“It is not worth the while to go round the world to count the cats in Zanzibar,” writes Henry David Thoreau in one of the less-quoted parts of Walden Pond. But is it, I wonder, worth it to go to the place that inspired those, and other more everlasting, words? One can “live deliberately” close to home, but can one do the same on the road far from it? I’m in Boston to find out.
For years, people have come to Boston to run the marathon or walk the Freedom Trail, the 2.5-mile historic walk past the city’s colonial highlights. But for bikers, Boston was best avoided. That’s changed since 2007, when Olympic cyclist Nicole Freedman headed up the Boston Bikes program, resulting in over 80 new miles of bike lanes and Hubway, a regional public-use bike system. Bicycling magazine once had Boston in its worst biking cities list, now WalkScore reckons it’s the USA’s third best. “The big difference is that non-enthusiasts are riding now,” a bike repair guy in Cambridge says. “Regular people.”
I’m regular, and I want to bike. Boston has many great rides, including the Rose Kennedy Greenway or along the Charles River. But I wanted to forge my own route. Using some of those new bike lanes, a couple woodsy trails, and a detour or two, I planned to retrace a fateful 1775 march, when British regulars plodded (just behind Paul Revere and his horse) for 20 miles to Concord, where a certain “shot heard around the world” signaled the start of the American Revolution.
That all appeals to me, but mostly I want to jump into Thoreau’s front yard pool. Did you know you can swim in Walden Pond?
On a three-speed city bike rental for $30, I pedal up Massachusetts Avenue, from MIT through Harvard, on the bike lanes, occasionally swerving around a double-parked UPS truck. I stop to photograph a Boston Marathon mural, and by Arlington, several miles into my day, I pull over when I see giant fish car by a gas station.
“They call it the Art Car,” I heard a voice say as I snapped a photo of the 1990 Dodge Omni, painted silver and hosting enormous fish fins and gills atop the hood and trunk. I turned to see a gray-haired man with a cane and paint-splattered pants. “You can’t drive it with that blind spot… Well, maybe in a parade.” This is Ernie, who remembers the cost of a Raleigh bike he bought decades ago ($229). I tell him I’m looking for a bike path that’s supposed to start here. “Why didn’t you tell me?,” he says, pointing me to it a block away.
That’s the thing about the 11-mile Minuteman Bikeway, a rails-to-trails project that runs from Arlington to Bedford: you can’t see it from the roads. I swerve onto it and find immediate respite from cars and traffic lights, as trees cave a paved track used by joggers and bikers.
My first planned stop is the country’s oldest continually operating mill. Celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, the back-street Old Schwamb Mill specializes in oval frames, which were popular in the early days of photography (when corners of photos tended to blur). This is worth seeing on its own, but to be honest, I’m a sucker for a Schwamb. And my timing luckily coincides with two Schwamb sisters visiting from Texas for the anniversary (both grew up in Tulsa, my hometown too).
Inside the two-story mill, a layered scent of woods greets us in the dark interiors. My eyes adjust to reveal a network of old belts, shafts, and pulleys lining the ceiling, hanging oval frames of various sizes along walls, and in a corner neat rows of artful form-cutter molds, built by hand in the late 1800s.
This is a dreamland for the guide Bob Tanner, a ballcapped volunteer and former mechanical engineer, whose passions for things like “water fly-ball governors” becomes infectious.
“That is an artistic piece of stuff there,” Bob says, lightly caressing a governor tool used to regulate a machine’s speed. “I mean, holy smokes, somebody made that,” he breathlessly adds, admiring a curve in the design. “No one would do anything that way now.”
I get back on the bikeway, pedal under bridges and peek at admirable gardens of admirable century-old homes I’d want. I turn back onto Massachusetts Avenue in Lexington for a sandwich. Ahead, a minuteman statue stares down from the 1.5-acre Battle Green, the site of the first shots from the 1775 event. A young woman there wears 18th-century dress; she’s been a free public guide for the site since she was 14 (she’s 18 now). She rattles out some details of the five-minute conflict that led to a handful of colonial deaths, then I note the surrounding homes, gorgeous colonial mansions, and pick one I want as a dream home. Victoria says, “well, that’s where, after the battle, Jonathan Harrington crawled back to die in front of his wife and nine-year-old son.” Bad vibes. I pointed to another. “Yes, that one’s nice. It’s from 1710.” I’ll take it.
