I already had my excuse lined up, just in case I woke up to the tapping on driver's side window by an officer of the law. I would tell him that I had been in the area, had been looking for a hotel or some kind of a place to stay, and was surprised to find nothing. After a while, I was simply too tired to go on, and just had to stop. That was the responsible thing, right? Right!?
I saw the gas station there in the dark, but only the second time around. It was so dark, that my eyes had not caught it the first time around. Even the second pass, I almost passed it by without noticing it.
What was the worst that he could do after that? Send me away? Give me a ticket, even, perhaps?
Sure, there was a risk, but I thought it was worth it. After all, what were the chances that somebody would find me there, in perhaps the one place in the immediate area where cars were expected to be parked overnight?
So, I pulled into the darkened service station. It was deliciously dark, and seemed promising. It was a little unnerving, admittedly, when the motion sensor lights came on, but I continued on. What choice did I have?
There was a spot open between a car, and a bigger truck, that would have blocked the car from view by the nearby road, which was tempting. But as I was looking, I noticed a much darker area behind the station, with more spaces to park. Obviously, this deserved more of my attention, and so that is what I gave it.
Much like the entire area, it was very dark. There were no city lights to be seen. No lights from a mall or din from a nearby highway. Nope, none of that. This place felt truly like the countryside, like the middle of nowhere. During my search for a decent, adequate place to sleep, it seemed that I was in the middle of a mixture of woods and darkened farm fields. The area was too modern to be reminiscent of the days when Thoreau and Emerson graced the local area with their presence, yet for someone from suburban
New Jersey, this was incredibly quiet. A few cars passed on the road, maybe at the rate of two or three every fifteen or so minutes. Maybe. But I was hoping that I would not be awake to count just how many cars passed by in the later hours in the middle of the night. Fatigue was quickly overtaking me, and I really did need to close my eyes and get some sleep.
And sleep I did. It was a bit awkward at first, and every car that passed surely must be the cop that would investigate the lot for some intruder like me. At one point, I heard this kind of banging noise, and rose up to see what it was, if I could see anything. Nothing there, but I distinctly had heard some weird kind of banging noise. Then, there was some weird shadow or something that I caught out of the corner of my eye. I turned, but again, there was absolutely nothing there. Just the dark night, nothing stirring. I might as well have been the only thing awake in that corner of the world at the moment. Of course, my thoughts raced with the worst possibilities, since my 21st century mind conditioned me to think up the wildest horror movie scenarios. I quickly turned to face the back of the car, half expecting to see some deranged lunatic trying to sneak up on me, about to make his move.
Since I posted something about Walden Woods and Thoreau yesterday, it seemed appropriate to do the same today as a follow up of sorts.
So, here are some previously published posts regarding Thoreau:
I tried to force this out of my mind, and settled back down; shut my eyes for a few moments. But that was all that it took before that strange noise again. I sprang back up, and scanned the dark and unfamiliar terrain chosen for my abode for at least one fortnight. Finally, I spotted it. Some creature, probably a raccoon, was trying to grab some grub from the trash compactor.
My mind eased a bit. I relaxed a bit, and settled back down. Noticing the time (it was now well past midnight), the urgency of catching some sleep was growing. Knowing that some mechanics arrived to their jobs very early, I had set the alarm for about 5:30am. This may have been overkill, but it seemed to err on the side of caution, and not risk oversleeping, and being woken up by someone who might accuse me of trespassing. So, that would be the time the phone alarm would sound, and that was less than five hours away! Not much sleep, and I was surely going to be exhausted in the morning, and likely for the rest of the day as well, surely. I needed sleep.
My mind was restless for quite a while that night, and I don't remember falling asleep, but know it was fairly shortly after seeing that creature, which was oddly comforting, in a strange sense. It must have happened a bit after that, and the next thing I knew, the alarm was ringing, and instinctively, I turned the thing off.
Sleepy as my eyes still were, I surveyed the horizon. It was not full light out yet, but it was certainly not full dark, either. Everything was quiet, of course. This was not a busy hour yet. That would come later. Still, it felt like I had to get a move on. So, resisting the urge to lay back down and shut my eyes, I turned the key to start the car, and began to drive, just wanting to find a quiet place to empty my bladder in peace, choosing one of the really quiet, tree-lined country roads that I had explored the night before (just a few hours before, really).
That done, I began to head towards my destination, although it seemed assured that everything would be locked up and closed, and that it would take another trip here later on to gain access.
But when I got there, there was a car in the drive, and my eyes widened. Looking around, I now saw quite a few cars parked there, and my excitement began to grow. There was a great feeling that you feel when you accidentally stumble upon something really great, and that was how I was feeling at the moment.
This surely was too good to be true, and I would be met with some kind of disappointment or other, right?
Still, I headed towards my destination, taking a change of clothes, and quite a few books, in my big orange travel bag. Walked away from the car and headed back towards the road, crossing it, and to my destination.
There was quite a congregation of people there already, despite the very early hour. It was not even 6:30 in the morning, probably not even 6:15 or so. Yet, a whole bunch of people, most of whom seemed to know one another, were there. There stood on the sand, putting on their outfits, talking amongst themselves.
