Sometimes the meaning of a place is more important than the place itself. The significance applied to such a place far exceeds what might be written on informational placards or brochures. These are places you’ve thought about visiting for years, read up on and talked about with others. They are destinations important to your family, your career, your spirituality. You’ve anticipated the moment of reaching these places, of actually standing there.
In all actuality, Walden Pond is just a body of water. It takes about an hour and a half to take a leisurely stroll along the two-mile footpath that circles the pond. Like most students, I read portions of Henry David Thoreau’s book Walden, and I was familiar with the other teacher, writer and lecturer with whom he is often associated: Ralph Waldo Emerson. They were both transcendentalists, which means they advocated individuality and encouraged each person to seek a spiritually fulfilling relationship with the natural world.
I remember liking this idea as a teenager, but I never pursued transcendentalist thought much beyond what my classroom assignments required. Had I been in the Boston area on my own, I probably would have visited Walden Pond, but going to the site was an absolute non-negotiable for my husband who is a high school English teacher and devoted believer in the transcendentalist movement.
Pulling into the Walden Pond State Reservation parking lot, I could feel the sense of excitement sitting on my husband’s shoulders. In the information center/gift shop, he bounced from shelf to shelf, touching book covers and looking at sketched maps of Concord, Massachusetts, from the mid-1800s, as I picked up a map and asked about the logistical information of visiting the park. We walked across the street and down a path to a beach—the main entry point to Walden Pond. Kids splashed in the water, parents sprawled out in chairs and on towels, reading books. A loose boundary made of buoys floated about ten yards into the water.
We turned to the right and walked along the dirt path. A couple of women in workout gear passed us going the other direction, speed walking while chatting. Past the beach there were small turnouts into the water, and we walked past an older couple putting on swimming caps before slipping into the water for a morning swim. A young boy and (I assume) his grandfather sat on a rock, silent, holding fishing poles.
As a state park, Walden Pond is heavily used for exercise—trail running, walking, lap swimming and cross-country skiing in the winter—and recreation—kayaking, beach swimming, fishing and canoeing. For my husband, Walden Pond was a moment realized. He ran his hand along the wire fencing, which lined most of the trail. “Thoreau wouldn’t like this,” he said.
Then he turned off the path and stood on a small sandy patch of beach, his toes in the water. We said nothing, and he just looked across the pond, side to side and around the edge.
Opposite the beach is a small lagoon, the cove that Thoreau bathed in and sat near when he lived at the pond from July 1845 to September 1847. A few dozen feet from the water is the former site of Thoreau’s cabin. Though the building is no longer there, a wooden fence has been erected to indicate where the cabin was located. It is small, perhaps 12 feet by 14 feet, and an area marked off that indicated where his wood pile was sits behind the cabin.
Other people arrived and read the placard that stood near the doorway of the cabin site. They snapped a few photos and continued on their way. Standing in the woods, I felt the need to be silent, like this was a moment of remembrance and reflection. My husband walked around the site, looked at the woods around us and pointed into the trees. “I think he grew his crops on that side,” he said. “He planted beans when he moved out here.”
Next to the cabin site was a mound of rocks, many of which had been stacked into cairns. One was carved with the word “Inspire.” Others had quotes and short notes written on them. The collection of thoughts and memories reminded me of a mix between the temple at Burning Man and the shoes left on the shoe tree in the Mojave Desert. Clearly my husband wasn’t the only person moved by what this pond represented beyond the body of water.
In our silence, I could hear the distant shriek of delight from a child splashing in the water and branches rustling in the wind. I watched my husband as he looked around the site once more, taking in this place that he’d dreamed of visiting almost more than anywhere else in the world. This is where the men he idolized had walked, talked and written. These were the trees that had sprouted from the trees that stood here when Thoreau did. This was his Mecca, the place where his spirituality came full circle and he could reflect upon his philosophy in life.
He turned to me, a half smile on his lips and a knowing, satisfied look in his glistening eyes. He took my hand, and we continued our walk around Walden Pond.