Knowing how nearby Walden slept, I had gone to bed the previous evening like a grade schooler – hopped up on the stimulant of an impending field trip – the pillow proving an obnoxious barrier between myself and wonder. Late into the night, I had flipped from one position to the next like a fish in the grass. And having no memory of having found sleep, I was shocked to consciousness by the blare of my wife’s cell phone alarm. Unlike that little kid, I had a most miserable time getting out of bed, and a foundational need for strong black coffee. Tall Americano. No, make it a grande – big day today.
Sunlight flickered across the dash, pulsating within and slightly warming the cabin of the rental car as we made our way up Route 126, having left Marlborough after a light breakfast an hour or so before. I was drowsy, relaxed and happy.
If my map reading skills and recollection prove trustworthy (you’ll not risk insult by checking), Route 126 becomes Concord Road just south of Concord, and before reaching the Pond transforms itself into Walden Street, preparing to meld into lovely Concord, Mass. At some point a few miles south of town, nestled in-between spacious lawns, is a lush community garden plot. It must be several acres, announcing itself with a sort of arch, lettering painted or pinned to it, declaring its purpose. As I anticipated the day ahead, I found this to be especially quaint, as we don’t see this sort of thing so much in the Midwest. We read about it in progressive magazines, but somehow we fail in the execution. I suppose I may have over-reacted a bit in response to this cultural artifact. Forgive me, for I was by that point brimming with the anticipation that I surely must be within only a few thousand yards of the hallowed kettle. I should mention that we were on a family vacation, a road trip. The back of the car was packed with our three offspring (our very greatest legacy), and all the trimmings. Our final destination was Cape Cod. I had lobbied long and somewhat hard for this detour in the itinerary. The stop was for me. Sure, someday the kids would come to recognize where they had been, and my wife had a passing knowledge of the importance of the place, but it was I who felt the urgency to visit this cathedral of American letters.
I knew little of what to expect. I had read the book, of course, and had been to the web site, sparse though it is. As we drove, I could not recall if his cabin was still there. That would certainly be an embarrassing question to ask. (I did ask. I asked an overly youthful attendant at the bathhouse. I figured I may not know about the cabin, but I had read the book…more than once. Surely the scoreboard would favor me.)
We arrived well ahead of many other visitors. I wondered what other visitors would mark such a milestone in their lives with a visit today. The bookstore was not yet open. All the cars in the lot could have parked in my driveway. Crossing the road and descending the incline, my first view of Walden Pond saw not a human in sight. She lay in the clear morning, a diorama, not a ripple, still – like one of those fake ponds behind the stuffed bear in a state museum, made out of some sort of epoxy that slowly fades into a landscape painted on the wall. The Pond is large – much larger than you think. Where I call home, northern Indiana, such a body of water would be termed a lake. Ponds are tiny and overgrown as far as my kin are concerned…certainly not large enough for a boat, and in no way suitable for human contact.
What a fine job of preservation she had enjoyed. Many women, I know, would delight in the opportunities she has enjoyed at being aided in retaining her youth. Either a diligent conservationist had been through the evening before, or there was a sacred understanding that littering here would bring existential turmoil. (Allow me to prefer the latter, won’t you?) The site is pristine, an outdoor, interactive American original. No discolor, no odor, no scum…would that I had a vat of her in which to soak my feet at the start of this New Year, or better, I suppose, a winter visit to see the bubbles trapped under the edges of her icy skirt.
As I reviewed the map, I thought, how fortunate is Walden. There seem to be others who could have stolen her glory. HDT could’ve set his compass on Flints or Farrar. If he’d desired less H2O, there may have been Crosby, Goose, or any number of others vying for his attention. Walden, however, was easily accessed; it was on the rail line, fell nearly due south of town (remotely at the time) and was only a short hike from his parent’s house. Location, location, location.
The morning saw us hike the entire circumference of the pond, taking the better part of a couple of hours. All along there were small places to sit – enough of an easement for only one or two – a few steep steps made of rock to lower you to water’s edge – a promotion of solitude. At one point was a pass, a land bridge just enough to separate the pond proper from a marsh…such a marsh as could’ve been a watering hole to mammoths, so untouched.
The sun overhead, we returned to the car to grab our swimsuits and change. It was here, that a graceful old gentleman, with an accent that sang a tune under his words, gave my son a beachball he had found. He was careful to explain that he would have had to either take it home or bequeath to another, as to leave it to the elements would not be an option in such a place. My son was delighted. I imagined myself living closer to the Pond, balding, retired. My respect even greater than it is now, I would come each evening and carefully inspect her shoreline for foreign objects and clear her eyes of splinters. I would tell no one. It would be my contribution to her office, my way of rubbing elbows with the ghosts who rest just a few miles hence in Sleepy Hollow.
Late afternoon, I climbed up out of the water, past the many other bathers and sat down in my lounge chair, to warm myself in the sunshine. I had just gone swimming with my kids in Walden Pond. I turned to my wife, and said (borrowing from Kurt Vonnegut Jr.),
“If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is”.