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Fourth of July: an excellent day to stay home

On July 4, 1845, Henry David Thoreau took the first "staycation" – and authors have been debating its merits ever since.

By / July 4, 2011

"I have traveled a great deal in Concord," said Henry David Thoreau of his decision to stay put in his tiny cabin in the woods.

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The arrival of another Independence Day is an occasion to celebrate America’s birthday, but perhaps it’s also fitting, in this season of high gas prices and tight family budgets, to remember that the Fourth of July is also the birthday of the American staycation, the much-discussed practice of vacationing at home.

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One hundred and sixty-six years ago, on July 4, 1845, Henry David Thoreau sought a change of pace by staying at home, moving into a small cabin at Walden Pond near his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts.

“I have traveled a great deal in Concord,” Thoreau would famously declare in “Walden,” giving hope to homebodies everywhere that pleasure and diversion might be found not on distant mountains or tropical beaches, but by staying put.

It’s a sentiment that promises to resonate with particular appeal in this summer of national discontent, as sticker shock at the gas pump and a sputtering economy tempt more than a few Americans to take their vacations at home.

Thoreau’s penchant for traveling in place has secured his reputation as one of our great national oddballs, but what’s striking about his stay-at-home ethic, more than a century and a half after he coined it, is how much it continues to echo in the wider culture.

In “Bird Cloud,” her recent memoir, novelist Annie Proulx offers a cautionary tale that asks us to consider when we should welcome – and when we should reject – a home’s gravitational pull. The Bird Cloud of Proulx’s title is a property she buys in rural Montana, determined to build a dream dwelling on 640 acres of wetlands, prairie, and 400-foot cliffs. After finishing the house, which boasts a beautiful library, designer cabinets, and a Japanese bathing tub, Proulx realizes that snow isolates her much of the year, and she concludes that “no matter how much I loved the place it was not, and never could be, the final home of which I had dreamed.”

Although few readers will ever embark on a domestic odyssey quite like Proulx’s, her story raises a question that can touch cabin-fevered staycationers across the country: At what point can a home turn from paradise to prison?

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