Discovering John Burroughs and Walt Whitman on the Long Brown Path

This post is based on talk I gave at the John Burroughs Association May 20, 2017 Slabsides Open House, assisted by my friends Lisa Zucker Glick, who read the John Burroughs’ quotations, and Jim Porter, who read the words of Walt Whitman.  For additional citations and references, please see “Running the Long Path.”

An edited video of the talk is available here:  https://vimeo.com/218372727

For more information on the John Burroughs Association, please visit johnburroughsassociation.org

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Joan Burroughs welcoming visitors to the Slabsides Open House

 

Overview

In 2013, I thru-ran the Long Path, a 350-mile hiking trail that starts in NYC and ends just west of Albany in the John Boyd Thacher State Park.  I completed the run in 9 days and 4 hours, setting a new fastest known time (the previous record of 12 days was set by Dave O’Neill, who was the first person to thru-run the Long Path).

The thru-run started as a personal challenge, but the experience kindled in me a curiosity to learn more about the places I’d seen, the natural wilderness I’d experienced, and the people whose legacies I’d discovered along the trail, including John Burroughs and Walt Whitman.

Background on the Long Path

The Long Path was first conceived of during the 1930s by the founders of the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference as New York’s own long distance hiking trail and an alternative to the Appalachian Trail which was then being blazed and built through the state.

It was initially planned as an unmarked wilderness corridor that would connect New York City with the Adirondacks, but as the urban sprawl spread further into the Hudson Valley, this concept was no longer feasible.  Today it consists of a hiking trail marked with aqua paint blazes.  The Long Path

  • starts in New York City at the 175th Subway Station
  • crosses the George Washington Bridge
  • heads north along the Hudson River through the Hudson Palisades
  • crosses through Harriman State Park and exits on the northern edge of the park on Long Mountain
  • goes up and over Schunemunk Mountain, the highest point in Orange County
  • crosses the Wallkill River Valley along a series of rail trails and roadwalks
  • traverses the Shawangunk Mountains, where it is co-aligned with the Shawangunk Ridge Trail
  • veers north along roads until it reaches the southern boundary of the Catskills
  • summits Peekamoose, Table, and Slide mountain in the Catskills, then goes into the town of Phoenicia, follows the Devil’s Path over Plateau, Sugarloaf, Twin, and Indian Head mountains, and then the Escarpment Trail over Blackhead and Windham to the northern trailhead on route 23
  • proceeds through the northern Catskills and into the Schoharie Valley, where it passes the Schoharie Reservoir, summits Vroomans Nose, and reaches the town of Middleburgh
  • ends in the John Boyd Thacher State Park just west of Albany

The Long Path is maintained by approximately 250 volunteers of the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference, who are responsible for keeping the trail passable, and who continually seek to improve the path by improving the treadway (for example, repairing the effects of erosion or putting in stone steps in steep sections or permanent bridges for stream crossings) or by acquiring land parcels or negotiating with landowners to move some of the remaining roadwalks into the woods.

For the Trail Conference, the Long Path is a labor of love, but despite this it is not well known, especially when compared to other long distance trails.  When I set out to thru-run the Long Path in 2013, there had been only 119 document completions of the trail, including both thru-hikers and thru-runners and section-hikers. This compares to almost 15,000 documented completions of the Appalachian Trail, despite the fact that the AT is more than six times longer.

My Background as a Runner

I took on the Long Path as an experienced ultra-runner.  An “ultramarathon” is any race longer than a conventional marathon (26.2 miles).  I had completed dozens of ultramarathons ranging from 30.1 miles to 135 miles, but this would be my first attempt at a multi-day effort, and the total distance of the Long Path was quite daunting to me, as it was 259% longer than my longest (135-mile) race.

Ultra-running is a growing niche within the broader running community, but it differs from conventional running in that ultramarathons typically take place on trails in natural wilderness areas, rather than on roads or in urban settings (although these formats exist as well).  Another difference is the attitude of ultra-runners, who are looking for challenges that will test their limits.  I have a favorite quote from Henry David Thoreau which expresses this attitude:  “We need the tonic of wildness….we need to see our own limits transgressed.”

Starting Out Afoot and Light-hearted

After months of training and preparation, I started out on the Long Path in August 2013, immediately crossing the George Washington Bridge out of Manhattan, and what a great feeling to be afoot, rather than driving across that giant bridge!  Afterwards I researched some of the basic facts about the GWB, discovering that it is the single busiest vehicular bridge in the world, carrying on averaging 102 million vehicles per year.  I drive over the bridge almost every weekend in order to spend my weekends in the Hudson Valley and certainly appreciate the convenience of the commute, but the experience of driving in thick traffic is very stressful and tiring for me.  I’m not surprised that scientists have correlated long commuting with all sorts of health problems.

The Long Path’s name comes from the opening stanza of Walt Whitman’s Song of the Open Road

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.

Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune,
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms,
Strong and content I travel the open road.

The earth, that is sufficient,
I do not want the constellations any nearer,
I know they are very well where they are,
I know they suffice for those who belong to them.

