On Visiting Walden for My 38th Birthday

I first read "Walden" in the tenth grade, long before I had any indication that I would someday live in New England, so close to where it took place.
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January 19, 2015
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birthdays, aging, outdoors, Walden

There is a slip of paper on the dashboard of my car; it's a printed parking permit from the automated parking attendant at Walden Pond State Park, and it cost five dollars for one day’s use of the facilities there. It is dated January 11, 2015. My 38th birthday.

Locals hear "Walden Pond" and think of summertime swims, of woods thick and green, and crowds gathered on the pond's small beach. January finds things much quieter. A handful of sturdy walkers, reliably in pairs, swaddled in puffy coats and scarves and hoods, stomp through the woods just dusted with snow. We walk to the main entrance where a sign reads "DANGEROUS ICE CONDITIONS," with a stick figure flailing in a stylized representation of a fall through the weak ice and into the pond's frigid water. We turn right and follow a trail into the woods. I am here because I want to find the place where Henry David Thoreau built the cabin where he lived for the duration of Walden.

I first read Walden in the tenth grade, long before I had any indication that I would someday live in New England, so close to where it took place. I read it under the direction of Miss C, a never-married, elderly and deeply Catholic American Lit teacher. We read many books that year, all of which fit neatly within the standard dead white male canon, but the one that stands out in my memory most is Walden.

Miss C must have had a soft spot for the transcendentalists, as her teaching on these authors sticks in my memory like a sharp and vivid photograph amidst a pile of hazy gray classroom recollections; uncertain out-of-focus memories of The Great Gatsby and Sinclair Lewis. We walked through Walden chapter by chapter, even the chapters she admitted were somewhat dull (hello, “Economy”), and her love of the book infected me, as the best teachers will make you do.

There is a picture of Miss C and I somewhere, taken at the end of the year, me in my uniform white blouse and plaid skirt, Miss C smiling with her halo of white hair, both of us standing very close to one another but not actually making contact. Miss C was never a favorite teacher — that was Mr. B, my senior year, who had us read The Little Prince out loud in class, and who seemed as surprised as we were when some of us cried, standing on the precipice of our new adult lives. Indeed, she wasn’t even in the top 10. But we both seemed to share an understanding of Walden, and that was enough.

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I've never been one to freak about round-numbered ages; turning 30 was no more remarkable than turning 20, and I carry no dread for 40, even as it seems to approach ever more rapidly.

Instead, I ruminate about the eights. At 18, I was a box of explosives looking for the tripwire that would set me off, always on the edge of something catastrophic and usually wonderful, like crying about The Little Prince in class — but sometimes not. That was the year I first tried to stop hating myself, and when I moved to a city where I knew literally no one, and found that a change of venue was my key to learning to thrive.

But at 28, I was bereft, despondent, stagnant, aged. I had abandoned my first Life Dream and was trapped in a job with no hope of upward advancement, which was fine because I didn’t really care about what I was doing all that much anyway, plus I was bad at it.

At 28, I had a brief flicker in which I thought I should get rid of all my clothes and replace them with more boring things. Instead I wore black, near exclusively, for that year; I also cut my long hair into a short bob. I wasn't in mourning, it just felt right. I felt as though I needed to change things, but didn’t know how, so I changed what I could. By the time I turned 30, I had fully worked all that saturnine business out of my system.

At 28, Henry David Thoreau was living at Walden Pond, in a house he built himself, for the purposes of exploring nature and human existence, the result of which would be a book that people would still be reading and learning from over 150 years later. By 30, he was gone from Walden forever.

I didn’t know how old Thoreau was at Walden at the time, which is probably for the best. My own pathetically superficial experiments would have seemed absurd in comparison.

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At Walden Pond, in January, Dennis asks me what the transcendentalists were all about, and I have to think about it. I don’t say “the intrinsic goodness of humanity and nature” or “the purity of the individual” or even “self-reliance.” Instead I mumble something about the impact of technology on independent thought and spirituality, because this is what is on my mind at the time. I am thinking of Thoreau’s “We do not ride upon the railroad; it rides upon us,” and of how even the best technologies require a price to be paid. Dennis misunderstands and immediately argues against the idea that technology is something we should ever want to deprive ourselves of; I try to explain that transcendentalists were not Luddites, but that an aspect of their movement was the need to be aware of how growth — be it institutional or technological — leaves impressions on us, both good and bad. It goes on like this for awhile.

We are standing at the site of Thoreau’s tiny house. The temperature is in the 20s, which is reasonable for January. There are two places marked here: on the left, there is a substantial cairn of stones, and on the right, the actual archeological site of the cabin as discovered in 1945. The stone pile was begun in 1872, when Bronson Alcott, father of Louisa May Alcott, identified the location to a visiting friend during a walk around the pond. As the story goes, one or the other of them placed a stone at the site, and from there the stone pile has grown as new visitors have added to it.

I’m trying to imagine what it must have been like, living here through the winter. Dennis thinks Thoreau was out of his mind; I note that many people in neighboring Concord agreed. I suggest that it was an experiment — this is what drew me to Walden, the book, in the first place. It’s the romance of leaving all the complications of modern life behind to build a cabin in the woods and survive on air and nature and curiosity and imagination. It still appeals, if I’m honest.

I walk down to the water’s edge as I picture Thoreau might have done; I’m thinking of his rapturous descriptions of the pond in winter, of the clarity of the ice, his ability to find joy in something as simple as drinking water, in weather far colder and more menacing than this. I would never call him crazy; I am too enamored with the idea of a person who would actively seek such challenges.

Off in the distance, two figures are brazenly walking across the ice. Fucking New Englanders. I remember the “DANGEROUS ICE CONDITIONS” sign, and all I can think is that, if one of them falls through, I will feel like I have to try to help them, and I am terrified at the prospect.

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Also in my car, next to the parking permit, is a half-empty bag of Corn Nuts (“BQ!”), something I have reflexively bought on road trips, and only on road trips, since I was a teenager. On my birthday, during the drive to Concord, Dennis grabbed them for me at a 7-Eleven when we stopped for something to drink. My car is kind of a mess, but in five months I’ll be replacing it, so I am letting things collect, like half-empty bags of snack food and parking permits from Walden Pond. It’s a way of holding on to a moment. It’s a way of remembering.

Today, at 38, I like the number of years I’ve got. The realization surprises me. This happened as I reached the ages at which I had assumptions, and then discovered that those assumptions were bullshit. I no longer think of 40 as a cliff I'm riding toward; I have grown younger with every year, beginning my adolescent life as a somber and fretful 12-year-old, sliding into a practically-minded and safety-obsessed teenager (always the designated driver, because I did not trust anyone else not to drink illegally when the inevitable opportunity arose) and slowly evolving into a middle-aged adolescent. This is something Capricorns do, I am told.

Thoreau published Walden nine years after his experiment began, and was dead of tuberculosis at 44. At Walden Pond, I walk back up the gentle hill from the water’s edge to the cairn of stones. I find a rock that has fallen from the pile and replace it, precariously balancing its rounded edge on the swell of a larger rock below. It will likely fall again soon, the moment I walk away, or tomorrow, or a month from now, but I am untroubled by that. It is here in the moment, as I am in the moment, and that is what I will remember.