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The complete Walden story

Walden Pond, about 20 miles west of Boston.

Last month, I made mention of a discovery I made in Massachusetts last month. Here is the fuller story, published in today’s Register-Guard:

The Fourth of July is almost here, meaning it’s time to tell the complete story.

About that day in downtown Boston last month when my wife and I stumbled across one of the oldest bookstores in America, the Brattle Book Shop, which began in 1825.

About author Henry David Thoreau.

And about finding the unexpected.

Since reading a copy of “The Portable Thoreau” in the summer of 1972 — just before leaving for college — I’ve always had a certain respect for the author, even if reading him can be like scrambling up a steep mountain in ankle-deep scree.

But I admire people who dare go their own ways, which Thoreau certainly did. “If a man does not keep pace with his companions,” he famously wrote, “perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.”

In 1845 to 1847, his 27-month stay at the Walden Pond cabin he built was only one of many ways he expressed his independence. Thus, when I saw, in Brattle’s open-air collection, a copy of “Thoreau,” a 1939 biography by Henry Seidel Canby — for a mere $5 — I snatched it up.

I had a speaking gig that evening, but, looking at my watch, deemed I had time to skim through it and other books. In so doing, I was interested to note that Thoreau once mused with friend and fellow author Ralph Waldo Emerson about going to see Oregon, though author Canby insists, “Oregon was just tall talk.”

Compulsive about putting historical events in a broader context — Eugene Skinner first arrived in Lane County as Thoreau was hunkering down in “the woods” — I was intrigued to learn, on page 217, that Thoreau “entered into residence on the fourth of July, 1845, to be reporter of Walden Pond for two years and three months.”

So this Sunday marks the 165-year anniversary of Henry David’s quest to live in the woods in Concord, Mass., to see what he could learn.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” he wrote in “Walden; or, Life in the Woods,” “to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

Heady stuff for someone like me, whose life has been predicated by deadline after deadline. No wonder Walden’s quest for enlightenment — imagine, two-plus years to just sit, think and write — had always held in me such wonder.

Later that day, when it came time to leave for the speaking engagement in Boxborough, 25 miles west of Boston, it was clearly the Thoreau influence that caused me to recommend to She Who Fronts the Essential Facts of Life With Me that we bag the MapQuest directions.

MapQuest wanted us to take Interstate 93 north, then Interstate 495 south. Boring. We chose, instead, to wind our way along smaller, less traveled roads, a path which, in Frostian terms, would ultimately “make all the difference.”

We were mesmerized by the Massachusetts countryside. Large, neat, shingled houses tucked amid trees, nearly all surrounded by unfenced grass and splashed with American flags.

Eventually, we segued onto a thickly forested, lightly trafficked area — we had little idea where we were — that reminded me a bit of the Old McKenzie Highway (242) before you break into the plateau of lava.

“Did you see that sign?” She Who … said. “The Shop at Walden Pond.”

A replica of the cabin he built in 1845.

Before I could react to whatever this sacrilegious setup was, I saw it through the trees: a glimmering lake. And a Forest Service-type wooden sign: Walden Pond.

“Oh. My. Gosh,” I said. “This is it!”

We had accidentally found Thoreau’s Walden Pond.

Never mind that in July and August, more than 100,000 people will visit the pond each month. On this weekday in early May, only a couple dozen people mingled around the pond.

It is a beautiful body of water, surrounded by mainly deciduous trees and, at 61 acres, about half the size of Cottage Grove Lake or Sutton Lake on Highway 101 north of Florence. (For photos, see my blog at

I walked to its edges, took some photos, splashed some Walden water in my face. We poked around a replica of Thoreau’s one-room cabin. (Given its java hut size, it’s a good thing he was a loner.) And before leaving, stopped in the gift shop that the non-materialistic Thoreau may have frowned on but, tucked into the trees and full of rough-hewn timber, was tastefully done. (I passed on buying a “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” T-shirt, but couldn’t resist the “Simplify, Simplify” hot chocolate mug.)

Good thing he was a loner. This place is small.

“Every journey,” the Austrian-born philosopher Martin Buber once wrote, “has a secret destination of which the traveler is unaware.”

In a state with 35,782 miles of roads and with us having no clue about the pond’s location, we had found one of those secret destinations.

How sad to miss such wonders. How sad to travel only life’s freeways and discover — to paraphrase Thoreau’s words written from Walden Pond — that when it came time to die, you had not lived.

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