Thoreau’s ‘Walden’ and the 'Why?' of Long-Distance Hiking
Last year I walked from Mexico to Canada along the Pacific Crest Trail. It was incredible, and I have written extensivly about my journey here and here. Along the way, many people asked me why I had undertaken such an outrageous journey. This is my answer, and a challenge to all to spend a little bit more time outside. Please let me know what you think!
In December, I spent an afternoon wandering through the autumn woods outside of Concord, Massachusetts. I walked for several hours around Walden Pond, both the subject and the setting of Henry David Thoreau’s meditative masterpiece of the same name. I read many books while hiking, over twenty in fact, but Thoreau’s Walden stuck with me more than most. And so, when I returned to the Northeast after my trek from Mexico to Canada along the PCT, I made a point of taking a pilgrimage to the site of Thoreau’s inspiration.
For those who haven’t read it, Walden is a book documenting Thoreau’s solitary two years spent living by the shore of Walden Pond in a one-room cabin he builds himself at the beginning of the narrative. The book is a hodgepodge of intellectual musings, natural history, social observation, and pious argumentation. Each section offers seemingly disparate moments of clarity laid out like so many round stones on a lakebed, strung together by Thoreau’s grand view of nature to form a cohesive whole. Walden is not a story, nor is it a chronicle or journal, though it has elements of each. I would argue that it is a manifesto. Thoreau sincerely wants to move you. He explains to you in marvelous prose how wonderful it is living in the woods, and how healthy and enriching solitude can be. But in the end, he hopes that you will be moved to take a walk in the woods and experience it for yourself.
While it is possible to tie Thoreau’s asceticism to hermetic traditions of the past, at the time, in mid-1800’s New England, his way of life was quite radical. His experiences at Walden Pond represent a particularly vivid turning point in the first truly, organically American intellectual tradition: Transcendentalism. Ralph Waldo Emerson may have written about the transcendental first, and arguably with more aptitude, but it was Thoreau who lived and embodied it in the countryside outside Concord. Every writer and thinker who has confronted nature since, from John Muir to Edward Abbey, has been in dialogue with H.D. Thoreau in one way or another. Agree or disagree: he cannot be ignored.
Now, as you can imagine, Walden is a magnificent book to read while thru-hiking. Here is a passage from his opening chapter. Anyone who has spent time in the wilderness should have made similar observations upon returning to the city and to civilization.
“Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them. Their fingers, from excessive toil, are too clumsy and tremble too much for that. Actually, the laboring man has not leisure for a true integrity day by day; he cannot afford to sustain the manliest relations to men; his labor would be depreciated in the market. He has no time to be any thing but a machine.”
If his observations on society were true when he wrote them in the 1850’s, how much truer are they today? How many people live hand to mouth for their entire lives? How many never get the opportunity to watch the sun rise over a pristine mountainside, or share the morning air with birds and bees rather than exhaust and rumbling machinery?
Hang on a minute while I get off this high horse. I don’t mean to preach, but I believe that we, as mammals with scarcely 12,000 years of sedentary living under our collective belt, need some nature in our lives. As endless strings of studies have shown, it’s good for us. It makes us healthier and happier. And its fun, if you allow it to be.
Spending time outside allows us time to digest, to escape, to reflect. To pare down life to its most essential. As Thoreau famously tells us:
“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.” This is the 'why’ of the PCT. This, for me, is what thru-hiking is all about.
However! You certainly don’t need to build a cabin in the woods, or hike two and a half thousand miles, to experience your life, and the universe, face-to-face. You just need to take some time this weekend for yourself, a day or a few hours, and wander through the woods without a plan or a care. Anywhere will do: a local forest, a park, a beach, an empty field. What is important is that you do not try to accomplish anything in particular while you wander. Just look and listen and breathe. And it will be hard at first, and the worries of the day will poke and prod at you, and you will sweat, and you may stub your toes, and at first you may rush, and you may want only to get back home to the dull comfort of modernity. But next week, and next year, you will remember those moments that you spent outside vividly, even as the hours spent at work, surfing the internet, driving your car, paying your taxes, fade into a blur.
Take a few moments for yourself to LIVE! You deserve it.
Hugs and high-fives,
All photos by me. If you wanna use em, cool, just let me know!
A slightly different version of this post originally appeared on the Los Rhodies hiking blog, which documented my PCT thru-hike with a few of my closest friends.