A visit to Walden Pond can be immersive, if you go at the right time. Many people go in summer to swim and enjoy the pristine water. Many fish for large mouth bass and other prizes. But the pilgrims go to visit Henry David Thoreau’s famous pond and the woods surrounding it. I’ve watched the place change over the years, but the pond and woods remain largely as Thoreau would recognize.
You must treat a brief visit to Walden as you would a visit to a nightclub with a cover charge. There’s a flat fee of $30 USD to park. That applies for an hour or the entire day. There’s a lower fee, apparently, for Massachusetts residents. I suppose you can also opt for other ways to get to Walden Pond, but this was the simplest way to spend time at a place. The area surrounding Walden Pond is a mix of highway, commuter railroad (as it was in Thoreau’s time), capped landfill and houses increasingly further out of reach for someone choosing the lifestyle of the person who made this place famous.
Early December is considered late autumn, but my visit felt more mid-autumn, with temperatures warmer than they should be this time of year. Henry David Thoreau would have shaken his head, I think, at some of the same behavior he observed in his day leading to the climate change we’re experiencing today but generally sitting on our hands about. But it made for a lovely day to walk around the pond.
There is a well-defined path around the pond. It’s maintained and easy for most walkers to navigate. They make you feel like you’re in a cattle chute for much of it, with wire strung on each side of the path to keep wanderers from straying off the path. Signage explains this as erosion control measures. As a hiker of the White Mountains in New Hampshire, I’m all too familiar with the impact of popularity on trails and the surrounding landscape. I stay to the path, liberated from the freedom to wander, I instead focused on the environment around me.
You can hear the world encroach on you at Walden. Distant highway sounds, construction, sirens, airplanes flying overhead and the commuter train all remind you that you’re in a suburb of Boston. It’s best to acknowledge this, but let it go as Thoreau let the train go as it went past in his time. The landscape is largely preserved, the water clear, awaiting those who would linger.
When I was younger, there was no visitor center, but there was a bath house. At some point well before I came into this world some well-meaning people decided that the best way to save Walden Pond was to make it a recreation center. So a bath house was built, beach sand extended and you had a destination for family recreation. Thoreau’s cabin is on the opposite shore from the bath house, but it’s the first thing you see when you walk down the visitor parking lot. You’re either at peace with it or not, but it’s relatively benign in the off-season.
Walden Woods extend well beyond the perimeter of the pond, and we can thank people like Don Henley for their commitment to preservation. Generations of developers find a way to squeeze as much money as they can from resources, and there are plenty of people who would turn the place inside out and up. There’s a place for development in this world, but there ought to be a place for preservation too.
I’d brought a water bottle with me on the walk, warm day that it was, and decided in a moment of inspiration to fill it with water from Walden Pond. Thoreau drank straight from the pond in his day, I’m not inclined to do that without a filter. Instead, I brought the water with me for another pilgrimage. Just across that highway is the center of Concord, where Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson lived. Just beyond the center is the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, site of Author’s Ridge, where Thoreau, Emerson, Alcott and others are buried. I stopped for a brief visit on Author’s Ridge, told of my visit to his old cabin site, and poured Henry a sip of Walden Pond. Cheers Henry.