studies of Yosemite in which he identified the former glaciers, and discovered the remains of one of them deep in the Sierra Nevada.

What mattered was one backpacking weekend he took with a mate in the summer of 1903, when he was in his early 70s. The mate in question being President Theodore Roosevelt.

'I do not want anyone with you' he wrote to John Muir, 'and I want to drop politics absolutely for four days, and just be out in the open with you.'

Muir postponed a prearranged trip to Siberia with another friend of his, but tactlessly showed Roosevelt the letter from the other friend complaining about it. However, after this unpromising start, the outdoor adventure went well.

'This is bully!' exclaimed Roosevelt as they camped under the stars at Bridalveil Meadow.

'This is the bulliest!' as the 70-year-old Muir pulled him out of a snowdrift.

'I never before had a more interesting, hearty, and manly companion,' Muir wrote.

But the president missed his wish for a politics-free weekend. Muir's message got through.

Roosevelt achieved re-election in 1905. With Muir now lobbying by letter, Roosevelt went on to designate 230,000 square miles of National Forest – 6% of the land area of the USA – along with five National Parks and 23 National Monuments including the Grand Canyon.

"Lying out at night under those giant sequoias was lying in a temple built by no hand of man, a temple grander than any human architect could by any possibility build, and I hope for the preservation of the groves of giant trees simply because it would be a shame to our civilization to let them disappear. They are monuments in themselves."

Roosevelt speech at Sacramento 1903

Cathedral Peak, John Muir Trail, 112 kb
Cathedral Peak, John Muir Trail
© Ronald Turnbull

Muir, however, is not merely a man. He is also a walk: the 210 mile John Muir Trail created in his memory in the years following his death. Its 200 miles start in Yosemite, below the 700m waterfalls and 900m granite walls. At the end of Day One you put on the special gloves and take the handrail trail up the smooth granite of Half Dome, feeling like an ant on the bald pate of President Theodore Roosevelt. On Day Three you camp alongside the Thousand Island Lake, and watch the sunset light against Mount Ritter. On Day 7 you collect your plastic drum of supplies, brought in by mule to the Muir Trail Ranch, and put 10 days of food into your rucksack. They you put your rucksack on and see if you can still walk. On Day 14 you cross Forester Pass at a smidgeon over 4000m except that as it's America you measure it in feet. Somewhere along the way you bump into a bear: and if you're really unlucky, there may be a minute or two of falling rain.

Muir is a walk, he's also another walk - Scotland's own John Muir Way. This takes you past his birthplace at Dunbar, where he guddled among the rock pools, scared his mates with tales of the Edinburgh bodysnatchers, and (for his own good of course) was sadistically flogged by his father and learned most of the Bible by heart – resulting in a fine if slightly flowery prose style and a lifelong atheism.

The John Muir Way in East Lothian, 104 kb
The John Muir Way in East Lothian
© Ronald Turnbull

This year is the 100th anniversary of Muir's death. In his honour, tomorrow (21st April) marks the official opening of a major extension to the the original 45-mile John Muir Way. The path now runs 134 miles (215km) sea-to-sea across the middle of Scotland, from Dunbar on the East Lothian coast to Helensburgh on the west coast, where Muir took ship for America.    

It is a walk that will – SNH are good folk, so let's put this tactfully – will show the walker sides of Scotland otherwise unguessed at. The John Muir Way in California does not include sewage farms or abandoned canals. And while the Devil's Postpile is a spectacular bit of basalt, California's 'real' JM Trail does not pass any power stations.

Leaving aside any issues over the loveliness of Scotland's Central Belt, Muir's message can be summed up in two words: Trees, Please. Today, 12% of the world's forests are protected in national parks or similar reservations – including the greater part of North America's ones. And that last part is largely down to one man: wee Johnnie Muir from Dunbar.

Sierra mountain lake, 172 kb
Sierra mountain lake
© hikerman, Jun 2012

"The battle for conservation will go on endlessly. It is part of the universal battle between right and wrong"

John Muir quote carved in a block of Ross of Mull Granite in the wall of the Scottish Parliament

Muir and More cover shot, 60 kb

Further Reading

Ronald Turnbull's book Muir and More describes Muir's life and walks, along with the John Muir Trail and East Lothian's John Muir Way – he claims to be the first and perhaps only person to walk both these contrasting paths in a single season. The book also has digressions on huckleberries, bears, beards, and allied subjects. It's published by Vertebrate Publishing.

'If you're going to read just one book by Muir himself, make it My First Summer in the Sierra, cheaply published by Canongate (2007) with an introduction by Robert Macfarlane' says Ronald.

For walking the American John Muir Trail, combine the excellent John Muir Trail Map-Pack from Tom Harrison Maps with The John Muir Trail by Alan Castle pb Cicerone. Add R J Secor's The High Sierra: Peaks Passes and Trails if you want to stray off the official JMT line.




UKH Articles and Gear Reviews by Ronald Turnbull

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