Then and Now: Muir’s South

Map: John Muir’s Walk through the South, 1867. Credit: Filippo Vanzo

150 years later, an Atlanta writer follows John Muir’s 1,000-mile trek from Kentucky to Florida

MOST FOLKS KNOW JOHN MUIR as the famous eco-evangelist of the California Sierra who led efforts to create Yosemite National Park and to protect wild mountains and rivers throughout the West. Muir is the source of classic bumper sticker quotes, including:

“One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”

“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine into trees.”

“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.”

“The mountains are calling and I must go.”

However, Muir’s first mountain pilgrimages were not out West but here in the East. Before he ever stepped foot in California, Muir embarked on a 1,000-mile trek from Louisville, Kentucky, to Cedar Key, Florida, that changed his life. The journey inspired Muir’s transformation into the leader and conscience of the environmental movement.


One hundred fifty years later, Atlanta writer and adventurer Dan Chapman decided to follow in Muir’s footsteps. Chapman retraced Muir’s journey in his new book, A Road Running Southward. Muir’s nineteenth century path is now a series of highways and backroads, so Chapman traveled in a Subaru instead of on foot. Along the way, Chapman spends the night in a Savannah cemetery where Muir once camped and visits some of the South’s most important and imperiled landscapes. Chapman discovers that the lush forests and vibrant ecosystems that Muir encountered have been decimated by coal mining, urban sprawl, and climate change. In retracing Muir’s trek, Chapman seeks to answer to a simple question: what remains?


He also speaks with locals who hold deep ties to the land—and finds hope in their cherished connections to the natural world. He visits Merrilee Malwitz Jipson, fighting to protect natural springs in Florida from a Nestle water bottling plant. He hikes with Chris Ulrey, a botanist and rock climber protecting endangered plants from climate change. And he meets Tommy Johnson, who spent eight years cleaning up the Kingston coal ash spill while TVA contractors withheld protective gear and information about the toxic ash. In the past decade, four dozen of his fellow workers have died and more than 4,000 have been sickened.


“But Kingston, today, looks like nothing ever happened with a big green park replacing the mountains of spilled coal ash,” Chapman says. “The phrase ‘lipstick on a pig’ comes to mind. And too often, that’s what we do in the South—cover up our environmental messes as if nothing’s wrong.”
Chapman shared more thoughts with BRO on his 1,000-mile journey in Muir’s Southern footsteps.

BRO: Why did you decide to retrace Muir’s journey through the South?
DC: I’d covered many environmental issues in the South as a reporter for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, but I was looking for a way to stitch them together in a big-picture narrative. I had my aha moment when I read that Muir walked across the South in 1867. I got out my map, traced his route, and discovered that his hike crossed many of the areas where environmental ills were prevalent. So I drove the route, camped along the way, and marveled at the natural beauty, fretted over the environmental degradation, and talked to everybody and anybody. Amid the damage, I hoped to find the beauty and promise of a better future. And I did.

BRO: What do you want people to learn from your journey?
DC: Americans in general know about the grandeur of Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, and Yosemite. Few, though, know of the wealth of landscapes and biodiversity across the South. Nowhere else can you go from temperate rain forest to marshy estuary in a half-day’s drive. The biodiversity is out of this world. Two-thirds of all fish species swim the South’s waters. One-third of all plants grow here too. Mussels, crayfish, salamanders—they’re Southern by birth and in numbers that surpass anywhere else in this country. We’re on a slippery slope to extinction for too many of these species. Muir, as usual, said it best: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

BRO: What are the biggest threats to the Southern landscape?
DC: Sprawl and climate change are the biggies. The South is the nation’s fastest growing region. Florida alone welcomes 1,000 people a day. They all have to live, eat, poop, and play. Thousands of acres disappear daily under ribbons of concrete and forests of plywood.
But there is hope. Some incredible conservation is being done by agencies, nonprofits, and locals. They are, of course, outgunned financially and politically. But public awareness, and action, is at its peak: just about everybody understands and experiences the dangers of a warming world.

BRO: What lessons can the rest of the country learn from the South’s environmental challenges?
DC: If the South can do it—with our conservative, anti-green legislatures and business-first mentality—then y’all can too. In the South, nothing seems to get done without business, industry, and, at times, the military at the table. They own most of the land in the South. In Georgia, for example, only three percent of the land is in public hands—and most of that is the military. There are some heartening examples of enviro-industry collaboration: a loblolly pine plantation switching to longleaf pine; no-build buffer zones around military installations; widespread acceptance of prescribed fire. The South has a ways to go to catch up with more environmentally enlightened regions, but we’re getting there.

Places to Go, Things to See: