John Muir’s first mountains were the Cumberlands
You’ve seen his quotes about the tranquility and beauty of the American wilderness — perhaps without even knowing they were his. But did you know John Muir, the great American wanderer, once traveled across the northern Cumberland Plateau?
Muir — whose countless quotes include, “The mountains are calling and I must go” — was a Scottish-born naturalist who migrated to the United States in 1849 and became a fierce advocate for the American wilderness. He’s commonly referred to as the father of the U.S. national parks system, and he explored much of the country on foot.
As he walked, Muir jotted down his observations in notebooks that were tied to his belt. None of his journals were published until late in his life, and many remained unpublished until after his death in 1914 at the age of 76.
Muir’s life was a hardscrabble one, but that was mostly by his choosing. Rather than work or marry (though he was married later in life), he chose to wander. It was once written that he would travel by carrying only a tin cup, a little tea, a loaf of bread and a copy of essays by author and fellow naturalist Ralph Waldo Emerson.
In 1867, Muir set out from Louisville, Ky., headed for Cedar Key, Fla. His 1,000-mile walk to the Gulf of Mexico was the first of his cross-country journeys of consequence, and also his longest hike. It was on this walk that he crossed the Cumberland Plateau, describing the plants and people he met at length in his journal. The Cumberland Mountains, in fact, were the first mountains he had seen in his life — though he would go on to become perhaps best-known for his exploration of the Rockies and many other mountain chains.
From Burkesville, Ky., Muir walked to Jamestown, then to Montgomery, which by that point would have been 1.5 miles west of Wartburg. (Montgomery was originally 13 miles west of Wartburg, but was moved after Fentress County was established so that it would be more centrally-located within Morgan County.) From there, he hiked on through the mountains to Kingston before traveling through the Appalachians into North Carolina and then into Georgia.
Muir’s description of the Cumberland Plateau tells of isolated and desolate communities that had been ravaged by the Civil War, which ended just a couple of years before his trek through the region.
In 1974, more than a century later, Congress established the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area to protect 125,000 acres of property on the northern plateau. That would have thrilled Muir, who considered America’s natural places worth protecting and resisted a surrender to materialism. In his honor, the longest hiking trail within the BSF — stretching from Pickett State Park on the north end to Honey Creek on the south end, with plans to eventually extend it all the way to Rugby — bears not only his name, but is blazed with his bearded silhouette. Though there’s no record that Muir actually passed through what is now the national park and laid eyes on the Big South Fork River, he wasn’t far away. In fact, it isn’t inconceivable that he passed through the southernmost reaches of what would become the park, around the headwaters of Clear Fork, as he journeyed from Jamestown to Montgomery.
On September 10, 1867, Muir reached the base of the Cumberland Plateau in southern Kentucky. “After a few miles of level ground in luxuriant tangles of brooding vines, I began the ascent of the Cumberland Mountains,” he wrote. “The ascent was by a nearly regular zigzag slope, mostly covered up like a tunnel by overreaching oaks. But there were a few openings where the glorious forest road of Kentucky was grandly seen, stretching over hill and valley, adjusted to every slop and curve by the hands of nature the most sublime and comprehensive picture that ever entered my eyes.”
It took Muir up to seven hours to reach the top of the plateau — “a strangely long period of up-grade work to one accustomed only to the hillocky levels of Wisconsin and adjacent states,” he wrote — and wasn’t long after before he encountered a man on horseback who intended to rob him.
Muir wrote that the man quizzed him about where he was from and where he was headed, then offered to carry his bag. Muir at first refused, but the man was persistent, and Muir finally handed it over. He wrote that the man then began to spur his horse to faster speeds, in an effort to get out of sight. At a bend in the road, Muir wrote, he caught the man rummaging through his belongings. “Finding there only a comb, brush, towel, soap, a change of underclothing, a copy of Burns’s poems, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and a small New Testament,” he wrote, “he waited for me, handed back my bag, and returned down the hill, saying that he had forgotten something.”
As he walked further into Tennessee, Muir encountered a farmer along the road. As they walked together, the farmer told him that England, Ireland and Russia had declared war on the U.S.
“Oh, it’s terrible, terrible,” the man said, according to Muir. “This big war comin’ so quick after our own big fight. Well, it can’t be helped, and all I have to say is, Amerricay forever, but I’d a heap rather they didn’t fight.”
When Muir asked the old farmer if he was sure the news was true, the man said, “Oh, yes, quite sure, for me and some of my neighbors were down to the store last night, and Jim Smith can read, and he found out all about it in a newspaper.”
When Muir reached Jamestown, he called it a “poor, rickety, thrice-dead village…an incredibly dreary place.” Nearby, he stopped at a log home to inquire about food and a place to sleep. He was turned away because he didn’t have the correct change to pay for his accommodations, but not without a glass of milk. The woman at the home told him there was one home beyond hers, about two miles away, “but beyond that there are no houses that I know of except empty ones whose owners have been killed or driven away during the war.”
