True to my word, the next time I went to Boston - a week or so ago - I drove out to Walden Pond with my friend and fellow writer, Rita, to visit. What follows will prove to you what a terrible, testy traveler/travel writer I am.
The place itself is right on the road, no romantic, twisting one lane affair ending at a lonely outpost, no, the paid parking lot and gift shop area are right there. One pays, parks, and crosses the street (at some peril - no light or stop sign) to walk down a dirt lane that ends at a small beach area, and the pond itself (all of which can be seen from the road). This was a bit disappointing as it was definitely not secluded, as I'd hoped. From the beach area, which was swarming with kids playing in the sand, a trail leads all the way around the pond, enclosed by wire on both sides to keep you from veering off the path and into the woods or by the water's edge. I believe this is to prevent erosion due to enthusiastic tourists and their tennis shoes. Rita had already been to the site of the house so elected to walk halfway with me, then sit on one of the little set of rock steps that appeared at intervals and led down to the water. The perfect meditative spot as long as there weren't too many people. (Alas, the latter was not the case for her as, when I returned, she told me of how two small, very vocal children came charging down the steps to stand next to and behind her, complaining loudly at discovering they didn't having the spot to themselves while their parents did little or nothing (mostly nothing) to take them in hand. She tried to ignore them as they threw what seemed like an endless supply of rocks past her head into the water, splashing her shoes. They left after a very long five minutes.)
I proceeded halfway around the pond to the site of the house, which is up a small path and rise from another lagoon/cove-like area. The walk to the site, which is not far from the water, is along a lovely avenue of trees. The site itself is a pile of rocks with several knee-high cement markers denoting the boundaries of the walls nearby and a stone slab to mark the chimney, as the house itself was dismantled long ago (see previous post on how it ended up as scrap lumber. Sniff.) Apparently, the area was excavated in (I think) early to mid 1900s. There were a few people reading the informational placards, but no one in the 'house,' so I stepped inside the confines of the markers to try to get a sense of the house. I envisioned wooden walls, maybe two windows through which one would see the tall, narrow trees and sparkle of the pond. The sense I got was - small. Smaller than small, actually. Closet, really. During the winter months, surely claustrophobic. Room for a cot, a table and chair and nothing else, I imagine. (I started "On Walden Pond" years ago but never finished it, so will not go any further and embarrass myself by not knowing the facts.) The space gave new meaning to the word 'retreat.'
I had the spot to myself for about two minutes before a stocky middle-aged man in thick black glasses, thick black mustache, and hunting cap (do people really still wear those? I guess yes) Came charging up the path and walked right in, brushing past me, to stand on the chimney stone. Okay! I waited a moment, but he didn't budge, so I left the 'house' to read the placard as the other group was leaving, where I found out Thoreau had been a 20 min walk from his parents' place and that the railroad ran right by (still does) so he was kept company by the train on a daily basis. Another illusion shattered. I lingered there for five minutes, but Hunting Cap didn't move. His manner was that of one who had claimed the site and wasn't about to relinquish it. Probably an English professor, or someone who considered himself an authority on Thoreau, and came regularly to enjoy some kind of ecstatic experience. It really pissed me off, frankly. I saw another group coming up through the boulevard of trees and headed out as I didn't feel like witnessing the standoff.
Once I found Rita, we decided to take a walk around the pond, which I estimate to be roughly 1 3/4 miles. It took us half an hour with minimal lingering, though there was plenty to enjoy about the view. It was a cold day (January), still, straight trees as far as you could see, afternoon sky with thin streaks of clouds was a perfect Easter egg pink and yellow, all of which was mirrored in the motionless water. So we got some exercise in a pretty place. That's about the extent of it. Oh, except for the woman in shiny, tight black leggings, poufy yellow parka, and fanny pack (yes, I said fanny pack) who nearly mowed us down as she made her way around the pond 3 times to our 1. She was in such direct violation of the purpose of the site that I thought of making a citizen's arrest, or at least fining her $5 so we could make back our parking money. I mean, c'mon, go to the local high school track or biking trail to powerwalk, not Walden Pond!
On the way back to Rita's, we decided Walden Pond was/is definitely one of those places best left in one's mind as a mythical, dreamlike world, and never visited. Once places like it are turned into public parks they become, well, open to the public -- the last thing you want to encounter when there, right? Would be so much better if we could make appointments to have these sites to ourselves for an hour, without coming upon noisy children, people fishing, people climbing over the wire fence to trek into the woods, and gift shops selling magnets and mugs. Of course, that would cost a fortune so most of us would never see them at all. In the end, I'm not so sure that's a bad thing.
I think we all dream of a magical spot in which we'll be touched by something greater than ourselves, allowing our own special genius to flow out in words. We go on retreats and attend conferences, we change the guest room or a corner of the basement into a private sanctuary to write in. And we travel to those places once inhabited by our favorite writers and poets in the hopes some secret will be waiting there just for our discovery. Truth is, what we know of writers and their lives is always better when left to our imagination. The trip to visit their home or grave is usually not the revelation we hope it will be. Truth is, that can only be found in their writing. It's there if you're open to finding it.
Now, when I close my eyes and picture Walden Pond, I see the still water, the patient, silent trees, the pink-tinged sky...and Hunting Cap standing on that damned chimney stone. I have no doubt he's still there!