Thoreau, I think, might have understood our collective predicament. Or so it seems on this dank April day in a spring that meteorologists are calling New England’s coldest ever. I am in Concord, Massachusetts, standing in front of a replica of the hut where Henry David Thoreau undertook his version of self-isolation at Walden Pond. I peer at it like I expect it to speak.
Have you seen it? It really is small. Ten feet by 15 feet – the size of a lawnmower shed you could buy at a hardware store. One room, one door, two windows, a fireplace. (In building a dwelling, Thoreau would later write in “Walden,” “Consider first how slight a shelter is absolutely necessary.”) Inside, behind the locked entry but visible through the window: a cot, a three-legged desk, two wooden chairs, and on this day the anachronism of a day-glo sandwich board urging people not to forget the visitor center 100 yards away.
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The hut, like the visitor center, is beside the parking lot at what is now Walden Pond State Reservation. The park is officially “closed to aid in the prevention of the spread of COVID-19.” Yet here and there a few people wander in the chill – having come for the trails (still accessible, though now routed in one-way loops), or maybe just to escape the house. Occasionally they glance at the tiny hut, which, even though a replica, somehow looks genuine – antique and careworn and moss-eaten. You can imagine Thoreau huddled inside it, sheltering in place with no plumbing but the pond, no heat but burning wood, no light but candles. Not to mention zero Wi-Fi and definitely too few bars for FaceTime.
Thoreau moved into his hut on July 4, 1845. He lived there alone for two years, two months, and two days. Nine years later he published “Walden,” describing what he’d done. And nearly two centuries on, people come here to see where he’d done it.
As it happens, I wasn’t supposed to be here. Back in January, in times B.C. (before coronavirus) this was planned as a different kind of travel story: the Monitor’s Memorial Day kickoff of summer vacation season. The plan was to fly to Washington, D.C., buy bike-share passes, and crisscross the National Mall to document the scenes at the monuments – the great gatherings of every kind of human that belittle our differences and exalt our community. Fractious times? Sure. But not in these places. Not while reading Abraham Lincoln’s carved words opposite his enormous hand on his enormous knee. Not while watching Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. emerge indomitable from a stone.
But of course things changed, and there would be no flights or hotels or runabout bicycles handed from one unsanitized tourist to another. So what would there be – for this story, for this summer, for all of us?
Day trips, it turns out. Or so say the zeitgeist pollsters and travel forecasters. We’re all going to take short trips – in our cars, near our homes, with our lunches packed and our face coverings in our pockets. And I figured: I should go on one, too.
So I took a day trip – two of them, actually. Two visits to Walden Pond, in Concord, an hour from our quarantined home. Where better, I thought, to explore the idea of isolation. It’s what Thoreau did (albeit for nearly 800 days, not 80). Thoreau was the original social distancer, though his isolation, unlike ours, was not forced.
In two days at Walden, here is some of what I found: winter, and then summer, though just 12 days apart. An empty parking lot, and then one so full it was blocked. Kayakers, picnickers, swimmers in both wet suits and bikinis. Walkers in masks. Fishermen in waders. And a woman who emerged from the water to tell me of having visited Walden more than 500 times.
Between those Walden visits I read “Walden” itself. (Reread it, if you count high school, which I shouldn’t.) And tangentially I tumbled down the rabbit hole of never-ending debate over Thoreau’s cultural reputation and literary standing. (Was Thoreau a hypocrite? Was Thoreau a fraud? Was Thoreau, in the characterization offered by a 2015 New Yorker headline, “Pond Scum”?)
So my day trips bloomed into something more, which is maybe what we should wish from our day trips if they’re all we have. It’s what Thoreau would have wanted.
On that first visit in April you could feel Thoreau there. You could not help thinking of his circumstances 175 years ago when he decamped to this place, and how strangely those circumstances echo our own. You could picture Thoreau in his Home Depot shed, grappling with isolation, being sheltered on a circumscribed parcel of earth.
And feeling like he had no idea what was coming next.
“A man must generally get away some hundreds or thousands of miles from home before he can be said to begin his travels,” wrote Thoreau. “Why not begin his travels at home? Would he have to go far or look very closely to discover novelties?”
Why not, indeed? But before we return to Walden (the pond) or even “Walden” (the book), what about the pandemic-prompted travel question that led to this adventure in the first place – will Americans even go on vacation this summer?
