on Walden Pond

Didn’t realize until I was studying my maps this morning that I’d be riding right by Walden Pond. I felt a sort of bemused disbelief.

Walden is the book that put me on the path to bike travel. It’s the book that prompted me to quit my job at 17 and stop driving, to pursue a more deliberate lifestyle in the hope of spiritual fulfillment. It’s had a greater impact on my life and thought than any other book I’ve ever read.

And here I was on an accidental pilgrimage to the place that shaped it, nurtured it, named it. I was wholly unprepared.

As I turned onto Concord Rd, the emotions began to well up. Houses dotted the landscape, but they were well spaced and not out of place. Most of the Massachusetts countryside I’ve encountered is beautiful, and even this close to Boston, it’s still old stone fence rows, farm houses, and trees, trees, trees, running over gentle hills.

As I’d expected, the wheels of commerce have realized downtown Concord’s chief commodity is Quaint. And the storefronts are chock full of things for the middle-aged and older to buy as gifts for their friends, their children, their grandchildren, their spouses, and their selves. But then I saw a church, and it looked like it might be old enough, and I wondered how long the thick-trunked tree standing before it had been growing, and a thrill passed down my spine.

In the front yard of a high school, at the corner of Walden and Thoreau, I stopped to take a picture. People watched me and I wondered how common it was to see touring cyclists taking pictures of their bike against that street sign. But it didn’t feel sacriligious, and I didn’t feel like a tourist. I’d earned this, whether I’d intended to or not. Thoreau documented his travels in his notebooks; I’m documenting mine on an iPhone.

A mile or two further down Walden Rd, there it was, on my right. People parked their cars in the lot on the other side of the street. A group of high schoolers were herded over the crosswalk by their teachers. I pulled over and leaned my bike against the fence, grabbed my phone and my camera, and headed down the path.

At the bottom was a beach. Small children and mothers, maybe some nannies, pressed tightly into the small patch of sand and surf alotted them. Paths led away from the beach, into the trees. One said it led to a recreation of Thoreau’s house.

I walked back up to my bike and crossed the street to the park’s office building and the Thoreau Society’s giftshop, wondering what to do. A woman–I assume a park ranger–hailed me from the deck attached to the second floor of the office building. I told her my story, told her I had a reservation to keep in Boston, but was thinking of coming back to spend a day in the area. She pointed out the Thoreau B&B next door that I’d already noticed and chuckled at. She talked about a hundred things to do in Boston, and seemed exasperated by my lack of planning and time, like I’d spoiled the trip she was taking in her head in telling it to me. She said goodbye and wished me luck.

I looked up the Thoreau B&B on my iPhone. Just two rooms available at any one time and only $75 to reserve one. Much more humble and reasonable than I’d expected. I could look into reserving one for Friday night and stop on my way back from Boston.

I walked into the Thoreau Society giftshop, mulling it over. A scruffy indie-looking kid, sitting in an office chair behind the counter, listening to indie music, gave a friendly hello. Books by Thoreau. Books about Thoreau. Print reproductions of a linguistically flowery ad that Thoreau used to announce his land surveying services were available for $1.50 each. It made me think of the sign in front of the Land Surveyor’s house between Oxford and Northbridge, yesterday.

Then I saw The Maine Woods by Thoreau. There’s a good bit of Thoreau I still haven’t read, even though I’ve read Walden over and over again. And I thought, well, I’m headin’ to Maine, how bout I hear what you have to say about it, Thoreau.

And I didn’t give a second thought to Thoreau’s B&B, or even to that reproduction of his house hidden back at the end of that trail down by the pond.

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