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Shoeless at Walden Pond

On the beach at Walden

I realize this title is a bit mundane given the profound nature (no pun intended) of Thoreau’s Walden Pond experiment. However, more than 150 years after the transcendentalist exited his bucolic paradise, I had the truly unexpected experience of visiting — and actually swimming in — Thoreau’s Pond.

I steadfastly adhere to his philosophy on the benefit and peace that an actual saunter — not a walk — can represent. I had that image in mind when I planned my trip. However, it didn’t exactly turn out that way.

Of course, I’d read Walden Pond in college and then again later when I was mature enough to understand the truth and beauty of living a simple life in the woods. I’ve always lived in the city, and as I grow older, it holds less and less appeal. I spend as much time as I can walking in the woods and sitting lakeside. (I’m fortunate to live in Michigan, which has more than its share of freshwater lakes.)

So, Walden has become more profound and more palpable for me as I’ve grown older. Of course, unlike Thoreau and Emerson, dignity has never been my strong suit. I don’t have the quiet cloak of the 19th century at my side, and even if I did, I’m still too clumsy and disorganized to ever pull off a dignified persona. And, in my defense, I live in an age of Facebook and Twitter — can any of us really manage pensive and dignified these days?

My trip to Thoreau’s paradise was a last minute impulse. I was sitting in my office one Tuesday morning when a close friend, who is far more adventurous than I, called with an inspiration. “There’s a benefit for Walden Pond in four weeks. Robert Redford is going to be honored and the Eagles are playing a special concert. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. You game?”

I probably would have hesitated longer when I was younger but (thankfully) I’ve learned to stop doing that. I thought about it for maybe 30 seconds. “Book it.”

This was my first trip to Boston. We stayed on the historic Harbor, our windows looking out on the great ships and timeless routes to sea. Our real destination, Concord, Massachusetts, was a short train ride from Boston. It’s the closest stop to Walden, and the town, famous as it is in American lore, is about as small and rural as it gets. We booked our train to Concord for mid-afternoon and settled into the bar at the station to wait for departure. Unfortunately, there was a rather long delay. We spent about two hours in the bar, where, unbeknownst to me, my traveling companion consumed several martinis. This small alcohol-related fact will be relevant a little later …

Concord on foot

When we stepped out of the train station in Concord, I was flooded with images of Colonial America. I’m a history buff (actually got a history major just for fun), so I’ve been reading about this tiny East Coast town for years. It was quiet and lovely — but without any visible means of transportation. There didn’t seem to be any way to actually get to Walden Pond other than to walk. So we headed up the beautiful tree-lined, one-lane road. It was a balmy Fall day, so I thought, “How perfect, we’ll saunter to Walden.”

My friend had other ideas. The martinis had worn off, leaving her hung over and trailing behind me — complaining vigorously. This was definitely not the leisurely saunter I had in mind. Looking back at her struggles, I was more reminded of the Bataan Death March.

So for the first time in my life, I actually hitchhiked, as it was becoming more and more obvious that she was never going to be able to walk — much less saunter — all the way to Walden Pond. Luckily, it would seem that only BSU and MIT professors traverse that stretch of road. It was MIT that graciously picked us up and dropped us at Walden.

We walked into the gift shop where a 20-something sold us towels, about 200 pounds of books and a large Walden Pond tote bag. From there, we made our way down to the water. It was magical. Pristine and deep, and it felt timeless — like maybe Thoreau was still there somehow. I was astonished to discover that I’d actually be able to get into Walden Pond. I took off my sandals and waded into the water in my shorts and T-shirt. I didn’t have a change of clothes, but figured I’d worry about that later. I’m not in the habit of doing such things, but after all, it was Walden Pond and I was there to "simplify, simplify" as Mr. Henry David himself put it.

On Walden Pond

The experience was sublime. The pond is clear and very deep. I swam out to the middle and just stayed there, treading water and thinking about how it couldn’t have looked much different 200 years ago. It’s surrounded by thick dark Northern woods, all giant pines and majesty. I have to say, it was one of the most profound moments of my life.

The rest of my visit was considerably less profound. When I got back to shore, I discovered that my shoes were missing. So, here was my (very non-profound) situation: My friend was passed out on the beach; I was barefoot and my only clothes were soaking wet. And … it was getting dark.

I trudged up the steep hill to the gift shop, walked up to the college student who had sold us our goodies and asked: “Do you sell flip flops or anything like that?”

He looked at me — and then down at my feet.

“Yes,” I said. “Someone took my shoes down there.” He appeared to be about 20, so this news was greeted with a noncommittal shrug. Sadly, he informed me that they didn’t sell flip flops or shoes of any kind and furthermore, there were no taxis or transportation back to Concord.

Really? I fought the urge to panic. I mean this was the East Coast. No taxis?

The only other person in the tiny store was an elderly woman who had been watching me since I walked in, soaking wet and barefoot. “Do you know how to get back to Concord?” she asked. I told her I did and she offered to drive us back. My second hitchhiking adventure in a single day!

She and her husband dropped us off in the middle of the street, (there’s pretty much only one) in the middle of Concord. Trying to look as dignified as possible shoeless and soggy, I strode purposely into what appeared to be a camping store. I walked up to a 20-something salesperson (Was no one over 25 in this town?) and informed him that I’d lost my shoes at Walden Pond and needed a pair of flip flops. Again, the same deadpan response. I bought the most expensive pair of flip flops I’ve ever owned and walked out of the store.

Our adventure didn’t end there as it was now as after 8 p.m. and getting back to Boston involved a frantic hotel concierge, a bartender and a local hermit named Bruce, who apparently owned the only car for rent within 50 miles.

My takeaway from this adventure: Throw caution to the wind. Swim in your clothes if need be. Discard the idea of ever maintaining an air of dignity. And saunter, whenever you can.

Final note: I feel privileged to have seen Glenn Frey in one of his last concerts, playing his heart out to help preserve Walden Pond.

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