Always feeling self conscious, and wanting to keep to myself, I took the far side, taking heart to see these people nonetheless. There were some people already in the water, swimming. Some were actually quite distant, and these exercises were not for the uninitiated.
But that was not why I was there. It was not to test my swimming skills, but to swim these waters, and then to soak in my books, and one book in particular that I had brought with me. This was a book that, though it shames to admit it, I had tried to read a few times, but never gotten farther than a few pages or so at most. There was a well-known essay in the back that had been highly influential, and I had never even read that, either. That was a relative blemish on my reading history, and a source of personal embarrassment (although nobody else really knew). But starting today, I intended to change that.
Before stripping off my shoes and shirt, I wondered if there was anything like this scene in another lake or pond in the country. It was hard to imagine that there was, since this was nearly a religious experience for some. Not sure that it was for me, but this also was not just an ordinary swim, or anything like that. I held this place with a certain measure of reverence and respect. There was a reason, after all, that I cam here, specifically. There was a reason, too, that these strange people gathered in such numbers shortly after dawn to catch a swim, or perhaps a hike.
I tested the water, expecting it to be prohibitively cold. But it was, and so I swam, and simultaneously bathed and purified myself, in the waters at Walden in the early morning hours of dawn, and watched as the approaching sunrise began to hit the upper parts of the trees surrounding the pond.
The water was refreshing, restorative. Suddenly, spending a night crouched inside of a car in the back of a gas station was not such a big deal. Was, in fact, okay. How long had it been since I felt so alive, awake? God, it was wonderful!
I swam for a bit, then got out of the water, and sat, facing the pond. Pulled out that book that I had never managed to successfully get through, or even to get into beyond a superficial reading of the first couple of pages or so. It was an old, beat up ex-library copy of Henry David Thoreau's Walden that I had found at a thrift store for all of maybe fifty cents. It certainly was not more than a dollar.
Reading while feeling myself drying off, looking up every now and then to inhale and take it all in, before exhaling and getting back to my reading, it all felt very good. I was finding the reading far more enjoyable and enlightening than ever before. Perhaps I had needed that maturity, because now, I could appreciate it. Perhaps the surroundings helped as well. Whatever it was, it was working.
After about half an hour, when I felt myself really drying off, I went back in the water. This time, I went out further than before, and really began to feel it in my arms and legs.
How long had it been since the last time I swam so much, and so seriously? Usually, I am with my son, trying to teach him, and hardly go past shallow water that reaches past my shoulders. So this was a new experience to me, of sorts. Or, rather, it was an unfamiliar one that required reacclimatizing.
There came a point when, braving a swim to what was approaching the midway point of the pond, I looked toward the shore, and it was looking rather distant. So, I turned around and headed back.
It was the most real swimming that I had done in ages, and my arms and legs were actually feeling it. They were tired, and had that burn of exertion. I reflected yet again that this was not a bad way at all to get up and get a morning going.
I got back to shore, and got back to reading, too. It was still early, and I was still feeling good.
There was one other thing that I really wanted to do, and that was going for a hike. Now, I love hiking, and getting a hike in here, of all places, seemed paramount. But time was starting to be a factor, because later in the day, I needed to drive home to
New Jersey. Still, I wanted to make a point of hiking here, and fulfilling my desire to have done everything I wanted to finally on a trip to Walden. This was as good an opportunity as I ever had thus far, and I meant to take advantage of it this time.
So, I found a quiet place (this was harder than you might think, because although some people had filtered out of
Walden Pond, others had joined them, and it seemed likely that the later the hour, the more people would show up. But there was a quiet corner, and I changed into dry clothes, ran up back to the car to drop off my bag and books, and then headed back towards Walden Pond, after a brief visit to the replica of Thoreau's self-made home (they seemed to refer to it as his "hut" on the trail, which was not entirely accurate, I don't think, since it was a house in the western style, and not a more basic hut, which would have been living even closer to the wilderness, to nature, as it were).
So, there was a trail that wrapped around the pond, and I decided to take that. At the entrance to it, there was information about the trail, claiming that it ran a total of 1.7 miles. Pretty short, and should be a quick hike. About a half a mile into it, I learned after reading more, was the site where Thoreau's house once stood. I couldn't wait to finally see it, and wondered what it would look like.
There was another pond just before you reached it, and this one was much more like the image of a pond that I conjure up in my mind. It was tiny and kind of tucked away, and filled with green algae and lily pads, and with ducks swimming in the water. There it was, shining in the morning sun, sitting very prettily. This was a very nice little corner of the world.
Right after that came a bit of a rise in the land to get to the site, and I followed the signs. Finally, I saw it.
It is indeed small, and the tiny replica of the house nearby the parking lot and Route 2A that divided the lot from the grounds of Walden Park, is indeed probably quite accurate, in terms of size, as well as what was stored inside – a bed, a desk for writing, a fireplace and some logs, and that was just about it. But it's easy and efficient to heat during the winter time, surely, and seemed rather quaint.