Muir found lodging at the next house. Over a meal of corn bread and bacon, the home’s owner — a blacksmith — quizzed him about why he was not employed but was roaming the country to look at flower blossoms. “You look like a strong-minded man,” the blacksmith said. “Surely you are able to do something better than wander over the country and look at weeds and blossoms. These are hard times, and real work is required of every man that is able. Picking up blossoms doesn’t seem to be a man’s work at all in any kind of times.”
Muir’s response was to quote the Bible to the man, telling him that Solomon considered it worthwhile to study plants, and that Jesus himself had said to “consider the lilies.”
“Now, whose advice am I to take, yours or Christ’s?” Muir asked. “Christ says, ‘Consider the lilies.’ You say, ‘Don’t consider them. It isn’t worthwhile for any strong-minded man.’”
Before Muir left the home, the blacksmith warned him against traveling deeper into the remote land, saying that small bands of guerrillas were hiding along the route, even though the war had ended.
Muir didn’t heed the man’s advice, and when he continued his journey the next morning, September 11, 1867, he described the Cumberland Plateau landscape like this: “Long stretch of level sandstone plateau, lightly furrowed and dimpled with shallow groove-like valleys and hills. The trees are mostly oaks, planted far apart like those in the Wisconsin woods. A good many pine trees here and there, 40 to 80 feet high, and most of the ground is covered with showy flowers. Milkworts, goldenrods and asters were especially abundant. I came to a cool, clear brook every half mile or so, the banks planted with royal fern, cinnamon fern and handsome sedges. The few larger streams were fringed with laurels and azaleas. Large areas beneath the trees are covered with formidable green briers and brambles, armed with hooked claws, and almost impenetrable.
“Houses,” Muir wrote, “are far apart and uninhabited, orchards and fences in ruins — sad marks of war.”
The road Muir was traveling eventually faded out among the undergrowth. “Lost and hungry,” he wrote, he continued to fight through the briars, but to no avail. “The toothed arching branches come down over and above you like cruel living arms,” he wrote, “and the more you struggle the more desperately you are entangled, and your wounds deepened and multiplied. The South has plant fly-catchers. It also has plant man-catchers.”
Towards the end of his second day in the Cumberlands, Muir again came upon ne’er-do-wells, this time a group of 10 men on horseback. Unable to flee from them, he strode through them, saying “howdy” without stopping or looking back. Eventually, he did look back, and saw that the men had turned their horses and were watch him, maybe discussing whether it would be worthwhile to rob him.
“They all were mounted on rather scrawny horses,” he wrote, “and all wore long hair hanging down on their shoulders. Evidently they belonged to the most irreclaimable of the guerrilla bands who, long accustomed to plunder, deplored the coming of peace.”
Muir determined that they did not bother him because of the plants he was carrying, believing him to be “a poor herb doctor, a common occupation in these mountain regions.”
As darkness descended on the Cumberland Plateau, Muir happened across a home that was inhabited by a black family, where he was given a meal of string beans, buttermilk and cornbread. “At the table I was seated in a bottomless chair, and as I became sore and heavy, I sank deeper and deeper, pressing my knees against my breast, and my mouth settled to the level of my plate,” he wrote. “But wild hunger cares for none of these things, and my curiously compressed position prevented the too free indulgence of boisterous appetite. Of course, I was compelled to sleep with the trees in the one great bedroom of the open night.”
The next morning, September 12, Muir passed through the small town of Montgomery, which he described as “a shabby village.” A short distance beyond, he crossed the Emory River, which flows from its headwaters near Lone Mountain at the head of Brimstone to Wartburg and eventually into the Clinch River. It was the first mountain stream Muir had ever encountered, and it produced one of his most memorable quotes: “There is nothing more eloquent in nature than a mountain stream.”
Muir wrote of the Emory River: “Its banks are luxuriantly peopled with rare and lovely flowers and overreaching trees, making one of nature’s coolest and most hospitable places. Every tree, every flower, every ripple and eddy of this lovely stream seemed solemnly to feel the presence of the great Creator. Lingered in this sanctuary a long time thanking the Lord with all my heart for his goodness in allowing me to enter and enjoy it.”
It was also here that Muir happened upon a tree he hadn’t seen before: “A species of magnolia with very large leaves and scarlet conical fruit,” he wrote. He had just discovered bigleaf magnolia, the largest-leafed and largest-flowering tree in North America. It grows only on the northern plateau and a few other places in the South. If he had happened upon the Big South Fork River, he would’ve found plenty of them.
Muir said, “Near this stream I spent some joyous time in a grand rock dwelling full of mosses, birds and flowers. Most heavenly place I ever entered. The long narrow valleys of the mountainside, all well watered and nobly adorned with oaks, magnolias, laurels, azaleas, ferns, Hypnum mosses, scale mosses and towering clumps of beautiful hemlocks.”
Muir was especially impressed with the hemlocks.
“The hemlock, judging from the common species of Canada, I regarded as the least noble of the conifers,” he wrote. “But those of the eastern valleys of the Cumberland Mountains are as perfect in form and regal in port as the pines themselves.”
By the time dark fell that evening, Muir had reached Kingston. It took him just four days to journey through the Cumberlands, and from there he continued along his walk to the Gulf of Mexico.