We recently toured New England to peep at the autumn colors. But while there I had to take a side-trip. A pilgrimage of sorts. I wanted to visit Walden Pond. My wife had no interest in this body of water, but we compromised. She very much wanted to visit the witch city of Salem, Massachusetts, so we agreed to a few hours at Walden, and then the rest of the day at Salem.
She came to regret that compromise, for Salem was nothing but a tourist trap, crowded and bustling with hucksters. As we departed that wicked village, she pined for the peacefulness of Walden, and wished aloud we had sojourned the entire day there. It was Walden, not a witch, that ensorcelled her.
Walden Pond is the very spot where Henry David Thoreau resided in a cabin, built from his own hands, on land owned by Ralph Waldo Emerson. His life and experiences in this sylvan paradise inspired his book, Walden, which was recognized as an American literary classic after his death.
Walden is an autobiographical tale by Thoreau, journaling how he lived self-reliant and in harmony with nature, in a 10 by 15 foot cabin near the shores of the pond. But it is much more than autobiography. Thoreau essays on many themes, including nature, economy, and companionship. His sentences soar sublime, and his insights penetrate the heart. He touches an earthly, wild humanity that ruminates deep within the spirit of all of us.
He began living his back-to-nature lifestyle on Independence Day, July 4th, 1845, near his 28th birthday, and departed Walden on September 6th, 1847. Which was strangely close to the Labor Day holiday our country began celebrating in 1894. Was Thoreau prescient?
I devoured Walden when I was 22 years old, and my appetite transformed. I began hungering and thirsting for nature and wilderness, and lost all desire for modern civilization. Thoreau became my idol, and I wanted to be just like him. And I yearned to try my hand at a Walden experiment myself.
There were a few failed attempts but finally, at age 29, I managed a degree of success. I purchased three acres of remote Mojave desert land. I garnered the help of my brother-in-law and his Kubota tractor, and built an 8 by 16 foot, underground log cabin. A dugout actually, lined with peeler logs.
But I was not as successful as Thoreau at living off the land. He had the benefit of water, fish, and abundant wildlife and plant life. I, on the other hand, struggled in a desert desiccated by severe drought.
Thank goodness my hunting skills led me to a supermarket just a half-hour’s drive away.
I did manage to kill a rattlesnake once, which I boiled and dined upon for several days. I also shot a rabbit with my 22 rifle. It kicked in the dirt, screaming. Have you ever heard a rabbit scream? I quickly finished it off with a second shot, but have never forgotten those hideous leporine cries.
I stopped hunting after that. Nonetheless, the pathetic little cottontail was boiled and eaten, supplying me with meat to supplement my dry goods over the next week.
Due to the drought there was plenty of deadwood to scavenge, so I never lacked for fuel to warm my earth-insulated cabin.
Thoreau was a transcendentalist and avid meditator. I was not. So my insights did not soar to the lofty heights his own heart and mind achieved. My back-to-nature experience did not equip my soul sufficiently to be like Thoreau, and write an American literary classic. I guess you’re just gonna have to get his book.
What I learned from my life in the wilderness was how to be a cheapskate. I learned the feeling of security from knowing I didn’t have to spend a lot of money to meet the basic necessities of life, and live in basic comfort. I already knew this to some degree, so this was just a lesson reinforced.
I also learned the precious value of spare time, and how relaxing it can feel to loaf around all day. Yet another lesson reinforced. But this reinforcement motivated me later, to work hard for an early retirement. I understood more than ever that one must work, in order to loaf. Or at least to loaf feeling safe and without worries.
So after leaving my cabin, I worked hard and saved most of what I earned. And I studied books on how to invest, in order to preserve my hard work and make it continue to work for my future benefit. It strikes me odd how little forethought most people put into investing. I guess they don’t value loafing around as much as me.
My biggest lesson from my personal Walden is that life is easy to enjoy when kept simple. A freedom is born from this that feels exhilarating. A box of Cheezits and a nap for me, and I’m often content for the day. And when bored I chase unicorns. Which is easy because it doesn’t have to cost a penny. There are plenty of unicorns out there just begging to be caught.
Thoreau did not live nearly as long as me. At age 18 he contracted tuberculosis, and this eventually killed him at the young age of 44. But though his age was young, his soul was old. He was wise well beyond his years.
He remains an idol to me. An early guide to my life. A lodestar, pointing me toward the things that truly matter, and away from the artificiality of the quietly desperate.
Thoreau lasted two years, two months, and two days at his Walden Pond cabin. Or Walden East, as I like to think of it. I wasn’t quite so enduring, lasting not a day beyond two years in my Mojave desert hermitage. Or Walden West, if you will. I finally ran out of money and had to rejoin the civilized world, due to my desire to keep eating groceries.
There are all kinds of Waldens. Walden is not just a pond in Concord, Massachusetts. You can find your Walden anywhere. I found mine in the Mojave desert. Others have found theirs in such environs as Alaska, the Rocky Mountains, or by living on a sailboat in the sea.
It’s also a state of mind. If you love wilderness and visit it often, you possess a Walden spirit. If you respect the wilds and take care to cause as little disturbance as possible when venturing forth into unpeopled lands, you follow the code of Walden. And if your life is carved from self-reliance and simplicity, you’re as Walden as Thoreau.
I circumambulated Walden Pond, paid homage to the original cabin site, and gazed searchingly through the pellucid waters that Thoreau fished, all the while mindful that my wife awaited the witches of Salem. After about an hour-and-a-half I found her sitting spellbound. But not from black magic. She had been calmed by the stillness of the shore. But even so, she looked forward to our next New England adventure.
Soon after, we motored away, with Walden in my rear view mirror. But that’s not really true. Walden has never been in my rear view mirror. Since departing my cabin in the Mojave, Walden has always been in front of me, beside me, and within me.
I can never leave Walden.