You might hear these words on television:  they are part of a recent Volvo commercial.  This is a bit of irony from my perspective, but Walt Whitman might not have minded, because he would have been delighted to reach a large audience.  It is also somewhat ironical that Whitman’s poetry became the inspiration for hikers and nature-lovers, because he was more of a city person and a people person and was not known as a hiker, rambler, or wilderness explorer.  Nonetheless, in promoting the benefits of a hardy outdoors lifestyle, Whitman captured the spirit of many runners and hikers:

He traveling with me needs the best blood, thews, endurance,
None may come to the trial till he or she bring courage and health,
Come not here if you have already spent the best of yourself,
Only those may come who come in sweet and determin’d bodies….

Now I see the secret of the making of the best persons,
It is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth…..

Now I re-examine philosophies and religions,
They may prove well in lecture-rooms, yet not prove at all under the spacious clouds and along the landscape and flowing currents.

— Walt Whitman, Song of the Open Road

In today’s world, many people focus on the perceived health benefits of exercise, but Whitman makes a deeper point, linking the rugged outdoors lifestyle to an independent mindset, which he contrasts with the philosophies and religions that one might hear in lecture-rooms (or today on television and through social media).  The image of the open road conveys the exhilaration one should feel following his or her unique path through life, whether through the woods or the workplace.  Part of the reason why people run is to seize control of their destiny and capture that feeling of exhilaration — if only for a short period of time before returning to the grind of everyday life.

To see nothing anywhere but what you may reach it and pass it,
To conceive no time, however distant, but what you may reach it and pass it,
To look up or down no road but it stretches and waits for you, however long but it stretches and waits for you….

To know the universe itself as a road, as many roads, as roads for traveling souls.

……

Not I, not anyone else can travel that road for you,
You must travel it yourself.

It is not far, it is within reach,
Perhaps you have been on it since you were born and did not know . . .

Meeting John Burroughs on Slide Mountain

I discovered John Burroughs on the summit of Slide Mountain, where as you may know the Winnisook Club erected a plaque in his memory in 1921.  I’d been up Slide Mountain several times before but never bothered to read the plaque, feeling that was something that tourists did, not runners.  But during my thru-run, I did take a few precious seconds from my record-setting attempt (the clock was of course continuing to tick) and read the inscription, and after the thru-run was over I began to read Burroughs’ essays and became very interested in his life and ideas.

I learned that John Burroughs met Walt Whitman when the two men were living in Washington, D.C. and that Burroughs became a great friend, admirer, and defender of the controversial poet. Burroughs seemed to respond to a quality of raw vitality in the man.   He wrote in his journal:

He reminds one of the first men, the beginners, has a primitive, outdoor look—not so much from being in the open air as from the texture and quality of his make—a look as of the earth, the sea, or the mountains.


He was a barbarian, entirely of the open air as opposed to parlors and libraries.

In later years, Burroughs defended Whitman as the “poet of democracy,” one who expressed the energy of the new nation, in contrast with those who fixated on tradition, convention, and superficial beauty. What Whitman lacked, according to Burroughs, was the niceties of modern society.

Burroughs was himself a vigorous man who loved to walk and tramp through the Catskills.  In 1885 he climbed Slide Mountain, not using the trail from Big Indian Valley, but rather bushwhacking straight up the mountain from Woodland Valley.  Once at the summit, he observed:

We saw the world as the hawk or the balloonist sees it when he is three thousand feet in the air. How soft and flowing all the outlines of the hills and mountains beneath us looked! The forests dropped down and undulated away over them, covering them like a carpet. . . . All was mountain and forest on every hand. Civilization seemed to have done little more than to have scratched this rough, shaggy surface of the earth here and there. In any such view, the wild, the aboriginal, the geographical greatly predominate. The works of man dwindle, and the original features of the huge globe come out. Every single object or point is dwarfed; the valley of the Hudson is only a wrinkle in the earth’s surface. You discover with a feeling of surprise that the great thing is the earth itself, which stretches away on every hand so far beyond your ken.

— John Burroughs, “In the Heart of the Southern Catskills”

Burroughs was a master observer of nature with a deep scientific knowledge of the plants, trees, and birds, and the ability to express an emotional connection with the wilderness.  His essays were enormously popular during the late 19th century and early 20th century.  He was also a vigorous outdoorsman, someone who felt the exhilaration of moving, much like myself and other runners and hikers and outdoorspeople:

It is not the walking merely, it is keeping yourself in tune for a walk, in the spiritual and bodily condition in which you can find entertainment and exhilaration in so simple and natural a pastime. You are eligible to any good fortune when you are in the condition to enjoy a walk. When the air and the water taste sweet to you, how much else will taste sweet! When the exercise of your limbs affords you pleasure, and the play of your senses upon the various objects and shows of nature quickens and stimulates your spirit, your relation to the world and to yourself is what it should be,—simple and direct and wholesome. The mood in which you set out on a spring or autumn ramble or a sturdy winter walk, and your greedy feet have to be restrained from devouring the distances too fast, is the mood in which your best thoughts and impulses come to you, or in which you might embark on any noble and heroic enterprise. Life is sweet in such moods, the universe is complete, and there is no failure or imperfection anywhere.

