Column: Walking (and Driving) in Thoreau’s Steps

For the Valley News
Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Concord, Mass.

Living in almost-northern New England as I do, in the nation’s smallest (and possibly most serene) state capital, I can forget how hectic life can appear just a few dozen miles south of here. Getting ready for a day of walking and talking around Walden Pond with a couple of humanities professors, I drove south on Labor Day, just as Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine were emptying via several interstate highways, and was indelibly reminded.

I could tell early on, in the first few miles of I-89, that it was not going to be a day for cruise control; it was instead to be heads-up self-control. South of Lebanon, the traffic grew thicker; and at the turn straight south at the junction with I-93 at Concord, the traffic was backed up ahead of the off-ramps. If Walden was going to be the idyllic Eden described by Henry David Thoreau, it would be the eye of a vast hurricane of hurrying, hurtling humanity.

Luckily, the signage on the way was accurate; in about three hours, locked tightly in a line of traffic, I spotted one lonely parking spot right in front of the entrance to the Colonial Inn. A few seconds later, while drivers behind me fretted, I slid into a spot no more than 16 inches longer than my car at each end. I took a few minutes to unwind, reflected that part of the inn was once the original Thoreau house in Concord, Mass., then checked in.

Next morning I breakfasted leisurely and called my producer, at the hour of our appointment, to see how he was doing. He was still an hour away on an interstate “like a parking lot.” Luckily, the directions to Walden Woods that the desk clerk gave me were simple, and I slipped into the parking lot at the Walden Pond Visitors’ Center before the attendants arrived to start collecting fees. I was out of the hubbub, sort of — just as Thoreau was, over 170 years earlier when he famously set up in a simple cabin in Walden Woods.

People in wet bathing suits began popping out of the shrubbery, drying off, and climbing into their cars. Apparently there’s an early-morning spate of swimmers who come to the pond before work to exercise in its waters.

Something else I’d forgotten — in this case because of having been away from the academic environment for several years: Many professors nowadays are younger than my own children. But the two we were here to meet and walk with were delightful: a professor of philosophy from UMass Lowell, and a professor of literature from Purchase College — State University of New York. The philosopher was into running, the outdoor life as exemplified by Thoreau, and his new role as a father. The literature prof was a young mother, a native of Concord whose book I’d already read — Black Walden: Slavery and its Aftermath in Concord, Massachusetts. I’d had no idea before I read it of the extent of slavery in what we consider the cradle of abolitionism, the cruel measures enacted to monitor the slaves and keep them in line, and the fear that slave owners had of their human chattels.

Getting to the pond from the parking lot involves crossing a very busy street. You push a button on a light pole, and a flashing yellow light stops traffic long enough for a brisk crossing. Then it’s down a bulldozed dugway to the beach. The place was already busy by midmorning: oiled sunbathers, kids playing in the shallows, and tiny heads of swimmers far out in the pond.

The pond itself is a kettlehole, formed when a large block of ice, broken from a retreating ice sheet, melted and left the hole. It’s spring-fed and unusually pure. An easy trail runs all around it, fenced on both sides to prevent clambering down the banks into the water or up onto the oak-dense slopes above. Swimmers who want some privacy can easily walk the beach to quiet spots.

The site of Thoreau’s famous tiny cabin is about half a mile along the shore, set back from a beautiful cove and nestled in a shallow glen with a view of the water. Thoreau was a surveyor, and a canny observer of terrain. I could see right away that, although his water had to come up from the pond, firewood came downhill. The cabin’s exact site, determined by excavations, is marked by a rectangle of granite posts. Half a million people come to this spot each year, and many bring stones, from all over the world, to add to a large heap nearby.

Thoreau’s expressed reason for building here was to live simply and cheaply, and “suck out all the marrow of life.” But he chose Walden Woods also because it was a neighborhood of undesirables — former slaves, dirt-poor tradesmen, eccentrics. He kept careful journals and wandered everywhere — “sauntering,” he called it — but he was hardly alone. Friends often dropped in to talk, and he got to town himself fairly often, walking along the tracks of the new railroad that ran past one end of the pond, and waving familiarly to the train men as they rode past.

We hiked from the site of Thoreau’s cabin to the spot where Brister Freeman, a freed slave, squatted illegally and built a meager life. Nobody ever made the effort to force him off the land, probably because it was less trouble not to. The professor pointed out the animal pen he made, the hard way, hewing out a hedge-and-ditch fence with pick and shovel. If you didn’t know what you were looking at today in the quiet woods, you’d probably not notice it.

Professors don’t just teach; they also inspire enthusiasm for their passions. I must say that the two youngsters I hiked with today did that for me. I’m off to get the new biography of Thoreau.

Willem Lange can be reached at willem.lange@comcast.net.