Not as intended, they won’t. Already, 66% of Americans have canceled their summer vacation plans, leaving unclear the matter of whether they’ll substitute different ones, according to MMGY Global, a travel industry marketing firm. MMGY identifies three factors affecting consumer willingness to travel: perception of safety, economic factors, and isolation orders.
“As many of us continue to lead lives sheltered in place, the simplest of travel activities seem fantastical,” says Katie Briscoe, MMGY’s president. “When will travelers feel safe to step on a plane? When will hotels welcome guests again?”
Not for a while, according to a Harris poll. A majority of Americans say they’ll wait at least seven months before they’ll fly on a plane, and four months before they’ll stay in a hotel, which for most of the country essentially wipes out overnight travel for the entire summer. Some 58% of travelers say that restaurants will be off their itineraries until July or later. As for cruises, 57% say they won’t get on a ship for “a year or longer,” and 23% say they’ll “never” take another cruise again.
“People just feel safer controlling their own experience,” says Ms. Briscoe. “Whether that be in their car, around friends and family, or just back in trusted and familiar places, this represents the beginning of travel recovery.”
There are some exceptions to the general travel collapse that illustrate what the analysts describe. At the same time that two-thirds of people have scuttled their vacation plans and canceled the flights and hotel rooms that go with them, campground operators are being swamped with reservations. Warren Meyer, owner of Recreation Resource Management, runs 150 campgrounds and day-use recreation sites on public parks and land across the United States. “Those of us two or three hours away [from travelers’ homes] are going to be mobbed this summer,” he predicts. Reservations at RRM-run sites are running 20% ahead of their 2019 rates. “We’re going to be full everywhere, all the time.”
“People are not scared of camping,” he says. You travel in your own car; you sleep in your own shelter; you keep your distance while cooking your own dinner in the ventilated outdoors. Plus, in times of uncertainty, it becomes increasingly attractive, he says, to pay $25 to camp under the red rocks in Sedona, Arizona, instead of $400 to stay in a lodge at Yellowstone.
Mr. Meyer has seen this kind of dynamic before. During the Great Recession, campsite occupancy never fell. The cheap travel option thrived. Similarly, after 9/11, in the summer of 2002 when people still didn’t want to fly, “we had a record camping year,” he notes.
Still, RRM has to weather the lockdown if it’s going to flourish in the summer. Before some states began to ease restrictions in May, 143 of the company’s 150 facilities were shuttered. And RRM, like every business, has a breaking point – Mr. Meyer says the company will be in big trouble if it doesn’t open by Memorial Day.
Of course, only 14% of Americans camp. Whereas almost everyone, say the analysts, will day trip.
But where to? To do what? No one knows how long many attractions, such as museums and theme parks, will remain closed or limited. A currently invaluable benefit of day trips is “flexibility,” William Schaffner, a health policy expert at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, told AFAR Magazine. “Social distancing in a variety of forms is going to be with us for a long time.”
It’s easy enough to maintain distance, though, if you drive Chicago’s suburbs with a map of Frank Lloyd Wright houses in your lap, or exit Miami for a day of snorkeling in nearby Bahia Honda State Park in the Florida Keys.
In sum: Think “hyperlocal.” That’s the buzzword of the moment among travel industry insiders. We’ll be staying near, not going far. Maybe we’ll be discovering about our own backyards what Dorothy went to Oz and back to figure out. Except no balloons – we’ll be driving. According to MMGY Chief Executive Officer Clayton Reid, “2020 could well become the year of the car” – a likelihood abetted by gas prices that are now lower in 20 states than at any time in U.S. history (inflation adjusted).
The great American day trip is on.
Solitude as companion
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately.”
So begins perhaps the most iconic line among Thoreau’s many. But the reality of it wasn’t that simple – nor anywhere near that iconic.
The Thoreau who went to Walden was far from the prophet he’s often made out to be. He was mostly just a young man at loose ends – 27 years old, no attachments, few prospects, little idea of his path. He had gone to New York chasing a writer’s life and returned to Concord homesick and unsuccessful. He had started a school with his brother, John, only to lose both the school and, far worse, his brother, when John died of complications from cutting his finger. In the spring of 1845 Thoreau could have been the sad second cousin in a Jane Austen novel. He was hungry for something. His prospects of finding it were slim. If he decided to go live in the woods, there was no one to stop him.
