By Kara Silva, Special to Tribune Newspapers
6:23 PM EDT, April 28, 2013
MONTELLO, Wis. — When walking in the footsteps of greatness, it is of equal importance to follow where they lead and to discover where they began.
In celebration of the life of the fervent conservationist John Muir in the year of his 175th birthday (April 21, the day before Earth Day), I made the three-hour journey from suburban Chicago to Marquette County, Wis., to traverse the land of his youth and discover the place that made the man.
An intrepid world traveler, prolific writer, "father" of America's national parks and co-founder of the Sierra Club, Muir left a lasting imprint on the natural world. Through his published writings, his words have inspired generations, and his environmental causes have helped salvage the truth behind the lyrical phrase "America the beautiful." Muir's conservation efforts helped lead to the designation of some of America's most majestic national parks, including Yosemite and Sequoia.
Born in Dunbar, Scotland, in 1838, Muir and his family immigrated to the American Midwest when he was 11. His love of nature was seemingly derived from a childhood spent wandering his family's homesteaded land, Fountain Lake Farm, in a largely untamed Wisconsin.
Those who study Muir say that Fountain Lake Farm was to him what Walden Pond was to Henry David Thoreau, according to the Sierra Club's website (sierraclub.org).
To better understand his love affair with the land, I hiked the 2.3-mile section of Ice Age Trail in John Muir Memorial Park near Montello in a wintry early spring. The trail meanders through the former acreage of Fountain Lake Farm.
Along the trail, I looked up at a sky skewed by crooked branches devoid of leaves and stopped to feel the ephemeral warmth of the peeking sun upon my face. Flecks of falling snow enraptured by the sun's light appeared to be dancing amid a sea of trees. The white lilies normally rimming the banks of Ennis Lake (formerly Fountain Lake) were replaced by a blanket of snow. Muir would take to the woods surrounding the Ice Age Trail to escape the tyrannical reign of his father, Daniel Muir, a strict Calvinist, who worked the eight children who made up the Muir brood 17 hours a day.
Muir spent his formative years on Fountain Lake Farm and as an adult tried to purchase his childhood home on several occasions without success. He posthumously got his wish in 1990, when the farm to which he longed to return was designated a National Historic Landmark.
The Muir family's second Wisconsin home, Hickory Hill, a few miles from Fountain Lake, is where Muir started to become intellectually astute through his inventions, said Kathleen McGwin, vice president of the Muir preservationist group Wisconsin Friends of John Muir. It's also where he placed higher stock in reading.
The original Hickory Hill home still stands, its clapboard facade now replaced by brick. Facing a row of windows on the side of the house, I imagined his father practicing sermons on the main floor as Muir created inventions in the basement. I turned toward the crimson barn, which largely remains the same, though it has been elevated to accommodate cows, and parts of the original roof had to be replaced. In the foreground sits the 90-foot-deep well Muir dug using a pick and chisel at the command of his father, a feat that supposedly nearly killed the young man because of "choke damp," a lack of oxygen that causes suffocation. A windmill stands atop the well, giving the site a slightly sunnier disposition.
Hickory Hill was sold by Daniel Muir to the great-grandfather of current owner Maurice Kearns, who continues to operate the property as a working farm with the help of his sons. Therefore, it is not normally open to tourists.
Observatory Hill, Muir's favorite escape, also is Marquette County's highest point, rising 300 feet above the surrounding terrain. Hiking the designated trail in what is now Observatory Hill State Natural Area to the summit, I weaved through staggered red and white oak beset by plots of protruding rock as the perpetual hum of nature eased my senses. The trail ceased at an outcropping that revealed the wild Wisconsin that Muir wrote about. Red cedar bordered a scattering of grassy patches interspersed with slabs of igneous rock overlooking a vast horizon. I couldn't imagine a more peaceful place to gather my thoughts. Scanning the miles of forest sprawling beneath my feet, I could imagine Muir pondering life's important questions while possibly sitting in this very spot.
"Muir called this state the 'glorious Wisconsin wilderness,' and I think every person needs to experience that at least once in their life," said local naturalist and Friends of Muir board member Daryl Christensen.
Marquette County sits about 45 minutes northeast of the part of Wisconsin that screams tourism, the Wisconsin Dells, yet the unspoiled terrain here is teeming with wildlife. And its unspoiled land granted me a real breath of fresh air during my immersive walk. The loud, laborious gurgle of the sandhill cranes, a species that mates for life; deer as prevalent as squirrels; and the equally ubiquitous wild turkeys that scuttle across roadways — all of them presented the same palette of sights and sounds that Muir would have experienced roaming this land.
Muir may have lived a life of adventure, trekking 1,000 miles on foot from Indiana to Florida; sailing to Panama, then up to California; hiking the Sierra Mountains; gallivanting across glaciers in Alaska; camping alongside Theodore Roosevelt in Yosemite; and traveling to every corner of the earth. But it was his boyhood home in central Wisconsin that bewitched his thoughts during his final years. Muir committed those memories to paper when he wrote "The Story of My Boyhood and Youth," which is celebrating its 100th year in print.
Of Fountain Lake and its meadow, Muir wrote, "Even if I should never see it again, the beauty of its lilies and orchids is so pressed into my mind that I shall always enjoy looking back at them in imagination, even across seas and continents and perhaps after I am dead."
Muir died on Christmas Eve 1914, a year after the book was published. But his spirit still thrives in the "glorious Wisconsin wilderness."
If you go
Getting there: Montello, Wis., is 3 to 31/2 hours northwest of the Chicago area, mostly via Interstate Highway 90 west.
Where to stay: In and around Montello are an array of overnight options from lakeside campgrounds, cozy cabins, bed-and-breakfasts, hotels and motels. Visit montellowi.com for local listings. Many campgrounds in the area may not open until Memorial Day weekend, so call ahead.
Where to eat: Once in a Blue Moon in historic Princeton, Wis. (538 W. Water St., 920-295-6100), is well worth the 15-minute drive from Montello, serving inexpensive "California cuisine." Morning mimosas or cappuccinos, crab cakes or pancakes, pasta bowls, sandwiches and flatbread pizzas create a well-rounded menu. A tip: Don't skip dessert; order the bread pudding.
More information: For information on John Muir-related sites and events, visit the Wisconsin Friends of John Muir's website at johnmuir.org/wisconsin. For lodging, area attractions and dining options, visit the Montello site at montellowi.com (888-318-0362), the Marquette County site at co.marquette.wi.us (877-627-6767), the Princeton site at princetonwi.com (920-295-3877) or marquettecountywisconsinlodging.com.
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