Walden Pond, Minuteman National Park, and the Old Manse

*Photo taken at Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts.

Saturday morning, without an alarm clock, I woke at 6:30 am. Despite the early hour which usually goes against my grain on the weekend, I couldn’t wait to spring out of bed and get dressed. Earlier in the week I had come across some information about Nathaniel Hawthorne which led me down a rabbit hole of history about his life in Concord, Massachusetts. When I looked it up on a Google map, I discovered several interesting monuments dedicated to famous authors, and on a whim decided to make a day of going to see said monuments in person. So after dressing and breakfast, coffee in hand, I headed out to Concord. The sun shone brightly, not a cloud in the sky, but the wind cut like a knife across exposed skin. Bitter. I didn’t care, even though I had to fight the wind as I drove through the countryside toward Massachusetts, where the land grew gradually flatter, and the wind blew a little harder. I arrived at Concord with a loose plan for where I wanted to go, starting with Sleepy Hollow Cemetery (yes, that’s really the name of it), where visitors can walk along what is called “Author’s Ridge.” On Google maps, it only shows the grave of one famous author: Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, to name one of her most famous works. I am amused that only her grave shows up, despite the fact that the other three authors buried there are famous white men.

 

I followed the foot path up the ridge, coming across Nathaniel Hawthorne’s grave almost immediately. It surprised me that his grave would just be right there next to the path, the stone quite weathered and worn, and readily accessed by all. No walls or fences to keep anyone out, other than a low chain easily stepped over to enter the grave site. People obviously had done just that, as the gravestone was covered with small trinkets, mostly various sorts of pens. It struck me as sweet that perhaps other authors enamored of the works and character of a man such as Hawthorne would come to adorn his grave with the tools of their trade in homage. Next, and equally astonishing in its simplicity and small size, was the head stone of Henry David Thoreau. His grave had quite a few more trinkets, flowers, and even scattered stones, pine cones, and branches heaped on the ground surrounding the small stone marker which reads: Henry. The only way I knew it was Thoreau was due to the family’s name on a prominent marker on the plot. Farther up the hill I came to the slightly more elegant Alcott family plot, where Louisa May Alcott’s grave is located. Again, however, her own stone marker was even smaller than the others, a simple rectangular stone sunk into the ground, but again decorated with a haphazard array of pens, pencils, stones, and flowers. Lastly, I came to my favorite of all the headstones: Ralph Waldo Emerson. His was more difficult to find, but I knew it was there because signs at the bottom of the hill pointed in that general direction. When I finally found it I laughed: a boulder, uncarved and rough, stands on his plot with a copper plate as the marker. Of all the graves, his was my favorite.

 

Author’s Ridge was a good first stop, a sort of beginning at the end, as I said in my Instagram Post, shared in real time as I took the trip that day. As soon as I finished visiting the sites, I uploaded my pictures to Instagram, too excited to wait. My next stop: Walden Pond. It only took ten minutes to drive to the pond from the cemetery, and because I went in the dead of winter I practically had the place to myself. This is one of my favorite travel tips, to go places in the off-season to avoid the crowds. If you don’t mind being out in the cold, sometimes you get the luxury of taking your time with a place, which for Walden Pond was a perfect experience. When I pulled into a parking space, I could see a building that looked like a visitor’s center, so I took myself there first, much like my trips to National Parks. I have found that visitor’s centers are a wealth of good information about a park so you can discover what all the best places are to see before you go running around to all the most visited spots. Sometimes the park rangers can offer tidbits of gold about where the best places are to capture a good view or enjoy a quiet moment. In this case, a park attendant told me about a movie produced by Ken Burns, featuring a tribute to Thoreau. I gladly took the card with the info so I could watch it later, and then off I went to peruse the displays which offered up a wealth of highlights about Thoreau’s time at the pond, and his overall life. One thing which surprised me was discovering that Thoreau’s family owned a pencil factory, and that they were the first to use numbers to categorize the hardness or softness of the graphite. Apparently ecologists also appreciated the copious notes taken by Thoreau while he lived at the pond, because they later utilized these notes to help document effects of climate change. I had no idea.

