Walden Pond: a First Visitation
by Wayne T. Dilts

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Wayne Dilts is an English teacher in New Jersey, and a Thoreau Society board member.

“I considered that I enhanced the value of the land by squatting on it.” - Henry D. Thoreau

(Click) Testing…testing…(click). This is a memo to Henry David Thoreau, with a copy to E.B. White. Subject: Walden Pond visitation, 2003

Dear Henry (& E.B.) –

It has been 156 years since you left your house at Walden, Henry, and 64 years since E.B. filed his report on his first visit there in 1939, so I thought it appropriate and timely to issue an update about what “progress” has been made at the pond.

[2]     This, then, is my simple and sincere account of a two-day visit to Concord to report on what life is like there and at Walden. I had to oversee the details myself in person, to be at once pilot and captain of my account. And, I confess, I bought some new clothes for the trip. It is written, for convenience, putting the experiences of two days into one. And, I must further confess, it has taken me several weeks to write, rewrite, and edit this piece. Your influence, Henry, is indeed far-reaching.

[3]     The 299.5 mile trip from my New Jersey home to Concord took four hours and fifty seven minutes by car, including a brief  “rest” stop. The swiftest traveler is no longer he that goes afoot, and too few people saunter great distances anymore.

[4]     The road into Concord brought me to Monument Square, which is really not a square at all but rather a rectangle. And my apologies to the local woman driving the Mercedes who became frustrated then angry enough to give me a blast on her car horn when I paused to establish who had the right-of-way near the monument. I didn’t mean to upset you, ma’am, which is why I waved to you. I wished you had used more than one finger to wave back at me. I am sure she is not on the welcoming committee.

[5]     I had reserved a room at the Colonial Inn on Monument Square. Part of it used to be your grandfather Thoreau’s house, Henry, and it is the same place E.B. stayed during his visit. I wanted to be historically accurate in my comparison, but I must confess I first balked at the $159 per night fee. I attempted to find lodgings of a simpler mode — but this is the only inn in town. And there was room.

[6]     After securing my things, I got into the car for my first visit to Walden Pond. I know, I know, I should have walked. It’s only a mile and a half. But I am 51 years old, and I was too excited to travel slowly.

[7]     I followed E.B.’s route: right onto Main Street, past Walden Street, out of the Mill Dam area, and then left onto Thoreau Street. It’s not the most direct route. Past Belknap Street, where your “Texas” house used to stand. Continue past the train station to the next intersection where E.B. found an eating establishment. Now there are two: a Dunkin’ Donuts on one corner and a Starbucks Coffee on the other. And just as in 1939, neither offers a suitable fare of beans, rice, or Indian corn, so I did not stop.

[8]     A little further out of town on the left, a mass of steel beams project into the air. It was the Alcott elementary school undergoing construction of a larger school building. Progress in education is often difficult to determine, but this addition to the small school would seem to indicate that the existing walls were too confining. We still suffer some of the same problems in education today that you saw, Henry, but instead of sending them on sojourns throughout the countryside, we now build bigger walls.

[9]     Thoreau Street merges with Walden Street, and soon I was waiting at the traffic light at the corner of Route 2. Traffic lights have become the mosquito’s wings that have derailed many a driver’s progress. Some years ago both the state department of transportation and the local Concord “fathers” determined that the new highway should cut through Walden Woods. The bean field was not encumbered, but it came very close. The highway runs less than a few hundred yards from the cabin site. A pity, for even though it remains unseen due to the trees, the noise of the traffic is now a constant pond sound.

[10]     After the light turned green, I drove on. As I got closer, I could see shimmering water of Walden Pond through the trees to the right. I was so excited I almost missed the entrance to the parking lot on the left. An immediate irony I found was that it costs $5.00 per car to park, but there is no admission fee to the pond itself. That tells us something about our current culture.

[11]     Near the parking area is an exact replica of your Pond house, Henry, complete with a brick fireplace, replicas of your furniture, and a wood shed out back. One difference is that there is a lock on the door now to keep strangers out when there is no one around. Another thing you probably wouldn’t like is the life size bronze statute of you that stands near the replica.

[12]     This is one of the starting points for visitors. The other is the “Shop at Walden Pond” where the curious may buy mementos of their visit and are encouraged by several signs to join the Thoreau Society and help support the Walden Pond preservation effort. Membership dues are slightly more than it cost to build your house, but members receive a discount on any purchase at the Shop. It seems a fair trade.

[13]     One item for sale is a copy of the blueprints for the Pond house replica. The price tag was $20.00. I thought it would have been more appropriate if they charged $28.12½, but we don’t deal in pennies any more, Henry, much less the half cent.

[14]     To get to the pond itself, one has to cross the very busy Walden Street. Not a very idyllic beginning, even though pedestrians have the right of way. There is a steep concrete ramp leading down from the road to the main beach area of the pond. I could see the crystal clear water and a few people lounging on the beach. The two fishermen paddling their boat in the middle of the pond were used to being there. I was not. They were not awed by the history of these waters. I was. They were not trying to soak in every sight and sound: they were enjoying the tranquillity that the pond offered while I was fumbling with my camera to capture as many of the images as possible. I think they had the better of the bargain.

