he pilgrims change with the seasons, explained the hobbling volunteer park ranger. “Pilgrims?” I asked. “Do you mean Transcendentalists? Existentialists?”
She laughed and shook her head, but was distracted before she could answer. “Hey! Hey, you two! There’s no jogging on the hiking path!”
She took some hurried hobbles in the direction of the runners before resigning herself with a wave of the hand. “I’d never catch them anyways,” she told us. Another jogger passed behind her as she explained (to no effect) that Walden Pond was not a gym.
The winter, she continued, brought hikers, silence-seekers, bird-watchers, and snowshoers, but the summer meant swimmers and “sun worshippers.” For them, the park was all about the beach, and not the stone relic of the cabin at which we’d arrived.
“Thorough would have hated this,” said the ranger. It’s true: he detested monuments. “I suppose they meant well when they built it, though.”
Henry David Thoreau, which our camp ranger pronounced Thorough, as the writer did, came to squat on a piece of Massachusetts land owned by Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1846, near the glacier lake called Walden Pond. It cost him $28.12 to build the home (“Refuse shingles for roof and sides: $4.00.”) He came to the woods to “live deliberately” and “self-sufficiently.” He wanted to trade material goods for articles of thought. His memoir “Walden” was published in 1854 and has since become an essential piece of the American literary canon.
It has not, it seems, entered the American thinking canon. The day we visited, not many had come to the Thoreau cabin to contemplate. Few do, at least in summer. Most want to take a picture beside his statue and head for the lakefront to improve their tans.
Raised on Thoreau, I was excited to finally see the spot he’d written about with such care. I wanted to walk the trails he’d walked and stand where Emerson had come to visit him. His cabin was about the size of the shack where my uncle took me when it was time, he said, to “live deliberately” for a few days, rather than buy and relax.
I had come to contemplate, to transcend, to experience nature as something holy, as an outdoor church, in the spirit of Emerson, Thoreau and naturalist John Muir.
“You only need sit still long enough in some attractive spot in the woods that all its inhabitants may exhibit themselves to you by turns,” wrote Thoreau.
I imagined him here now. Or I tried to. But summer at Walden Pond does not allow much room for contemplation. There are just too many joggers, iced lattes drinkers, water splashers, and iPhone equipped shouters.
Thoreau’s original cabin was comprised of nine stone blocks, and its insides just big enough for a small bed, a desk, a wood-burning stove, and a couple of simple chairs (“Two second-hand windows with glass: $2.43.”) It looked out over a sparkling lake, which he called the “landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is Earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.”
Thoreau, the ranger told us, went into town — Concord — once a week, but generally preferred solitude. He died of lockjaw and at 5-foot-7 was hardly an imposing man.
The ranger’s walkie-talkie beeped and crackled (“Parking lot at near capacity.”). Trying to maintain fewer than 1,000 visitors in the park at any given time, she told us, was a tough task. Just then, a family with four children rushed past us. One child threw a hot dog at another, stray chunks ricocheting off of the cabin replica’s walls.
Thorough would have hated this.
“I have a great deal of company in my house,” he wrote, “especially in the morning, when nobody calls.”
In his way he also wrote about hot dogs, iPhones, and human clutter, but stuck his observations between the lines. He weaved “delicate” baskets, he said. “But I had not made it worth anyone’s while to buy them. Yet not the less, in my case, did I think it worth my while to weave them, and instead of studying how to make it worth men’s while to buy my baskets, I studied rather how to avoid the necessity of selling them.”
For a sense of that spirit, I guessed I’d probably have to come back in winter. Maybe then I’d stumble on some different kinds of pilgrims, those with an appreciation of the dictates of Thoreau’s wisdom, “a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust.”