Getting to Concord, seven more miles, means leaving the Minuteman Bikeway. A two-lane road passes stone walls, historic homes, and green meadows as it gently rises. Suddenly it crosses over I-95—a shocking site after so much bucolic New England village life. Just beyond is the Minute Man National Historic Park, a slender five-mile park bisected by the Battle Road Trail, a gravel ride dipping and weaving through the woods. I pass an occasional jogger, and a handful of sites from the 1775 battle, including the spot where Paul Revere was captured. I count five wild turkeys and a woodchuck along the way too, before I see a colonial militia man, arms crossed over his musket, talking to a family resting on a bench. “I came to this rank via corporate management,” he’s saying seriously as I park. “I’ve been here 14 years now. Best office job I’ve had.”
By map, the Concord Turnpike Cut-Off (Rte. 2A) is the most direct way to Walden Pond, so I take it. I wouldn’t recommend it. Cars zoom over the 45 mph speed limit pass me on a busy four-lane road that rises steeply. (Better to continue to Concord, then take low-key Walden Road back a couple miles south.)
Thoreau, who lived in Concord, was a bit of an oddball. And not just because of his aggressive side burns. He never married, and—perhaps not unrelated—apparently didn’t change his clothes for the two years he spent in partial isolation at Walden. He preaches “simplicity, simplicity, simplicity” in his book, published seven years after he left the pond. He built his simple cabin for less than the annual fee for a Harvard dorm, grew his own food, and eliminated the burden of property or debt from his life. And, famously, spent days staring out from his porch in wonder.
Today, still in the woods, Walden Pond is one of the most popular swimming holes in the area. Many locals remember taking swimming lessons as kids a couple generations ago. I arrive at 4 p.m., as a line of cars waits to get into the parking lot and a stream of families walk down to where changing rooms and lifeguards cluster to the south end. I don’t mind. I jump in, float a bit, and do a few strokes. It gets deep quick, I noticed, and venturing out gives me some distance from the kids throwing the tiny soccer ball around. I’ve always felt nothing beats a splash in the right lake or pond. This is one.
After I dry off, I begin the 1.7-mile path that goes around the lakeshore. The crowd quickly thins out. I occasionally hear chatter from sunbathers, sometimes in Russian, Greek, or Spanish. But I’m not listening anymore.
His cabin site, up in the woods at the pond’s northeastern edge, was discovered in 1945, and stone pillars mark it. A head-shaved guy in a black t-shirt is admiring it, he’s come alone as a “birthday treat” for himself. A mother and daughter soon appear. I ask the mother how many of the swimmers she thinks have read Walden Pond in full. I’m surprised by her answer. “Oh most of them, I’d say. Maybe 85-percent?”
Seems high to me. Anyway, I’m not one of them. I confess only having read selections of half the book so far.
Walden Pond is the “X” that marks the spot of Thoreau’s greatest work. I wonder if I really can ever understand him more because I visited? Honestly, probably not. But it feels right. And when I do finally read Walden Pond fully, I’ll have a sense of his morning ritual he called “one of the best things that I did,” bathing in the pond, the refreshing chill of the water, my legs treading just offshore, above an unrealized depth.
To do this trip:
- Rent a bike. Cambridge Bicycle, near the MIT campus in Cambridge, rents three-speeders that might feel a bit under-equipped for the long day. Downtown’s Urban AdvenTours has more options. Note that you can travel with a bike on the MBTA trains at certain hours only (not 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. for instance).
- Tour the old mill. Old Schwamb Mill runs free tours Tuesday and Saturday. You’ll need an hour. Frames start around $300.
- Attend an outdoor summer concert. Lexington’s Hastings Park hosts concerts on Tuesday nights. There are a few historic buildings you can visit, too.
- Get a free history lesson. The Minute Man National Historic Park’s modest visitor’s center, near the start of the trail, has an interesting 25-minute presentation.
- Explore a cemetery. Concord is chock full of glorious things to see. Thoreau, along with Louisa May Alcott and Ralph Waldo Emerson, are buried on the “author’s ridge” at the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. (I spied two red foxes just behind the hill.) And the North Bridge, where colonial militia shot back at British troops in 1775, is just north of town.
- Stay hydrated. It’s about 20 miles to Concord from Cambridge. You’ll need a full day, a water bottle to fill along the way, and more juice for your cellphone’s GPS than mine had.