[15]     If other things surrounding Walden Woods and the town of Concord have changed in the past 156 years, the pond itself looks much as it must have when the glacier melted about 10,000 years ago. It is a very idyllic setting, which makes the nearby traffic noise all the more annoying. At the same time, there is a quiet magnetism that attracts both the mind and the body to the water that has a cleansing effect on the visitor’s soul.

[16]     During July and August, more than 100,000 people will visit the pond each month. But all of those people are not devotees to your book, Henry. The attraction is more than a literary or historical curiosity. This is one of the few areas of public property in the suburban Boston area where people may swim, fish, boat, and walk. There is enough sandy area around the entire pond for people to bring a blanket and stretch out near the water for the day, and many do. And there is virtually no litter anywhere, a vast difference than what E.B. encountered. Some folks take Nature more seriously these days, it seems.

[17]     Walden Pond and the immediate 425 acres that surround it are now preserved as a state park. I had made arrangements in advance to have one of the Park Service employees give me a tour. My guide’s name was Steve and even though he had done this literally thousands of times, he appreciated that this was my first visit and took his time explaining the history and the efforts under way to preserve the pond and its surroundings. Some of the efforts to protect the land seem at odds with its natural setting, such as the metal rods and wire fences lining the paths to keep people from wandering all over the hillsides. You bemoaned the fact that within a few days of your residency you had already established a beaten path to the pond from your door, Henry. Preservation efforts do not allow visitors to walk to the beat of a different drummer at Walden Pond anymore. We have to stay on the paths. I didn’t mind.

[18]     As we began the tour, the sun was shining but clouds were rolling in. I tried to listen to the sounds of the pond as we walked. There weren’t many. The warble of a few birds whose names I did not know, the occasional airplane overhead, and the constant hum of the traffic on Route 2 nearby are the most notable sounds of Walden Pond today. The

[19]     “T-r-ooo-n-ck” of the frogs has been replaced by the air horn of the tractor trailer on the nearby highway. The most abundant form of wildlife present around the Pond today were the chipmunks. No snakes, mink, or loons in sight.

[20]     As Steve led me across Red Cross Beach on the north side, he was giving me a history lesson but, I must confess, I missed much of it. I was too excited. We then moved onto the path. One thing I noticed right away: In many older photographs of Walden Pond, the picture allows the viewer to see through a few scattered trees to the water. That is not the case any more. The trees are thick and tall and, even standing a few feet from the water, the branches and leaves can restrict the view of the pond itself.

[21]     We walked to the western end of the Pond, to where you bathed every morning Henry, in what you referred to as Deep Cove. You are probably not going to like this bit of news, but Deep Cove is now referred to as Thoreau’s Cove. There was no sign of your boat. A tree branch stuck out of the water and two small turtles were sunning themselves until we came a little too close for their comfort. They quickly slid into the water as we came by. The day before my tour, Steve informed me, the pond was stocked with 900 trout, something that is done twice a year. Even though Nature may not always want it, she gets man’s help from time to time.

[22]     The path you beat to your cabin is still there, kept alive by erosion and the thousands of feet that make the pilgrimage each year. It is immediately obvious why you chose this spot: it is the flattest area closest to the water and this cove seems to be the most peaceful.

[23]     The location of your cabin is marked by nine granite pillars erected in 1947. The stone foundation of your fireplace is still there. Roland Wells Robbins “discovered” those stones in 1945, ironically 100 years after you moved in and, using your notes and other excavation finds as a guide, the park established the “exact” location.

[24]     In June, 1872, ten years after your death, your friend Bronson Alcott took a visitor to the cove and left a stone where he remembered the cabin to have been. Since then, most visitors leave a stone on the growing pile as a symbol of respect. It’s a pretty big pile now. E.B. left a stone. I left two, one for each of my daughters who remained at home.

[25]     The view of the pond from the cabin site is somewhat obscured by the size and number of trees now. I could still see the water of the pond, but barely. Some of the oaks and white pines tower 50 feet or more above the house site. There is also a path to your bean field that leads away from the cabin and the pond, but the field itself is also overgrown with trees. Most of the pine trees you planted there for Mr. Emerson were destroyed by a fire in 1896.

[26]     Soon I realized that it had started to rain…lightly…so we began to move on around to the west and south ends of the pond, beneath the railroad tracks. Oh, the train still runs there, Henry. It is still a commuter train from Boston to Fitchburg. The railroad has been almost completely displaced by the airplane as a means of transporting people long distances. The 20 or so miles to Boston is no longer considered a long distance, but more of an inconvenience to drive, so many commuters going into “the city” take the train. Its’ place in the new Mythology has come and gone, I’m afraid. After your death, the railroad company built a station at Walden Pond, along with a picnic area, an amusement park, and a pavilion. Boat rentals and concession stands were popular. But when the amusement park burned down in 1902, the rest was also abandoned. Today the only train station is the one I passed back in town, close to your “Texas” house.