— John Burroughs, “Footpaths”

One aspect of his philosophy is the idea that we draw strength from nature, to the extent that we are willing to expose ourselves to its rough stimuli.  While Burroughs was not a barefoot hiker per se, he used the bare foot as a symbol of this connection with the natural world:

Occasionally on the sidewalk, amid the dapper, swiftly moving, high-heeled boots and gaiters, I catch a glimpse of the naked human foot. Nimbly it scuffs along, the toes spread, the sides flatten, the heel protrudes; it grasps the curbing, or bends to the form of the uneven surfaces,—a thing sensuous and alive, that seems to take cognizance of whatever it touches or passes. How primitive and uncivil it looks in such company,—a real barbarian in the parlor! We are so unused to the human anatomy, to simple, unadorned nature, that it looks a little repulsive; but it is beautiful for all that.

Though it be a black foot and an unwashed foot, it shall be exalted. It is a thing of life amid leather, a free spirit amid cramped, a wild bird amid caged, an athlete amid consumptives. It is the symbol of my order, the Order of Walkers. That unhampered, vitally playing piece of anatomy is the type of the pedestrian, man returned to first principles, in direct contact and intercourse with the earth and the elements, his faculties unsheathed, his mind plastic, his body toughened, his heart light, his soul dilated; while those cramped and distorted members in the calf and kid are the unfortunate wretches doomed to carriages and cushions.

— John Burroughs, Winter Sunshine

In the last couple of years, I’ve started doing a little barefoot running and hiking, and you can imagine my surprise to discover that Burroughs had advocated going barefoot, at least as a metaphor.

Hermit Thrush

One of the thrills for me of following the Long Path was going deep into the Catskill Mountains and discovering the sights and sounds of its primitive forests.  Burroughs grew up in the Catskills and returned there after working in DC, and the Catskill Mountains were his favorite place for adventurous “tramps.”  I am not much of a birder, but during hikes and trail runs in the Catskills I did at some point come to recognize the song of the hermit thrush, which some consider the North American songbird with the most beautiful voice.  I made a point to listen for the hermit thrush during my thru-run, but this time did not hear the bird.

In the summer of 1865, John Burroughs spent a few vacation weeks back at home in the Catskills. While out for a hike, he heard the hermit thrush singing near Batavia Mountain. On returning to his job in Washington, DC, he reported this discovery with great excitement to Walt Whitman, his friend and mentor. Burroughs described the song as “clear, flutelike, deliberate,” an evening hymn, a voice of “calm, sweet solemnity,” and suggested Whitman work the hermit thrush song into the eulogy for Abraham Lincoln which he was then writing.

“Sings oftener after sundown . . . is very secluded . . . likes shaded, dark places,” Whitman noted in his diary. “His song is a hymn . . . in swamps— – is very shy . . . never sings near the farm houses— – never in the settlement – —is the bird of the solemn primal woods & of Nature pure & holy.”

Here are a few lines extracted from Whitman’s poem, “When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d.”  They illustrate how Burroughs’ deep knowledge of the forests found its way into some of the most important poetry of the 19th century.

When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.
. . .

In the swamp, in secluded recesses,
A shy and hidden bird is warbling a song.
Solitary, the thrush,
The hermit, withdrawn to himself, avoiding the settlements,
Sings by himself a song.
Song of a bleeding throat . . .

. . . .

Sing on, sing on, you gray-brown bird,
Sing from the swamps, the recesses, pour your chant from the bushes,
Limitless out of the dusk, out of the cedars and pines.
Sing on, dearest brother, warble your reedy song,
Loud human song, with voice of uttermost woe.

. . .

Then with the knowledge of death as walking one side of me,
And the thought of death close-walking the other side of me,
And I in the middle as with companions, and as holding the hands of companions,
I fled forth to the hiding receiving night that talks not,
Down to the shores of the water, the path by the swamp in the dimness,
To the solemn shadowy cedars and ghostly pines so still.

And the singer so shy to the rest receiv’d me,
The gray-brown bird I know receiv’d us comrades three,
And he sang the carol of death, and a verse for him I love.

From deep secluded recesses,
From the fragrant cedars and the ghostly pines so still,
Came the carol of the bird.

Conclusion

I started out running the Long Path as a personal challenge and adventure, but along the way I discovered the voices of Burroughs and Whitman, and they have had significant impact on me in many areas.  In particular, I’ve found Burroughs to be straightforward and accessible, and as I read more of his essays, I find myself agreeing with his philosophies, interested in becoming a sharper observer of nature, and even starting to identify a few more birds in addition to the hermit thrush.  You can find an old color video on Youtube called “A Day with John Burroughs” that presents a silent movie filmed in 1919 when Burroughs was 80 years old.  It shows three young children visiting him on his farm.  It ends with the following quotation that to me sounds like very good advice:

I am an old man now and come to the summit of my years…but in my heart is the joy of youth for I have learned that the essential things of life are near at hand and happiness is his who but opens his eyes to the beauty which lies before him

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Thank you Lisa and Jim!

Running the Long Path is now available on Amazon!

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Discovering John Burroughs and Walt Whitman on the Long Brown Path

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