It’s a Sunday afternoon when we turn onto Highway 126 into what could be complete disaster. A line of cars slowly moves past the entry of Walden Pond. A sign in front of the parking lot announces “Closed.”
“How does a State Preserve close?” I ask Tracy.
She shrugs and murmurs a reply to deflect my frustration.
We drive in the caterpillar formation of cars trying to find a place to turn around and escape Walden madness.
A woman in a blue toyota is pulled over on the side of the road, yelling into her cell phone.
“Did you hear me? Walden Pond is closed. Too many people!”
Walden is a far cry from the home Thoreau described in Where I Lived and What I Lived For: “Where I lived was as far off as many a region viewed nightly by astronomers.” Today, Walden is a stone’s throw from Boston, a reachable oasis in an urban hub. It has become everyone’s escape, which makes it not an escape at all, but a shared catharsis, a reminder of what was before humans deforested and overpopulated the entire continent.
Thoreau went to the woods “to live deliberately,” and one must envy his ability to have done so. Today, we have to drive farther and farther to reach seclusion, and even in the most isolated places, we are more likely to encounter another tourist than a bear or deer (preferably a deer).
“Thoreau would roll over in his grave,” Tracy says as we turn off the main road onto a neighborhood street leading through quaint New England Victorians.
To our left, a field rolls into rows of chard, wildflowers, cucumbers, and squash. The small scale multiple crop layout is the antithesis to midwestern mono-cropping. It’s an organic paradise, a Whole Field without the box store, a sight unseen. We stop, put out a blanket, and dig into an impromptu picnic near the field operated by the Walden Woods Project. Cars continue to pass by, a dull roar of frustration, turning around, leaving Walden with exclamations of, “What a waste of time!”
Everyone is looking at their watches. Sign says: “Park reopens at 2:30.” It’s noon. Thoreau whispers in the background: “Our life is frittered away by details.”
The would-be city escapists don’t hear the irony, yelling out car windows to park rangers, “What on earth are we supposed to do for two hours?”
Their angry cars roar past, mourning for another Sunday lost.
Yet, the trees still sway above their puddles of shade and the forest swallows the evidence of humankind. With a full belly, I feel the annoyances of sharing paradise with a thousand other people dwindle and we drive. The road twists around and eventually, we come to a bike trail on the side of the road.
As we hike through the old growth pines, the abundant ferns, and the rock walls built by Indians centuries ago, it occurs to me that we could just walk all the way to Walden Pond. It’s a good two miles away at this point, but neither of us have brought watches...and why not? Our lives won’t be frittered away by details.
“They can try to keep us out of Walden Pond, but they can’t keep the Walden Pond out of us!” I exclaim.
Tracy laughs at my bad joke, and almost immediately, our decision to walk hands over an unexpected gift: the Gropius House, which is pretty much to modern architecture what The Corrections is to modern literature. Walter Gropius, founder of the German Bauhaus movement, built the house when he came to teach at Harvard in 1937... it’s a beautiful house on a remarkable piece of land:
From the Gropius House, we make the arduous trek to Walden, avoiding the main road as much as possible, cutting through the woods and heading in the general direction of Walden Pond. And then, there it is... behind a barbed wire fence. We pull the wires apart from each other, squeeze through, and join the throngs of tourists at the lake.
I put my feet in the lake and exhale: “So this is Walden Pond.”
“Yup, this is it.”
“We came, we saw, we Concord.”
Another bad pun. Walden inspires them, I swear it.
Ten minutes later, we begin the hike back to the car because clearly, Walden Pond was all about the journey and not the destination.
Passing the caterpillar line of cars on the way out, I notice the “Closed” sign has been revised once again.
“Closed. Reopens at 5:30.”
Good thing we didn’t wait on time. We stroll back towards Boston and Thoreau’s words echo behind, reminding us not to fall asleep in our cars, walled into buildings, glued to TV and computer screens.
“The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?”