[27]     As we got below the train tracks, the rain intensified. No, it started to pour. Buckets of water. We were as far from the parking lot as we could be and my umbrella was in the car. We had no choice but to keep on going. Another couple, trying to stay dry under the trees, followed us as we passed. Maybe they thought we would lead them to a dry place. We didn’t because there wasn’t one. The path we were on did not drain well into the pond and there were many places where we were forced through very large and sometimes very deep puddles. At first I tried to jump over them or tiptoe around the edges but soon my feet were as wet as my head, and so we ended up just plodding through the puddles.

[28]     It took a good 30 minutes in the downpour to get back to the parking area. Steve at first apologized for our getting wet, but I didn’t mind. This seemed to me to be the perfect way to get introduced to Walden Pond. Nature, as you know, always wins. And, of course (and I CAN’T make this up), as soon as we got back to the parking area, the rain stopped.

[29]     I thanked Steve and headed back to the inn to change into dry clothes. On the journey back, I drove past the Concord Ice Company. I wondered if this Ice Company could be traced back to the winter of 1848 when the ice cutters came to Walden Pond, but I didn’t go in to ask.

[30]     After having seen the pond and the replica of Henry’s house, I also felt compelled to see the actual furniture Henry built and used while at Walden. I stopped into the Concord Museum, which is across the street from Mr. Emerson’s house. They have kept the desk, the bed, the table and chairs, and some of Henry’s measuring instruments, which were rather inspiring to see as well.

[31]     I also needed to take a quick side trip to the Old Manse and the Old North Bridge, since it was so close by. I felt a different sense of local history there than I did at the Pond. Here was where events took place that put Concord on the American map to begin with, years before you and Mr. Emerson, the Hawthornes, and the Alcotts were drawn to this tiny corner of the world.

[32]     My final destination was the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. Since it is literally around the corner from the inn, I left my car and walked there, camera bags in tow. I was determined to find Authors Ridge. As I approached the first entrance on the left, I saw a woman across the street kneeling in her front yard, digging up the dandelions that were attempting to flourish in her lawn. She dug them out with a passion reserved for the purest of lawn aficionados. I felt that it seemed unfair, not only to the dandelions but to this tourist as well. I had traveled hundreds of miles to be across the street from her, and she seemed indifferent to what she lived across the street from.

[33]     I entered the cemetery through the first available opening, at the west end. This was not the main entrance, but I didn’t realize it at the time. I noticed a map on a stand, and tried to memorize the route to the Ridge, but I got lost, and had to backtrack. To future explorers let me say that when you enter one of the main entrances there are granite markers that clearly point the way.

[34]     When I finally reached the Ridge, I found myself standing directly between your grave, Henry, and that of your friend, Nathaniel Hawthorne, who is buried only a few feet away. I have studied and taught the writings of both of you for many years. I was dumbstruck, being in the proximity of the two of you. I fully expected someone to come along and tell me to move on, that I had no right to stand there gaping or taking pictures. But no one came. I was left to revel in the shadow of the trees at the simplicity with which you were laid to rest. Miss Alcott is just a few feet away from your family plot, and the Emerson plot is a bit further on. Your headstone, Henry, is among the smallest in the cemetery. And —you’ll appreciate this — it is scattered tastefully with stones and flowers left by other adoring fans. I left two stones here as well.

[350]     On my way out of the cemetery, the different drummer in me decided to take a different path. When I came to the street, I could still the same woman digging with the same fervor at other weeds. I silently wished her well.

[36]     After a decent night's sleep, I checked out in the morning. I left Concord for the same reason I went there: having conducted my business of research and gathered as many impressions as I felt I could safely maintain, it was time to go home. Thus was my first visit to Concord and Walden Pond completed; and the second day was similar to it. I finally left, but determined to be back.

[37]     I traveled a total of 632.6 miles. My expenses included a bit more than what I needed for food, shelter, clothing, and fuel. I, too, needed to take home some souvenirs, among them the plans for the Pond house. The cost of this trip came out to be around a dollar per mile driven.

[38]     So, had things changed? Standing on the beach and looking out at the waters of Walden Pond, I sensed that much was the same as you witnessed it. It has sustained itself through hurricanes, fires, droughts, and the more imminent threat of the developer. That it took some individuals of far-reaching vision and courage to stand and fight potentially devastating changes in the 1980s and 1990s expands the list of heroes in our midst. Progress has slowed tremendously here, and that’s a good thing.

[39]     That the pond is protected and preserved for future generations to enjoy is comforting. Nature, which can be very unforgiving, snips at the banks of the pond and forces man to take measures to preserve it. Considering what Nature has given us in exchange, it seems a small price to pay.

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