Walking with Thoreau
Exploring the South Shore One Step at a Time
I thought about Henry David Thoreau a lot last year, probably more than I normally do. I thought about the places he visited on the South Shore a century and a half ago; how much they’ve changed. I pondered, as I sauntered, about the way he had spent his life: hermit-like,
in a way, yet traversing a wide stretch of open land, from Concord to Cape Cod to Katahdin—and I wondered what he would have thought about my little project.
I decided on December 30, 2008 that I would walk for at least a half an hour a day for a full year, perhaps beyond. There were numerous good reasons at the time, most concerning health, but others having to do with my insatiable thirst for knowledge of the world around me and for the adventures one can find around every turn of a twisted forested trail or every straightforward step along a foreign highway. Walking had been a way of life for me for years. It was my commute to work and my path toward spiritual rejuvenation after lost loves. I wanted to see if I had the willpower to tackle a goal, to drive myself for a full year. Jumping my own gun, which was set to go off on New Year’s Day, I began by quest on December 31, at Bare Cove Park in Hingham.
Thoreau was the author of “Walking,” an equally excoriating and inspirational essay.
“I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who have understood the art of walking, that is, of taking walks,” he wrote, in his typically cynical tone, “a genius, so to speak, for sauntering.” Attitude aside, I believe Thoreau has a point.
Why do we walk? To exercise the dogs? To get from workplace A to train station B? To find whatever is at the end of the thirty shiny red minutes on the treadmill? Or do we truly walk at all?
Thoreau found religion in his walking, or, more accurately, found walking to be a byproduct of religion. He describes how the word “saunterer” derives, possibly, from the French a la Sainte-Terre, or “to the Holy Land.” Moreover, he likens a good walk to a crusade, stating that our minor excursions that take us outward into the wilderness near our homes only to bring us right back around again are but mere shadows of a truly good walk. “If you are ready to leave father and mother,” he says, “and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again—if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man, then you are ready for a walk.”
Thoreau lived, of course, in a different time. He speaks of how he could walk for twenty miles outside of his home and not see another house. I am not so lucky. South Weymouth is dense and soon, distressingly, will become more so. While Throreau could step out his front door to commune with nature, I have to seek out pockets of it. There are times, when standing in the heart of a national park being sprayed by the mist of a waterfall I yearn for the freedom of the boundless crusade. But my love for my family always pulls me back from that mental edge, and I return, “at evening to the old hearthside from which [I] set out.”
Even so, I had one thing in 2009 Thoreau never did: instant access to varieties of wildness. I had the seashore, the forests, and the pine barrens.
As I took my first steps in 2009, practically snowbound by a New Year’s Day storm, I knew that nature would hardly be enough to fuel my curiosity. The world around me was silent. My first wild species sighting was a ring-billed gull, my second a pigeon. No cars had taken to the streets just yet, although I did meet several strangers that day, mostly shoveling their driveways. For the first time in my life I walked through Columbian Square, admiring the ancient, by American standards, architecture. I found an old wagon wheel in a front yard, and I photographed it; a piece of history now part of the landscape.
My first walk, like many more to come, took me down side streets I had never traversed, dumping me onto main thoroughfares that made me take the next turn down another quiet side street. Yes, I eventually found my way back to the point from which I started. If I am not a crusader by Thoreau’s definition, then so be it.
I chose a different adventure every day: Jacobs Pond in Norwell, Three-cornered Pond in the Myles Standish State Forest in Plymouth, Picture Pond in Wompatuck State Park in Hingham. Heavy snow continued to fall into March, yet I kept up my pace. I began to understand what Thoreau meant when he wrote about shopkeepers in his town, the “estimable” Concord, who sat for hours upon end as if legs were made for that purpose. If, by mid-day, I had not taken my walk, or even pondered where I should go, I began to feel the rust forming on my joints, as Thoreau forewarned.
When the snows lifted, and the sun began to shine, I watched the birth of another spring: a painted turtle stretching its hind legs on a log at the Duxbury Bogs Conservation Area, a Baltimore checkerspot caterpillar crawling over the plantains of Little’s Conservation Area in Marshfield, the soft, fuzziness of pussy willows emerging from their winter slumber at Burrage Pond in Hanson. I knew that at those moments Thoreau was with me, standing next to me, failing at holding back a smile. Nature tore down his curmudgeonly walls. “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” he says.
As the rains came in June and July, I trudged down muddy paths. I understood that walking meant more than just ambulatory motion. It meant embracing the rain and accepting the heat. It meant searching for the perfect sunset and the sublimity of an ocean sunrise. It meant taking my 38 years of collected knowledge of the South Shore and putting myself in the right place at the right time. To see a Blackburnian warbler, one must think like a Blackburnian warbler.
Finally, on July 25, I walked in Thoreau’s footsteps. I visited the places he wrote about 158 years earlier, standing atop Hull’s Telegraph Hill, staring down at Spinnaker (in Thoreau’s time “Hog”) Island, imagining it had “the very form of a ripple”; meandering Nantasket Beach, wondering where the ancient spring of which he writes in Cape Cod once pushed out its life-giving element on the side of Strawberry Hill; and overlooking the disaster scene of the wreck of the brig St. John in Cohasset Harbor.
I stood staring down at the gravestone of the one woman he ever professed his love to, and exercised my right as an historian to ask what might have happened had she said yes to his handwritten mailed proposal. For a brief moment, I saw the world through Thoreau’s eyes. The year was just more than half over. The rains of July gave way to humidity in August. September turned glorious, but by October, my body had enough.
I caught pneumonia and lingered abed for five days, unable to escape the house. On the sixth, I responded to a phone call from a friend who had found a critter I may never see again, a star-nosed mole. I sprang from my bed and ran with all that my lungs would give me to the Daniel Webster Wildlife Sanctuary in Marshfield. The following day, I strode to the crest of Prospect Hill in Wompatuck State Park, and declared myself a walker again. Despite an ongoing case of plantar fasciitis and a debilitating sciatic nerve problem that took hold of me in December, I never looked back, and finished out the year.
Only then did I have the audacity to stand up to Thoreau. He claimed to walk for four hours per day, at least. After leaving his family’s pencil factory, he had sovereignty over his own time for the rest of his life. I live in a world where there are no such privileges, at least not for one who wishes to be accepted by his society (and therein lies an interesting question about Thoreau himself; we know he did not accept society—did society accept him?). I often walked for an hour, sometimes two, and did so in a world of personal commitments that would spin Thoreau’s head: work, family, volunteering, writing, and more.
You can’t claim to be a walker, says Thoreau. “No wealth can buy the requisite leisure, freedom, and independence, which are the capital in this profession. It comes only by the grace of God. It requires a direct dispensation from Heaven to become a walker. You must be born into the family of Walkers. Ambulator nascitur, non fit.”
Should Thoreau and I someday meet in the beyond, it will be in the woods. I shall extend my hand in greeting and tell him how lovely it is to meet a fellow walker, like me.