 

After perusing the lovely visitor’s center, I walked down to the pond. The water had only a thin skin of ice which was broken against the shore in chunks. A sandy beach made me wonder if the beach were man-made so people could come swim in warm weather. I could see an opportunity to walk around the pond on a trail might be nice in warmer weather, and with less to do, but I had too many places to visit to take time for a long hike. Another day, I thought to myself. I need to go back. Next, I went to the cabin built by Thoreau’s own hands, a tiny house furnished minimally with a small bed, a desk, a table, and three chairs. A stove at one end for cooking and heat stood directly across from the door, and light filled the small space from only two windows on the other walls. “Snug” is all I wrote on the guest book. Exactly right, and a man after my own heart. I sort of fell in love with Thoreau while I stood in his cabin. A simple life by the pond, his “only appointment with a birch tree” he wrote in his notes, or maybe a maple or just to sit by the water. I could see myself doing such a thing, to live in a tiny house in the woods, observing nature and writing, reading books, and occasionally venturing out into the world when I need food or company, maybe inviting over a friend for tea. Yes, exactly this kind of life would be the life for me, which is what I plan to do.

 

I could have easily spent the day at Walden Pond, but my belly needed food, and I wanted to scoot over to the Concord Museum to see their modified display during renovations. Into the car I went, uploading my photos to Instagram. Back to downtown Concord, I found a busy place called the Market Café. When you find a place where the locals flock, you can bet it’s probably good. They seated me at the bar in the back section of the restaurant, and I ordered one of my favorite things to eat out: fish tacos. I wish I could say they were delicious, but I’ve had much better. It disappointed me to eat such a lackluster meal, since I sort of expected something yummy, but maybe I got unlucky in what I ordered. I know if you go to the Beef ‘n’ Barrel restaurant in Olean, NY and order fish, you are going to be disappointed; any beef-related meal will be fabulous, and it’s what they do best. Maybe the Market Café is known for their sandwiches, and I just ordered the wrong thing. It happens. The fries were good, at least. After lunch, I drove a few minutes down the road to the museum, which only had a few rooms of items on display. Still, I paid $5 for a tour from a spectacular storyteller who regaled the small group of us with information about Concord, mostly based on European settlement. At least he mentioned our forebears with a discussion about the ancient tools and weapons discovered in digs, and at least talked briefly about the Wampanoag, who interacted with the settlers. After that, we learned a good deal about English settlers’ way of life, and, of course, the Revolution.

 

It did interest me to see Thoreau’s desk on display prominently in the foyer, probably the most interesting item of all those I saw on the tour. Almost as if Henry reached out from beyond the veil to nudge me, connecting me to the place, to be present, to learn. I listened avidly to the historian and did learn a good amount of interesting detail about the Revolution which began in Concord, a story I had heard for many years during my public school education. Good to be able to match the stories with a real place, and the history bonded a little deeper later in the afternoon. More on that later, but I did come away from the museum with a sense that the white people are beginning to get clued into the fact that we mustn’t always insist on being the center of attention in every story. The last room we visited on tour centered around a freed slave whose belongings were preserved. We were given an inventory of what was left when he died, and the historian mentioned that life must have been difficult for him with so little liberty. Well, life hasn’t changed all that much since then, in my opinion. And yet it struck me that I had just come from Thoreau’s cabin, which had not even half the supplies we saw on the list of belongings of a former slave, and Thoreau learned what I also know: you need very little stuff to live a full life. In fact, the less you have, the easier your life can be. More photos uploaded in the car, a happy smile of glee on my face.

 

With my head full of Revolutionary history, I dashed over to a home called “The Old Manse,” so named by Nathaniel Hawthorne after he lived there. I actually went to Concord for this very reason, not realizing I was about to learn an even more surprising history of that house than the one I expected. Fortunately I arrived for the last tour of the day, and I got the young historian all to myself. We had more of an interesting conversation than a canned tour, which I absolutely loved, and he told me afterward that he enjoyed it as well. The first room he showed me contained a gorgeous old Steinway and Sons rectangular piano, a true gem of an instrument because so few were made. The shape of the piano made it difficult to tune, so Steinway discontinued the line shortly after production, but there sat the golden wood-framed piano, all its ivory keys still intact, and the bench still there as well, preserved for centuries. I learned that Hawthorne’s children, along with Emerson’s children, all learned to play piano on that very instrument, in that very room. As I stood admiring the piano, I could just imagine the scene of the children running their fingers over the keys with an adult sitting on one end of the bench, while the child’s legs probably hung, dangling over the foot pedals. On a sunny day, that room must have been a joy for listening to music. A standing desk—which I didn’t even know was a thing in the 1700s—took up space along one wall, the desk of the Emerson family’s patriarch. Indeed, I was surprised to learn that the home was actually the property of the Emerson family, not the Hawthornes.

