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“The best idea we ever had”

It is John Muir Day this Friday 21 April. It should be the perfect excuse to get out walking, writes Kevin Lelland of the John Muir Trust.

“The best idea we ever had,” said Pulitzer Prize winning author and associate of the Wilderness Society Wallace Stegner of the United States National Parks system. And the man who more than anyone helped turn that idea into an enduring reality was a boy from East Lothian who at ten years old set sail with his family on an emigrant ship across the Atlantic.

John Muir was many things: a writer, an explorer, a mountaineer, a scientist. He embraced all of the natural world, from midges to mountain ranges, and recognised that everything is connected, believing that we should be part of nature with our heads and our hearts.

But it was his success as a campaigner that turned him to an American legend. He famously led US President Teddy Roosevelt into the mountains on a three-day walking and camping trip to experience first-hand the joy of wildness. The president returned to the White House determined that America’s wild lands should belong to the public and be protected in perpetuity.

On the 175th anniversary of his birth – 21 April 2013 – John Muir Day became an annual celebration. This year museums, parks and schools from Denver to Dunbar will be holding events to honour the man recognised as the founding father of modern conservation.

John Muir (right) with President Theodore Roosevelt, above Yosemite

Muir was known for his long walks. In 1868, he made a two-month trek from San Francisco into the heart of Yosemite, covering over 300 miles of gruelling mountain terrain. This followed his famous 1000-mile walk the year before, from Indiana to the Gulf of Mexico, equipped with little more than a map and compass.

Few of us will ever manage such epic expeditions. But most of us have the ability to enjoy a walk in nature, whether that’s a gentle stroll with the dog, a ramble along a coastal path or a more serious expedition into the hills.

Muir was way ahead of his time when he wrote, more than a century ago, “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.”

Today, we have the advantage of generations of scientific work that confirms what Muir understood intuitively. It is now proven that these special moments in nature that shape and enrich our lives benefit us both physically and mentally.

Research has shown, for example, that post-operative patients with more access to natural sunlight during recovery experience decreased stress and pain, resulting in reduced medical costs.

Another in-depth study, commissioned by Natural England, found that if every household was provided with good access to quality green space, it could save over £2 billion in health care costs across the UK.

And according to recent work by a John Muir Trust member and University of Dundee PhD student Mandy Cook, taking dementia sufferers into forests helps them continue to learn and improves their walking – something that can be lost because dementia affects spatial awareness.

As well as benefitting our bodies and our minds, walking is also healthy for our economy. In the USA, 292 million people a year visit the country’s 58 national parks. It’s calculated that for every $1 spent by visitors, the parks generate an estimated $4 benefit to the wider economy.

Closer to home, VisitScotland’s Visitor Survey 2015 found that our greatest tourist attraction is our landscape and scenery, with 55 per cent of visitors enjoying a walk, and a significant 39 per cent saying they went for a long walk, hike or ramble during their stay.

Perhaps, if we take care of our landscape, we shouldn’t be surprised if these statistics and the resulting benefits grow in the future. As the world becomes increasingly industrialised we’re fortunate across our Highlands and Lowlands to have many special places for our feet and minds to wander undisturbed.

Whatever your motivation for walking, and wherever you stroll this coming weekend why not take a moment to celebrate Muir’s legacy. As he said, “Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.”

Find out more about what’s happening during the John Muir Day celebrations at www.johnmuirtrust.org/celebrate-john-muir-day-2017 including a 50 per cent discount offer to new members of the Trust joining online before April 23rd.

Looking for some inspiration on where to walk this John Muir Day? Here are a few suggestions:
Walk the John Muir Way
Head to the Steall Falls and the Nevis Gorge
Explore the remote golden sands dunes at Sandwood Bay
Go long and adventure from Sligachan to Elgol on Skye.

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Walking can be dangerous and is done entirely at your own risk. Information is provided free of charge; it is each walker's responsibility to check it and navigate using a map and compass.