But nothing influenced Muir more than the call of the wild. It grew more urgent after graduation, when a factory accident left him blinded for several weeks. His first anguished thought, he noted later, was that “I should never look at a flower again.”
The experience propelled Muir to undertake a 1,000-mile walk toward the Gulf of Mexico, pursuing what he described as the “wildest, leafiest, and least trodden way I could find.” He also visited Cuba and crossed the Isthmus of Panama. In 1868, he sailed up to San Francisco and set out on foot to see the Sierra Nevada and its grand cathedral, Yosemite Valley. The first time he gazed across California’s San Joaquin Valley toward the Sierra, he wrote that the towering peaks “seemed not clothed with light but wholly composed of it, like the wall of some celestial city.”
He had intended to linger nine months in those “divinely beautiful” mountains, but he wound up spending his remaining years exploring them, in person and in print. Alongside splendor, Muir found despoliation: logging, mining, overgrazing. It outraged him. “He had no patience for stupidity,” says Steve Holmes, author of The Young John Muir: An Environmental Biography. “And so much of what people were doing seemed to him exactly that.” Defacing the wilderness struck Muir as not merely senseless but sacrilegious, and he rose to nature’s defense with spiritual fervor.
Muir’s lyrical writing lent environmentalism a unique eloquence. His articles, published in influential outlets such as the New York Tribune and the Atlantic Monthly, earned him the respect of leading thinkers and the ear of U.S. presidents.
In 1880, life interrupted. Muir married Louie Wanda Strentzel and settled in Martinez, California, to help run her family’s orchards. During his 10 years in charge, Muir proved an efficient manager, boosting profits and arranging for the construction of a local rail terminal for shipping fruit. Farm work was exhausting, but it gave Muir the financial freedom to continue writing. In a series of articles penned in 1889, he championed creating a national preserve around Yosemite. The following year, an act of Congress did just that.
Muir was far from done. In 1892, he helped found the Sierra Club, whose mission, Muir said, was to “do something for wildness and make the mountains glad.” He served as the club’s president until his death.
Muir’s final campaign was waged on behalf of Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite, and it ended in defeat in 1913 with federal approval to build a dam that transformed the valley into a reservoir, the prime source of San Francisco’s water supply. He died of pneumonia a year later, and some accounts depicted him as broken by the loss. But if he was bitter, he didn’t show it.
His legacy is marked instead by battles won. Though his full impact is impossible to measure, its vastness is suggested by the great yawn of the Grand Canyon, the fjords of Glacier Bay in Alaska, and the prehistoric majesty of California’s Sequoia National Park. These wild places endure thanks to the wildness of the man himself.