Walden Pond has always loomed large in my imagination, but in all my years of living just a stone's throw from it, I've never visited. It's not that I don't love Henry David Thoreau—he and Bon Iver are my two favorite old dead white guys to have ever lived in the woods—it's just that I've never seen the point in going somewhere with droves of other tourists to see the place he went explicitly to get away from the madding crowds. I've always thought if I wanted to follow in Thoreau's footsteps, I'd go somewhere like Marfa, Texas. Nobody goes there. I've also worried that Walden Pond wouldn't live up to my unfairly high expectations. Like the time I met Kenny Rogers and he was wearing tons of pancake makeup and seemed like a celebrity wax museum version of himself.
But after finishing a year of grueling cancer treatment in the heart of the city, a trip to Walden seemed like a fitting way to celebrate my newfound freedom this summer. My overdue pilgrimage there would be a chance to reconnect with nature, close the book on cancer and kick off the rest of my life.
So I booked a weekend at Concord's fanciest bed and breakfast, dug out my dog-eared copy of "Walden" and surprised my boyfriend Ed with my plan. We'd have ourselves a hip, literary staycation, a mere 12 miles from my apartment. And the best part: There'd be no fighting traffic to Cape Cod or packing tiny shampoos into our carry-ons to get through airport security. Forget the rat race, the two of us smarties were about to get transcendental.
If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, I've got all the makings of a very good paver. My little plan had some serious flaws. For starters, the temperature on the morning we left was approximately equal to the core of the sun. It was one of those oppressive New England summer days, already sticky and unbearable by 7 a.m. And then there was the traffic on Route 2—total end-of-days gridlock. We'd gotten an early start, but by the time we pulled into the Walden Pond parking lot, it was already chaos. Every human being in a 50-mile radius had arrived at the same bright idea. I'm sure if I'd done a little Internet research, this would have been all very avoidable. There's probably a whole Wikipedia page about beating the crowds at Walden Pond. But what's the point of a Thoreauvian getaway if I'm consulting my iPhone the whole time?
Since everyone else was fleeing the heat for the water, there was, at least, no line to see the life-size replica of the 10'x15' house where Thoreau lived during his time on Walden. It was very small but lovely, a Tumbleweed house from another time. I envied him: He had only what he needed, no junk drawer full of phone chargers, no Kaboodle full of old nail polishes. And he never had to deal with downstairs neighbors reheating fish at 3 in the morning, or leaving their TV blasting with the channel set to Greta Van Susteren.
The Walden Pond Reservation itself was beautiful in the way that any children's choir is adorable, even if the kids are warbly and off-pitch. You just can't hate trees and open water. But it wasn't pristine, nor was it peaceful. I pushed down some disappointing Kenny Rogers feelings and tried hard to muster awe for what I was seeing. I might have gotten to awe eventually, if not for the screaming children in arm floaties and elderly folks staggering around in layers of sunscreen like tipsy mimes. Then there was the pond water itself: so pond-y, so suspiciously green. I watched a toddler in a saggy swim diaper zombie-walk through the shallowest water. No way I'm swimming here, I thought.
We gamely made our way around the pond, tripping over tree roots on the walking path as we went. I thought about Thoreau's little cabin, and how thirsty he must have been on hot summer days, and how he probably had to drink pond water he boiled on his woodstove first. Yikes. Then I started thinking about how much I love ice in my water. Ice in my Coke. Ice in my coffee. And how much I want to go to that one bar in Faneuil Hall where everything is made of ice. And how glorious air conditioning is. And how it's wonderful that the same God who gave us trees also gave us Netflix.
After what felt like a lifetime, we finished our loop and headed for the car. It was just too blisteringly hot to stay another minute without getting in the dubious pond water. We grabbed Italian ices from the ice cream truck in the parking lot and took off, because nothing says "transcendental" like eating frozen neon-colored sugar water inside a Toyota Venza.
We headed into town and stumbled through a museum about Concord's history next, a thoughtfully curated affair in an old colonial house. There were, again, lots of tourists. And tea sets and muskets. And an Aeolian harp that Thoreau made himself—ever the proto-hipster. I learned a lot and also leaned a lot. I mean, I really needed to sit down several times. Hiking around Walden in the heat really kicked my ass. Thoreau must have been in great shape.
By lunchtime, Ed and I were already overcooked but holding on valiantly to the spirit of the trip. We wandered around Concord's quaint town center, and got sandwiches at a friendly little diner that was packed to the gills with tourists. We got grease stains on our shirts, but were too tired and hot to care.
