Mountain Time: John Muir’s Lonely Way 

Mountain Time: John Muir’s Lonely Way 

Butch McDade

By Arthur “Butch” McDade

Renowned conservationist John Muir never set foot in the highlands that became Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but he made an epic trek through the Unicoi Mountains south of the Smokies in 1867, and he visited the highlands of Roan Mountain along the TN/NC border in 1898. So, he’d seen the biological diversity and beauty of the Southern Appalachians. He even wrote a book about his southern trek entitled A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf, in which he stated that Tennessee’s Cumberland Mountains were “the first real mountains that my foot ever touched or eyes beheld.” Even though the Smokies can’t claim him as a “patron saint,” Muir had a connection to the area and ultimately created a national conservation movement that led future citizens to protect the Great Smoky Mountains.

Head shot of John Muir
Photo courtesy of the John Muir National Historic Site

Muir is also called the “Father of the National Park Service” for promoting the agency that’s protected GSMNP for 86 years.  So, in April—the month of his birth—it’s fitting for us who love the Smokies to honor him.

John Muir reveled in the grandeur of America’s wild country when many Americans did not. That’s remarkable because he was born in Dunbar, Scotland, in April 1838, eventually emigrating to the US with his parents. Settling with his family in Wisconsin, Muir attended some college before becoming a carriage maker. He abandoned his industrial career after an eye injury and embarked on his walk to the Gulf, with a goal of making it to the Amazon Basin. After contracting malaria on the journey, he changed plans and traveled to California instead, starting a long association with the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

John Muir
Photo courtesy of the John Muir National Historic Site

Muir had been influenced by the nature observations of Thoreau and Emerson, and in the Sierra he found his mountain home. He explored them the rest of his life, even when marriage, managing a farm, leading conservation battles, and writing claimed his time. He joined others in establishing the Sierra Club in 1892, becoming known through his books and actions as “John of the Mountains,” the leading voice for wildland conservation. 

Muir later commented that he’d followed “the lonely way” during his life. Nowhere is that more evident than in his short essay titled "A Tennessee Memory", a poignant reflection on a lonely day on Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau during his 1867 trek, excerpted below.

We may not directly owe GSMNP to John Muir, but his immense influence on national wildland conservation and the creation of NPS established a lasting conservation movement that ultimately protected the Smokies.

"A Tennessee Memory"

Once I was very hungry and lonely in Tennessee. I had been walking most of the day in the Cumberland Mountains without coming to a single house…feelings of isolation soon caught me, but one of the Lord’s smallest birds came out to me from some bushes. It had a wonderfully expressive eye, and in one moment that cheerful, confiding bird preached me the most effectual sermon on heavenly trust that I had ever heard through all the measured hours of Sabbath, and I went on not half so heart-sick, nor half as lonely.”


Arthur “Butch” McDade retired as a park ranger from Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He is the author of Old Smoky Mountain DaysThe Natural Arches of the Big South Fork, and is a contributing writer to The Encyclopedia of Appalachia.



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