Famous lines from Thoreau's "Walden, or Life in the Woods." Credit: MerylMel13

Visiting (not) Thoreau’s Walden.

Visiting Walden Pond, where the famous American transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau wrote his treatise Walden, or Life in the Woods—especially on a hot, sunny Saturday morning in early summer—is about as far from Thoreau’s experience living there as the horses and carts on the streets of colonial New Amsterdam are from the taxi-filled gridlock of modern Manhattan. Today the small, pond where Thoreau spent his solitary two years in the 1850s is known as Walden Pond State Reservation, and its location (only a short drive from Boston) makes it a popular location for city folks looking to escape the heat.

My sister and I arrived around 10:30 on Saturday morning, only to be greeted by signs reading “Walden Pond Closed: Will Reopen at 1:30 p.m..” Drat.

As we drove along the two-lane road that leads past the pond we saw Park vehicles blocking the entrance to the parking lot, and Park staff turning away visitors who’d walked in from nearby Lincoln or Concord. While we pondered what to do for the next three hours, I watched enviously as bathers who’d arrived minutes before us walked down from the parking lot toward the cool, rippling water.

If you’re of an intellectual bent, you might be surprised by how much there is to do in tiny Concord, Massachusetts and the surrounding area. The town is home to literary and historical landmarks galore, including the homes of Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. It’s close to Minute Man National Historical Park, a great place to visit if you’ve read (or, like me, reread, and reread) the children’s book Sam the Minuteman, with its gripping (to a five year old!) refrain “The redcoats are coming, the redcoats are coming!”

If you’d like to pay respect to some of America’s literary greats, you can wander in beautiful Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, where Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne and Alcott are buried along Author’s Ridge. Or you can browse the quintessentially quaint shopfronts and restaurants of downtown Concord (just be careful when you park! Many of the metered spots are only good for an hour).

Sadly, none of these options is anything like diving into deep, cool water, and so we chose to wander local back roads in search of another swimming hole. After extensive pouring over local maps, we turned up a few spots of blue which ended up being either tiny, swampy or inaccessible. The one large, sparkling and deserted lake we found turned out to be a drinking water reserve surrounded with “No Trespassing” signs. Drat, again.

Finally we turned into the driveway of deCordova Sculpture Park in Lincoln, MA where we spent an hour or so wandering among the outdoor sculptures, examining works made of out metal, concrete, and recycled tires, and checking out the photography and sculpture exhibits in the mercifully air-conditioned museum. All in all, the museum was fascinating, if pricey ($12 dollars for admission, $10 for students) and by the time we were ready to leave, it was nearly 1:30, and we headed back to Walden, anxious for our swim.

The number of cars had multiplied by the time we arrived, lining both sides of route 126. A state trooper drove along the shoulder of the road with a megaphone, directing waiting cars to move closer to the center lines so local traffic could pass on the left and right. The sheer number of vehicles was a bit overwhelming for a pond only 1.7 miles around, and I wondered, as we finally paid our 5$ parking fee and began to walk down towards the water, if it’d really be worth visiting with so many other people around. I’ve been to Walden before, mostly mid-week or on slightly overcast days when I was able to wander the shoreline trail without having to listen to the conversations of the groups of visitors before and behind me, days when I was able to explore the replica of Thoreau’s cabin, as well as the original cabin site itself in solitary quiet, thinking over all I’d read of Thoreau’s work in high school and undergraduate American literature courses.

Famous lines from Thoreau's "Walden, or Life in the Woods." Credit: MerylMel13

The beach closest to the parking lot was crowded with visitors, and as my sister and I walked around on the pond path, the number of visitors slowly diminished. Nearly half way around the pond, we had to wade across to the far shore through thigh deep water from recent heavy rains, and after that we were able to find a quiet spot where the foliage parted and large stones led down into the water. Though a few conversations carried over the ripples, most other people were out of sight elsewhere along the shoreline, and the crowds on the beach opposite were just a mass of colorful, moving dots.

The water was cold and still, dropping off quickly into darkness when it became too deep to be penetrated by the sun. As I floated on my back, staring at the blue sky, the traffic and the three-hour wait floated away from me, as formless and light as the wispy clouds reflected on the water all around me.

View of Walden Pond, in Concord, MA. Credit: Pablo Sanchez

When we left an hour or so later, the parking lot was closed again until 4:30. Cars anxiously waiting their turn trolled back and forth in front of entrance. Looking over my shoulder at the people crowding along the little beach, I sighed with centuries full of envy: what I wouldn’t give to have this place to myself for an afternoon, or a year’s worth of afternoons. I’d live in a sparsely furnished, one-room cabin, smoke my pipe and nearly freeze in the winter.  I’d fish, garden, and spend all my time alone. Heck, I’d even write a book about it! Thoreau was a lucky, lucky man.

Due to extensive run-off and heavy rains, access to Walden Pond State Reservation has been restricted for the 2010 summer season. Call ahead (978.369.3254) to find out pond conditions and current restrictions before your visit!

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