I was ecstatic to finally reach our bed and breakfast. I didn't even care that it seemed more than a little haunted and a tad dusty for its exorbitant rate. I threw myself on the four-poster bed like we'd just climbed Mount Washington. I was determined never to leave the cool, dark, quiet of this spooky room again. I fell into a dead sleep, and Ed did too. We woke up groggy, after 5 p.m. How had our staycation already come to this in less than a day?
When I remembered we had early dinner reservations, I winced at the thought of going back out into the heat and interacting with humans. I just wanted to read my Stephen King book and stay in the air conditioning, but my sense of staycation duty won out. You can't go on a trip and do nothing. You just can't.
The restaurant, 80 Thoreau, miraculously restored our vacation mojo. Cheese plates and expert wine pairings are a powerful remedy for many ills. And even though it was a little fussy for a place named after a guy who shit in the woods for a year, I'd go back. We tried a little bit of everything, and returned to the inn fat and happy and full of cognac. We rejoiced in the ice-cold air pumping out of the A/C unit, and took hot bubble baths in the whirlpool tub, like the ugliest Americans ever born. The staycation felt redeemed, even when a ghost very clearly visited our room in the night—but that's a story for another time.
The next morning we headed to the South Bridge Boathouse and rented kayaks to paddle down the Concord River, like Thoreau wrote about. I was proud of myself for being so sporty and literate, until I remembered, a mile down the river, that paddling a kayak in blistering heat is a lot for someone who's recently had a mastectomy and radiation.
I thought about hitching a ride back with a passing bass boat, but stopped paddling for long stretches instead. I let the current carry me and tried hard, once again, to relax. I just couldn't. Between the gaudy mansions lining the riverbanks and the other kayakers zipping by me, I felt less like Thoreau and more like a sunburned Greta Garbo: I just vanted to be alone.
By the final morning of our trip, I swore to myself I'd never stay at a bed and breakfast again. It's wasn't so much the bed as it was the breakfast that got to me. Making small talk with strangers over meals is something I associate with awkward OKCupid dates and job interviews. I felt crowded, again, by my well-intentioned fellow travelers. I just wanted to skip the innocent banter and drink my coffee in solitude. Maybe I've got more in common with ol' Thoreau than I thought.
Our Walden adventure wasn't the cool, literary staycation I hoped it would be, but it wasn't a total loss. It's done what travel is supposed to do: revealed a greater truth about where I'm at in my life. And the truth is, I feel worn out and cramped by city living. I ache to be closer to nature, not just on nights and weekends and occasional staycations. I need night stars and solitude, 365 days a year.
I've always imagined a simpler life for myself, but it's only recently occurred to me that I've chosen to complicate it at almost every turn. In the past year, while dealing with my cancer diagnosis and the ensuing dark night of the soul and body, I've gotten the strange but welcome gift of total clarity. Cancer is a little bit like a 10'x15' cabin off the grid: it's harsh living, but it gets your priorities in order real fast. Now that I'm back in the land of the living, I can see what I don't need and what I simply can't live without. I can do without hip gastro pubs and cool rock shows. But I can't live another day without fresh air, real quiet and space to stretch out.
I was born in the middle of nowhere, and nowhere is exactly where I want to be again. Away from the crowds, but closer to my people. The whole time he was supposedly isolated from the rest of the world, Thoreau was within walking distance of his mom's house. He did his laundry there and had dinner with her every week. That sounds pretty ideal to me. I dream of homegrown tomatoes, a front porch and Sunday dinners with my folks. It's pretty attainable, doable stuff. So what am I waiting for?
I'm glad my weird Walden Pond trip kicked me into gear, because it's time do as Thoreau says, and move confidently in the direction of my dreams. And for me that means due north, to a little farmhouse down some old dirt road. And maybe up there in the boonies, I'll find more cool quiet and time to think—like the Mary Chapin Carpenter song. And maybe if I do more writing, I'll figure out if I have anything to say. But if it turns out I don't actually have a single thing to say, there's always the chance I'll be too busy simply being happy to notice.
Thoreau wrote: "Simplify, simplify, simplify." And now that I've seen where he went to do exactly that, I'm saying back to him: "I hear you, man." So I guess I'm moving to Maine now. And it's all kind of Walden Pond's fault.
Well played, Thoreau, well played.