None of which makes his “experiment” in deliberate living less brave or ambitious. When you go to Walden, that’s part of what you sense. You walk the rolling, rocky ground around the pond and climb the small slope to where the tiny cabin was, and you can’t help but think of the New England winter, and the cold, and the snow. You think of the fire he burned incessantly, and the wood he chopped to feed it. You think of the food he laid up and the vermin that ate it. You think of how hard it must have been, for all his claims about his leisure.
It’s easy to get “Walden” wrong. I know I did, before reading it again. Somewhere along the line we stopped letting the experience breathe and turned it into a few quotes handed down on tablets.
“Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!”
“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.”
You can see them on posters on Google, just two clicks away. They sound like a man who brooks no dissent, is unwavering, who never entertains doubt. But Thoreau was full of doubt, and he let his mind waver – a lot.
He both hated work and exalted it, was both an introvert and an extrovert. On the one hand, he said, “I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.” On the other, he decreed, “I think that I love society as much as most, and am ready enough to fasten myself like a bloodsucker for the time to any full-blooded man that comes in my way. I am naturally no hermit.” Every idea he encountered, he tried on, desperate to feel each one as tangibly as a stone in a hand.
We too often mistake “Walden” as a book about finding: finding the path, finding the truth, finding the way. But it’s not. It’s a book about searching.
To live deliberately
It is on my second trip to Walden, on a May day suddenly gleaming and warm, that I meet Christina Davis. She comes out of the pond, after wading in Thoreau’s cove.
“Aren’t you cold?” someone asks her. She isn’t. You get used to it, she says. She swims here every year on May 1. She’s been coming since 1996 and now has been here more than 500 times.
We sit down to talk. What kind of person visits a site 500 times? Ms. Davis doesn’t mind trying to explain – emphasis on “try,” she says, since she’s not fully sure herself. She is a poet, author, and curator of the Woodberry Poetry Room at Harvard University’s Lamont Library. But in 1996, she’d just finished three years of graduate study at Oxford University and discovered she needed to come home to America. “Turned out I was more American than I’d thought,” she says. “I needed to reacquaint myself.” She was living in New York then, and at loose ends. One day she ventured north by train to Boston and then Concord, and then by foot two miles from the station to the pond. A pilgrimage. She’s never stopped making them. “You have your pilgrimages, don’t you?” she says.
Over the years she’s done most of the things you can do at Walden. She’s sat on rocks and written poems with her ankles in the water. She’s ice skated. She’s made friends. “All while you feel a personal relationship with this person called Henry.”
She shyly quotes something she has written: “It is with this I have formed a family.”
As shadows grow, we walk on pine needles up the path to the original site of Thoreau’s hut. Ms. Davis stops, points at the brown wooden sign. “Now that’s a sentence,” she says. “It’s a poem, that sentence. It’s perfect.”
Her awe causes me to look again – better yet, causes me to forget the quote books and commencement speeches that have dulled the line to me. Here it is, Thoreau in full: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
After Ms. Davis leaves, I linger for a moment on the ground where the hut had been, marked now by granite posts and chains around the periphery. The afternoon is ending, and no one is here. There are only the sounds of shouts far across the water and now and then the echoed thunk of an oar on a boat hull.
As I write this, lockdowns are being lifted on various timetables in various places. Of course unlike Thoreau’s isolation, ours has involved lamps, not candles; bathrooms, not pits. We have had the internet and Zoom and Netflix. But right now it can feel like we know as little about what comes next as Thoreau did when he made his experiment.
Soon, as summer unspools, we’ll all travel again – just not as far as we’d planned. We’ll think hyperlocal. We’ll forget our overstuffed vacation itineraries of old and dial down the pressure. We’ll day trip.
Maybe, as I did on my outing, you’ll reacquaint yourself with your local Thoreau, or that nearby wonder that turns out no less wonderful for its modesty, or someplace you’ve seen plenty but never really looked at. If you’re fortunate, you’ll meet your Christina Davis. You’ll go slower, you’ll expect less, you’ll discover unimagined things precisely because you didn’t think you had to.
“Would [we] have to go far or look very closely to discover novelties?” Thoreau asked. At Walden, beside a common New England pond in an ordinary New England woods, one doesn’t think so. One thinks we can make discoveries in our own backyards for a very long time.
And as we do, maybe we’ll find our way back to the place all our quarantines and social distancing have made us hungriest for. Maybe we’ll be able to say about ourselves what Thoreau was finally able to say in “Walden.”
“At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again.”
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