‘Looking for John Muir’ a Misguided Travelogue


In making “Looking for John Muir” with England’s Channel Four, writer-explorer-host Robert Perkins set out a very basic task for himself: Retrace naturalist Muir’s 1867 Louisville, Ky.-to-northern Florida walk, and find out why the journey turned him into America’s first great radical ecologist and the father of the national park system.

What Perkins really does is:

A) See how tough it is driving a sidecar motorcycle down truck-infested highways;

B) Find out how much hotels charge for putting up Sam, his terrier;


C) Make us wonder why he asks total strangers on backwoods roads who John Muir was.

On the last point alone, this travelogue is hopelessly misguided. Perkins may be trying to be cute with his pop quiz, but he only ends up insulting his quizzees and looking foolish himself. Actually, the whole trip--with one exception--looks foolish, if not pointless.

Not only does Perkins not glean new information about Muir for the viewer who would also flunk his quiz, but also by imagining himself walking in Muir’s footsteps, he seems to want to be the second coming of Muir. Under Perkins’ quiet, aw-shucks demeanor, this is less an eco-trip than an ego-trip.

The landscape, even in relatively undeveloped portions of the mid-South, has so transformed from Muir’s time that we should hardly be surprised--as Perkins continuously is--that his journey defies retracing. The filmed voyage looks as unplanned as it actually was, and rarely does Perkins or his director-cameraman, Graham Johnston, make any unexpected discoveries. (One is an ornery backwoods hunter calling the woods, Muir-like, “my church.”)

Perkins’ one planned visit, to environmentalist friend Sandy West, suddenly lends this hour some meaning. West, in preserving one of the Sea Islands off the South Carolina coast, is a kind of present-day Muir, intent on leaving wilderness alone.

For viewers who already know about Muir, West’s work is stirring. For others, she’s just the first person Perkins can carry on a real conversation with. By the time Perkins reaches Florida, it’s clear that this was a trek hardly worth taking, let alone airing.

* “Looking for John Muir” airs at 8 tonight on KCET-TV Channel 28.