The Mountains are Calling and I Must Go...


John Muir by Carelton Watkins – 1873

John Muir, born in 1838, was one of America’s most famous and influential “Outdoor Enthusiasts,” which in his era, were called Naturalists.   He remains one of California’s most important historical personalities and is generally still known today as one of the Father’s of our National Parks.  He once described himself as, a “poetico-trampo-geologist-botanist and ornithologist-naturalist etc. etc.!!!!

Famed documentary film maker Ken Burns recently said, “As we got to know him… he [John Muir] ascended to the pantheon of the highest individuals in our country; I’m talking about the level of Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, and Thomas Jefferson, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Jackie Robinson — people who have had a transformational effect on who we are.”

Maybe the best way to gauge the continued gravity of both him and his inspirational quote is by its’ prevalence on the Internet’s universal peg-board,  There you will find a vast catalog of beautiful, typographically stylized photographs with the quote emblazoned across each of them.

So where did this quote actually come from?  It, like many others, came from one of his letters written to his sister, Sarah Muir Galloway.  In it he writes:

Yosemite Valley – September 3rd, 1873

Dear Sister Sarah:
I have just returned from the longest and hardest trip I have ever made in the mountains, having been gone over five weeks. I am weary, but resting fast; sleepy, but sleeping deep and fast; hungry, but eating much. For two weeks I explored the glaciers of the summits east of here, sleeping among the snowy mountains without blankets and with but little to eat on account of its being so inaccessible. After my icy experiences it seems strange to be down here in so warm and flowery a climate.

I will soon be off again, determined to use all the season in prosecuting my researches–will go next to Kings River a hundred miles south, then to Lake Tahoe and adjacent mountains, and in winter work in Oakland with my pen.

The Scotch are slow, but some day I will have the results of my mount mountain studies in a form in which you all will be able to read and judge of them. In the mean time I write occasionally for the Overland Monthly, but neither these magazine articles nor my first book will form any finished part of the scientific contribution that I hope to make. . . . The mountains are calling and I must go, and I will work on while I can, studying incessantly.

My love to you all, David and the children and Mrs. Galloway who though shut out from sunshine yet dwells in Light. I will write again when I return from Kings River Canyon. The leaf sent me from China is for Cecelia.

Farewell, with love everlasting

[John Muir]

Lake Tenaka

Lake Tenaka and the Mountains that called him – photo: wikipedia

Taken in its original context and knowing a little more about him, It’s easy to see an ambitious, disciplined, and wildly goal oriented young man; committed not only to the outdoors (as we commonly see him) but also to his work.  Yes, romantically, the Mountains were calling to him as they do us, but the full quote truly speaks to his work in those high places.  Turns out, Muir wasn’t just talking about hiking for the sake of pure casual enjoyment, nor about those lazy summer camping holidays that so easily come to mind when one reads that quote.  What Muir was really talking about was the work he felt compelled to do in these incomparably beautiful places – he was determined to make a significant “scientific contribution” as a naturalist.  John Muir was working in Yosemite, and working very hard no doubt.  So while the popular connotation attributed to his quote may not be completely accurate, there is deep inspiration to find in it still.

It seems that his love for nature was only rivaled by his commitment to understanding and preserving it.

Daily he rose at 4:30 o’clock, and after a simple cup of coffee <he would write> incessantly…” Zologist and Muir contemporary, Henry Osborn.