It’s nearly Memorial Day. To commemorate, we’re revisiting a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Then: This holiday tends to be a day spent in contemplation, in the great outdoors. If you’re unable to take on such adventures today, bask in the work of John Muir and read about the journeys of yesteryear, with four selections from our archives.
The poem pays tribute to what was then a new form of civic observance: a day set aside to commemorate those who had perished in the Civil War, by placing flags and flowers on soldiers’ graves, a custom that gradually gave rise to our modern Memorial Day honoring all who give their lives in military service. Its first readers likely felt an elegiac pang all the more acutely: By the time the poem circulated in the June 1882 Atlantic, it would have been national news that Longfellow had died just a few weeks earlier at his home in Cambridge, at the age of 75.
Decades before Yosemite Valley became a national park, Muir made a home for himself in the area. His journal entries from those years provide a window into a daily life full of wild beauty and free from responsibility: He leads a meandering months-long excursion with a flock of sheep at his heels, sleeps on a boulder beneath a waterfall, and faces off with more than one bear.
Mountain biking? Too “safe and slow” for George Peck, who taught himself to ride a unicycle through boulder fields and along snow-crusted mountain trails, and even jump it over picnic tables. At the age of 56, he was still doing it, and he wasn’t alone: In a 1997 profile, the writer Michael Finkel detailed how Peck, through his strange obsession, helped invent a sport.
A year later, Finkel went deep into the country’s national forests with the practitioners of another strange sport: technical tree climbing. He described an organization of hundreds of recreational climbers who dedicated their time to scaling immense and ancient trees in strong winds, through nasty injuries, and, at times, behind park rangers’ backs.
“The more stressful life on the ground becomes, the more some people feel the need to take time out in trees,” one climber told him.
Climbing a 15,912-foot mountain as part of a cultural exchange in 2011, Gregory Crouch found himself navigating both political suspicions and a freezing thunderstorm. But the difficult ascent became a shared escape—and a bridge. “Mountains is free land,” one of his Iranian hosts observed. “Everybody in the mountains is member of this same country.”
If an escape to the mountains isn’t possible, here are a few slightly less adventurous suggestions for the holiday.
Get engrossed in a new book, whatever your mood. Our warm-weather reading list offers something for every craving, whether page-turners or tales of human connection.
Watch a movie—but make it interesting. Our film critic compiled a list of 30 “genuinely unprecedented” films. It’s easy to call a movie unique—but these actually are, he says.
Feeling cooped up? Wander the halls of a virtual museum. Try a tour of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (or something else from our list of free cultural activities you can do from home).