Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Walk of life

In the year 1867, John Muir, age 29, put his feet in his boots and walked solo from Indiana to the Florida coast. Put one foot in front of the other and didn't stop walking until the foot out in front met saltwater. A couple of million steps, I figure. "My plan," he said, "was simply to push on in a southward direction by the wildest, leafiest, and least-trodden way I could find." In his satchel: a change of underwear, his journal, a bar of soap, comb and brush, a botany textbook, the New Testament, Milton's Paradise Lost, and the poems of Robert Burns.

I'm reminded of Muir's adventure because the college library has just acquired photographer John Earl's 1975 volume John Muir's Longest Walk, a collection of photographs recreating Muir's journey, with extensive excerpts from the naturalist's own account.

I first read a biography of Muir in the mid-1960s. His walk to the coast struck me as heroic, in an understated sort of way. I was then the same age as Muir was when he set out on his life-transforming trek. I was walking too, although not nearly so dramatically, but at least putting one foot in front of the other in a Thoreauvian-saunterish sort of way -- my daily back-and-forth "one-mile walk through the universe." I guess I had it in my mind that someday I would do a walk as long, spare and spiritually fulfilling as Muir's.

Well, I've had a few good traipses over the years, but nothing that would compare to Muir's 1000-mile journey for shear self-reliance. And it ain't gonna happen now. Even if I still had the physical stamina, I would not be able to reduce my life to few enough objects to fit in a sack. As I write this, I am sitting in the college library. Which four books would I select? An impossible choice.

Still, I'm not too proud to have heroes. And I'm still looking for the "wildest, leafiest, and least-trodden way." Where two roads diverge in a yellow wood, I'll take the quieter path, the one tracked only by shoe or boot, the one that allows the mind to stop, attend, consider. The wind on my cheek. The tip-tip of the nuthatch in my ear. The crunch of dry leaves under my feet. And maybe, just maybe, Muir's account of his 1000-mile walk to the Gulf in my bag.