But this, this was the actual site where he stayed. I had assumed it was set deeper in the woods, but it was quite close to the pond. Makes sense, since he would have needed to water, on many levels. The site of the house itself has clear borders around it, to mark where the walls once stood. There is a gap to mark the entrance, and you can step inside, and look at the memorial in stone.
Nearby was a pile of stone, some painted and with design. Many were stacked together, there were numerous such stacks. Next to this pile of stones, on the far side of the house from the piling, there was a wooden placard, with a fitting, and rather famous, quote from Thoreau.
"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essentials 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."
I remember the first time I had heard that quote and having it made an impact, was seeing the movie "The Dead Poet's Society". Since Walden, I have had the urge to once again watch this beautiful movie. That particular line of Thoreau's had really given the boys pause for thought, and they had been very impressed.
A lot of people gather here, obviously. But it is strange, because although there is an air of reverence and solemnity, it is, nonetheless, not exactly a tomb, or a memorial, or any such thing. In fact, it had been lost for some time, but discovered midway through the twentieth century, when the remnants of the fireplace gave clear indication of where the house.
Perhaps people were simply paying respect to the man, and his unique efforts in the woods of
Concord. Mostly, I think there was a sense of awe at the power of his words and his thought, which was quite unique and ahead of his time. Like the quote that was on the wooden placard, there was much in poetic quality in Thoreau's words. Yet, on some levels, he was just reiterating (or recycling, if you will) something that others had said before him. Specifically, the natives of America that had resisted the advance of our "civilization" had largely stated many of the same things, albeit in different wording. They, too, had been quite critical of the lifestyle that we have inherited. I am writing this, and you are reading this, and that means that there is a connection between you and me in terms of our culture. We belong to this "civilization" that surrounds us. Thoreau can be credited with being the first member of our culture to make an attempt at thinking differently than the conventional wisdom of the time, and taking an entirely different approach.
Perhaps the most ironic thing about Thoreau was that he was in the shadow of the much more famous (at the time) and established Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was also a
Concord native. In fact, many felt that Thoreau was rather a cheap knock off of Emerson, if you will, and so Thoreau was not really given much credit until much, much later. In many respects, their relationship was that of master and student, or perhaps rather that of master and underling. However way you want to put it, Thoreau was clearly in the subordinate position. Emerson had fame, was well known for his writings. He owned a house, and was more firmly rooted in the community, while Thoreau seemed forever the outsider. People of his time simply did not take to him, and perhaps not only did not understand him, but did not try. This defined him for some time, but things change.
These days, it is Thoreau who is likely the most famous writer/philosopher to have come from
I hiked on after stopping at the ground where the house had once stood. The earth was soft under my feet at points, leaving that soft impress in my wake, much as Thoreau himself had written. At this point, I should admit that I did not take Thoreau's advice, and leave things alone, but rather took a small but colorful rock (more like a pebble) that I had found, as well as an acorn, a bit of water from the pond in a recyclable bottle that I had spotted along the way. While I had been gathering the water, my copy of Walden accidentally fell into the pond. I quickly scooped it up, but not on time, as the pages got wet. It seemed the book was ruined.
But it wasn't. The pages did not get soaked, they just got a bit wet, and they were still legible. The book could still be read. I was thankful for that. In a few days, much to my surprise, the pages dried out entirely, and you would never know that they had fallen into the pond, or had even been wet. Sometimes, if they get completely soaked, that ruins the entire book.
I hiked around the pond, getting vantage points of it from various angles. It was truly beautiful, sparkling in the summer sun like jewels laid out on a blue canvass. It was so bright, that I had to squint a bit and shield my eyes, another thing that Thoreau himself had mentioned in his writings.
The track around the pond is about 1.7 miles. I usually hike at least 2.5 miles to 3 miles, when I hike, and I had a lot of energy (and still had some time before needing to head back), and so I went back to the site where his actual cabin had been, soaked it all in, and then finally, turned back, heading back to the beach by the entrance near Route 2A, then crossing that, back to the parking lot, to my car, which would take me back to the modern world, and my modern life.
My stay at Walden had been nowhere near as long as Thoreau's, of course. He had stayed for two years, two months, and two days, and I had stayed for a bit more than two hours (actually, probably more like three and a half, and it was not my first time there, but who's counting?). Still, I had the book, and I felt compelled to finally finish it this time around. And that is exactly what I managed to do, too (it will be the subject matter of a new blog in the very near future).
The thing is, although I physically left Walden Woods and
Walden Pond, Walden itself is more than that. Yes, it is the physical location of the woods and the pond within. But it is also the book, and it is also the spirit of the ideas, and the place, in your heart (if you allow it, of course). And so, with my copy of Thoreau's Walden to read, I kept it close to me for a few weeks, which made me feel close to Walden, even when far – even when I took a trip quite a bit farther west. I took the book while hiking, and would stop at times in whatever piece of wilderness I happened to be in (there is one place that I love to hike which has an idyllic waterfall, and that wound up being a favorite place that I would go to sit and read with that specific book a few times).
Now, I am done with the book, but Walden still somehow feels close to me…