The Walden next door

Travel experts say many summer vacations this year will be local and outdoors. Close to home may not be exotic, but the unexpected abounds.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Michael S. Hopkins, who wrote this week’s cover story, hikes a trail at Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts, on April 20, 2020.

My hat is off to Michael S. Hopkins, author of this week’s cover story, for two reasons in particular. First of all, he dared to reread a book that both he and I read, sort of, in high school. Second, he navigates a way through a quandary that we all will soon face: summer vacation in the age of the coronavirus. You’ll be relieved to know that his conclusion is thoughtful as well as hopeful – happifying, even, though his journey began with disappointment. It does not involve the vacation equivalent of being noble or eating one’s vegetables. Whew.

Michael had originally pitched a much more active proposal for this week’s cover story, one that involved flying to Washington, visiting monuments, and gauging the depth of our nation’s founding principles in the hearts of visitors there today. It was not to be. Instead, he turned to what travel experts say are going to be the dual themes for many a summer vacation this year: local and outdoors. It’s the year of the car, they say. And if you’re planning a camping trip, here’s a tip from Michael: Camping is remarkably resilient as a form of recreation. Threats of terrorism and economic exigencies do not dissuade campers, apparently, for neither 9/11 nor the Great Recession put a dent in campsite bookings. In fact, an outfit that manages campgrounds and day-use recreation sites at public parks and land across the United States says that bookings are running 20% ahead of last year. 

Plan B, for Michael, was Walden Pond. It’s fairly close to where he lives, and its history resonates with the times. With so many shelter-in-place strictures and social distancing orders, what better time to reevaluate an archetypal self-quarantiner? (A quick aside about the name: As a Midwesterner, I’d pictured Walden Pond as something I could throw a rock across. The glacially formed kettle hole in Concord, Massachusetts, has 61 acres of surface area. Thoreau was definitely in the woods.)

Michael offers a heartening outcome for the two-thirds of us who have canceled summer trips and are searching for our own Plan B. Close to home may not be exotic, but the unexpected abounds. The word “recreation” comes from the Latin word that means “create again, renew,” and one can experience renewal anywhere. A day trip can bloom into something more, Michael notes, as it did for him. 

My wife and I found this to be true, too, when a planned spring visit to the West Coast became a week spent very close to home. We decided to console ourselves by making pilgrimages to the nature reserves that were still open, including one not far from our home. It’s an island in New England’s Great Marsh. Long ago, farmers had built an earthen dike out to the island to graze cattle. We’d never been. We expected little. 

But first of all, we had the place to ourselves. And there was a massive, previously unknown to us population of majestic waterfowl there worthy of a National Geographic special. We were transported. We were enriched and delighted. Elated, even. Thoreau would have been proud. 

Maybe I’ll give “Walden” another shot.

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