There are two trips around Walden Pond near Concord, MA. The first is a ski tour through a picturesque New England landscape, with sharp and steeply wooded hillsides surrounding an ice-covered, lambchop-shaped lake.

Around the same pond is a second trip, a pilgrimage that passes the cabin site of Henry David Thoreau, “self-appointed inspector of snowstorms”, conjuring the spirit of a special place and inspiring the thoughts of the pilgrim visitor.

Henry David Thoreau in 1856. Source: Wikipedia

If you choose the first trip, you‘ll find a pleasant ski tour: maples, birch, and oaks, rubbing branches in the wind, a frozen-solid pond to ski across, varying widths of trails in and out of sunlight, all free of charge, all well-tended, all convenient to the Walden Pond State Reservation parking lot on the Concord Road.

But, if you choose the second, be prepared to confront a man who discovered himself in those very woods and hills of Walden Pond, giving us a model of independence and renewal. One thing is for sure; if you take this trip around Walden, you won’t come out the way you went in.

What is it about Thoreau that initiates such pilgrimages? Why are visitors on foot and on skis so drawn to this singular place, the site of a small cabin gone long ago?

The answer is in the subtle message Thoreau left in those winter woods. To know the message, you have to know why Thoreau went to the woods to live alone by Walden Pond and what changes the woods made to his life.

Born in Concord in 1817, Thoreau went to Harvard College where he was homesick for the fields and forests where he once had played. Upon graduation, he and his brother, John, started a school in Concord. John became ill, the school closed, and Henry went to live with Ralph Waldo Emerson, serving as the philosopher’s gardener and handyman. Shortly after moving in, John Thoreau died, and Emerson’s five-year-old son passed away; their mutual grief bonding the two.

Now, Thoreau turned his attention to the community of thinkers surrounding Emerson, splitting his time between handyman and writing philosophical essays.

He was 28, an unsuccessful writer and poet living among the most dynamic American literary and philosophical giants of the time.  Frustrated by the complexities of society, Thoreau returned to the woods, to think, write, learn and sort out his life.

Replica of Thoreau’s cabin. Source: The Walden Woods Project

On July 4, 1845, he moved into the cabin he had built on the northwest shore of Walden Pond on land owned by Emerson.

You can ski up to the site of Thoreau’s cabin by following the shoreline trail on the north side of the pond or by a ridge trail also to the north of the pond but in more rugged terrain. If conditions are right, you can ski right across the frozen surface.

All of these trails are short, about a quarter-mile from the parking lot. A circumnavigation of the pond is less than three miles. If you want more skiing,  cross Concord Road and link into the web of well-tended trails that spread around Sandy Pond and into the town of Lincoln.

But this is a pilgrimage.

Thoreau’s house site and cairn. Source: The Walden Woods Project

The cabin site is in a clearing of pine and hickories “on a pleasant hillside.” A cairn nearby has been building since the site was discovered  in 1947. Stone markers indicate a small cabin, about 11 by 15 feet, the door facing the pond.

Much has been written about Thoreau’s two-year residence in the woods as a practical experiment and a naturalist’s odyssey. However, as you stand in that clearing by the cabin site, imagine Thoreau writing  on his little desk, remembering his brother and struggling to express his thoughts about life, values, and simplicity. Surely, the time spent at Walden was a time of renewal.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn with it had to teach and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived,” he wrote later.

In September 1847, Thoreau left Walden and moved back to his father’s house in Concord. He left knowing he could live the life he wanted. For the rest of his life until he died in 1862 at 43, Thoreau wrote, lectured, travelled, and continued to wander the woods.

Walden had been a turning point; the woods were a catalyst that helped him recognize who he was and where he was going, a man marching to a different drummer.

If you make this pilgrimage in winter, go early. You’ll find yourself alone in the woods next to Walden Pond. Stop skiing and stand quietly. The wind will crackle the branches, and you’ll hear your heart pounding.

Like Thoreau, let the woods give you respite. Recall what these woods have done, what any woods can do to vexed souls. Reflect on the simple beauty around you, read aloud from Walden, go back to the parking lot, different than when you went in.

3 Comments

  1. Great Piece, Mike!
    Survivalists often say of Thoreau that he was less than a mile from civilization and frequently went for drinks and companionship to Emerson’s salon. “Dilletante,” they crow. But you have captured the reason, “Walden” awakened the minds of so many of us over the years.
    And all in the context of a lovely winter ski trip.
    Alan

  2. John Whitney says:

    I second Alan’s comment Mike – great piece! Growing up near Walden, Thoreau has long been a wonderful inspiration in how to live life. And living near Walden in my youth provided so many wonderful memories, from hikes to summer swims. Always great to revisit this treasured pond. Thanks Mike.

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