It’s a bit embarrassing. I’ve lived in the Boston area the better part of a year. I’ve unwittingly paraphrased, repeatedly, a line from Walden: “…I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life…” But until a few days ago, I’d never visited Walden Pond.
I didn’t even know it was in Massachusetts.
Even worse, I - a man who has constantly and sometimes annoyingly praised the wonders of adventure and “a simple life” - have never read Thoreau.
My girlfriend and partner in this crazy wonderful scheme, Jen, recently bought a car. The tiny blue Honda Civic is our vehicle to that adventurous and simpler life. What better way to christen it, she suggested, than to visit the place where a man once thought as we do? Where Thoreau wrote his seminal work, a book that has inspired generations of discontents to eschew material luxuries in favor of approaching the world on its own basic, humble terms?
We packed a light lunch of bread, cheese, salami and fruit, and drove thirty minutes to Concord, Mass. Not ten yards off the side of the road is a small grey shack. Jen excitedly pointed, “There it is! That’s Thoreau’s cabin!” I was put off by its closeness to passing traffic. After parking, as walked past, we saw that it was a replica. I was simultaneously relieved and disappointed, and then I felt just plain dumb. Of course, I thought. That shack couldn’t have lasted 150 years.
The path around Walden Pond begins at a small public beach. Surrounded by sunbathing hipsters and gaggles of brown children, Jen and I found a secluded hillside away from the crowd and had our lunch, intermittently reading each other paragraphs from a copy of Walden we’d picked up in Cambridge just for the occasion. I was restless, though; this was my first time outside Boston city limits in months, and the country air was inebriating.
It’s about 1.5 miles around Walden Pond, and the main trail never strays far from the water. So close, in fact, that at points we found ourselves walking through shallow sections of the pond. Shining schools of perch nibbled at our toes. Ducks bobbed frantically, their feathered behinds sticking out comically.
Trains still roar by on the same route that existed in Thoreau’s day. I pulled a rusted railroad spike out of the ground, halfway between the tracks and the water, and wondered if was old enough.
Glacial stones jut out nobly from the eroding hillside; scrub pines, white pines, white birches, white poplars, wild blueberries, and variegated ivy cling precariously to falling soil. It’s as if the entire countryside intends on throwing itself headfirst into the pond.
This was Jen’s first hiking experience, so we took our time. After about an hour, we reached the site of Thoreau’s original cabin. An immense stone cairn sits nearby, a testament to all the travelers who’ve passed through and paid their respects by leaving a single rock. The atmosphere was hushed. I looked over to see Jen sitting a distance away, atop a desiccated tree stump, holding her knees, like a solemn wood nymph. Next to the cairn, a low square of earth is separated by a modest fence, short posts and thick chain. This is where Thoreau slept, wrote, ate, entertained, survived - no, more than survived, he lived - pontificated, philosophized, and transcended. Standing there, I was struck by a ghostly sense of past and future. His past and our future, connected by the tenuous umbilical of both having stood on the same square foot of brown forest floor.
A moment of silence and we continued, passing men catching crawfish, young boys with fishing poles catching nothing, fellow hikers, mostly quiet, taking pause to skip stones and breathe deeply, to find if we could taste the faintest hint of life’s marrow on the wind. We stumbled on a slew of boulders like steps, leading down off the path to the water’s edge.
Jen hitched up her skirt to dip her feet in the water. She promptly slipped, yelping quickly, and tumbled into the pond. Laughing, I dove in after her and we swam, uncaring.
Walking back with heavy pants, sodden clothes, Jen awkwardly trying to hide the transparency of her skirt, we grinned madly at everyone entering the park. As if we had a secret they were about to discover. As if we were prisoners who, having had their first taste of a real world, were now gleefully and anxiously counting down the days to freedom.