 

For the first couple of generations of Emerson’s family, the Old Manse was their home. Emerson’s family legacy was that of the church, as both Emerson’s father and grandfather were ministers of the church, and enjoyed a sizable income due to the number of parishioners who attended services. Once the Unitarian Universalist Church split away from Christianity’s old values, Emerson’s father lost half his income when half the church left to become UU members. It was quite a blow to the family, and Ralph Waldo Emerson convinced his father to rent the home to Nathaniel Hawthorne and his new wife, who needed a place to live. Thus, the Hawthornes came to Concord, but they were apparently terrible tenants. Oddly, his wife, Sophia (and apparently Nathaniel himself), carved inscriptions into the window panes with her diamond ring, destroying the integrity of the glass. Now it seems amusing, but I’m sure the Emersons were horrified. Nathaniel also didn’t pay rent for the last two years of living in the home, which is what most likely forced the Emerson family to kick him to the curb—the Hawthornes only lived in the home for three years total, but the Old Manse remained in the Emerson family until 1939. At that point, the house held so much history it was handed over to the Massachusetts Reservation committee.

 

Interestingly, I learned that it was behind the Old Manse that the first shot of the Revolution was fired. Emerson himself stood watching the battle take place, in the company of his mother and other siblings, from the window of the study where he would later write his famous work, Nature. From that window, you can still see the bridge where the British and American soldiers faced off in that famous battle coined as the “shot heard ‘round the world.” That same room where I stood looking through the window with the inscription from the Hawthorne couple was also where Hawthorne composed Mosses from an Old Manse, his collection of short stories which brought him fame as an author. Emerson apparently also penned a letter to his sweetheart, asking her to marry him, in that same room. Who can guess what other acts occurred in that room, what feet walked on those floors, or what words were spoken? I felt happy to be in a space where I knew so many influential people once sat, worked, and loved. Later I found out that even Thoreau was involved in the little triangle of friendships, as he planted a vegetable garden for the Hawthornes as a gift for their wedding. An appropriate gift for a man of nature to provide.

 

After touring the manse, I went out to the bridge behind the house to see the monuments in what is now called Minuteman National Historical Park. I stood at the grave of the British soldiers, then crossed the bridge to the monument dedicated to the American side. By that time, the bitter wind had killed my phone battery and was biting right through my clothes. I had no choice but to return to my car, numb and chattering. Again, I believe it would be a nice day to enjoy going back in warmer weather to actually walk around Walden Pond, perhaps walk the path of the National Park, and this time tour the home of the first freed slave. Either way, I drove for a look at Louisa May Alcott’s former home to take pictures of the outside, through the windshield of my car because I had to charge my phone. I had already determined I wasn’t going to tour Alcott’s home because the fee of $20 seemed a little high just to walk through a house, especially since other homes of famous writers were much cheaper. I did learn that yet another remake of Little Women was filmed at the house recently, so I won’t need to pay a fee for the tour—I’ll just go see the film. Back downtown once more, I found myself standing at the door of the chocolate shop. Of course I had to buy handmade chocolate. I was even nice and bought some for Michael. It was delicious.

 

The capstone of my entire trip came the next day when I read the famous essay titled “On Duty of Civil Disobedience,” which has become an emblem of many civil rights movements over the last couple of centuries. From women’s liberation to Ghandi to Dr. Martin Luther King and beyond, Thoreau’s essay written after spending a night in jail for not paying his taxes informed countless movements on the importance of abiding by one’s conscience, especially in the face of the people in power. It filled me with awe to read that essay, especially now. We do not live in a special time of harrowing power struggles—this has been a problem for millennia. It’s just that now we have a taste of freedom, of democracy on our tongues, and we see how deeply it affects us when liberty is denied. We are growing as a global community, and getting ever wiser and more knowledgeable as science and medicine and technology widen our horizons. I watched a movie produced by Ken Burns, called The Walden Woods Project, and it briefly shares the impact Thoreau had on the world, both through his writing and his way of life. It astonishes me that I know so little about a human who probably could have changed my life, too, if I had known to read his work in my younger years, but time reveals knowledge when it is needed, I suppose. In any case, if you love literature and history, Concord is a delight for the mind. Plenty of shopping is to be had in the downtown, right along with all the historic spots to visit. I imagine you could spend a whole week there to really take in the vastness of the stories, but I was happy to have my day to touch down on each author’s residence, grave site, and to take in their lives as I did. It was quite personal, and maybe I’ll even fork out the $20 to go see Louisa May Alcott’s home if I go back again. As I sit here and think about the impact of seeing the other homes and hearing the stories, it might be even more wonderful than I imagine.

 

Friends, I encourage you to go find adventure, feed your mind, make a balloon of your spirit. You only live once. Transcend the doldrums of daily grinds, and go make space for growth. And if you care to see my Instagram posts from my day in Concord, you can click the link in the sidebar of this post. Enjoy!

 

 

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