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For hiking, biking, try Walden Pond

Yes, that Walden Pond. American writer Henry David Thoreau's retreat near Boston is a popular swimming hole.

By JOHN A. HERBERT

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 9, 2001


CONCORD, Mass. -- Henry David Thoreau probably would not approve. A sign at "his" Walden Pond prohibits "pets, fires, alcohol, bikes and flotation devices." More than 150 years ago, Thoreau wrote the definitive book on civil disobedience, Walden, which would have trashed all these modern prohibitions.

Today, Thoreau's Walden Pond is a popular swimming hole about an hour west of Boston, in Concord -- the ultimate destination of Paul Revere's fabled midnight ride.

Lined with thick oak and pine woods, Walden Pond is a 102-foot-deep "kettle hole," about 2 miles in circumference, fringed with hiking and biking trails. Kettle holes were formed by melting glaciers during the last days of the Ice Age, about 12,000 years ago. When the glaciers disappeared, they deposited sandy beaches, even at Walden Pond.

Walden Pond is part of a 400-acre Massachusetts state park. The land was donated by the Concord family of author-poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, as well as the Hard Rock Cafe chain, Reebok and AT&T -- which might have caused the stubbornly independent Thoreau to spin in his grave.

Developers had first envisioned Walden as a site for condominiums and shopping malls. They were turned away by private benefactors and state intervention. Not that their intentions were entirely amiss.

While Thoreau might have liked the naming of complexes after him and Walden Pond, and the developers' professed plans to perpetuate the study of his writings, he probably would have protested the money-raising efforts and multinational corporate contributions perpetuating his works.

Walden now gets about 750,000 visitors a year from all over the world who come to hike, swim, picnic, fish or canoe. Some off-season die-hards even hit snow-covered Walden trails for snow-shoeing and cross-country skiing.

Many visitors in swimsuits approach Walden with the same hushed voices they probably save for church. Nor is there any litter in sight. In fact, Walden Pond does not offer trash cans, just the occasional posted reminder: "Take your litter with you." Apparently, everyone does.

Thoreau, also a Concord native, gave Walden Pond its start as a retreat for recreation and inspiration back in 1845. He was given a small piece of wooded land by the Emerson family.

By no means a hermit (he often hiked into Concord for a hot meal), Thoreau lived in a one-room, 10- by 15-foot cabin he built from pines he felled. He spent a few years there thinking about the meaning of life, and he published his treatise on civil disobedience years later.

After Thoreau moved from the cabin in the 1850s, it was used to store grain. By 1870, the cabin had been torn down for scrap lumber and to roof over an outhouse.

But a replica is across the street from the pond. The stone foundation of the original cabin is a 15-minute walk overlooking the entrance to the pond.

Building costs for the original, Thoreau recorded, were $28.12. The postwar replica cost about $4,000, including bed, wood stove, desk and chair, pots and pans -- and a copy of Thoreau's Walden.

Thoreau could have afforded more than a simple cabin. He once asked, from Walden Pond, "Isn't it employment enough to watch the progress of the seasons?" Apparently not. He was also a freelance surveyor and sometime pencilmaker.

With time, Thoreau also became a lecturer, a self-appointed inspector of blizzards and rainstorms, and frequent speaker against slavery and what he saw as economic injustices. He helped runaway slaves escape to freedom in Canada.

Thoreau died of tuberculosis relatively young; he was just 44 years old. He's buried in the 300-year-old Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.

If you go

For about $26 per person, you can spend the day aboard a sightseeing bus retracing Revolutionary footsteps, from downtown Boston to Lexington, Concord, Walden Pond and even the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.

This tour, operated by the Gray Line subsidiary Brush Hill Tours, does not stop at most of the locations, including the pond. But it is an easy way to get a narrated look at the famous sites. Call toll-free 1-800-343-1328, or go to the Web site www.grayline.com and click on Boston.

Another option is to rent a car in Boston and drive out Route 2 to Concord and Walden Pond. In another week or so, the leaves will be changing and the apple orchards will be lovely, into mid October.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Go to the Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau Web site, www.bostonusa.com.

- Quincy, Mass., native John A. Herbert now lives in Spring Hill.

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