Monthly Archives: October 2017
“In such a day, in September or October, Walden is a perfect forest mirror, set round with stones as precious to my eye as if fewer or rarer. Nothing so fair, so pure, and at the same time so large, as a lake, perchance, lies on the surface of the earth.”
On a calm October morning, “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.” And thus, I went to those particular woods—the ones surrounding Walden Pond—in a sojourn along the path of one of my intellectual forebears, the irascible hermit Henry David Thoreau, to see if I too could eke out the life discoveries which he had made upon the pond’s shores. This unassuming Walden Pond, the site of Thoreau’s most famous personal (and far-reaching) social experiment, lies an hour west of Boston amidst the regional forests and farmland. It is here where the entirety of the dissertation Walden takes place.
My trip was a pilgrimage to visit the namesake pond to visualize the setting of the lengthy tome I had just finished. “The scenery of Walden,” as Thoreau describes it, “is on a humble scale, and, though very beautiful, does not approach the grandeur, nor can it much concern one who has not long frequented it or lived by its shore.” Walden is a simple pond indeed. A mere half mile long and only half as wide. Its perimeter is smooth and predictable; few coves or inlets add dimension to its waters. The landscape surrounding the pond, though hilly and thickly forested, does not strike an air of distinction. But as Thoreau championed in his many intellectual ramblings, “Our life is frittered away by detail…simplify, simplify!” I could picture Thoreau finding no more an ordinary pond home than this.
Yet at the same time Walden Pond is entirely magnificent. In his personal rhetoric, Thoreau was a fiery exceptionalist, never shy of embellishment or hyperbole. The waters of Walden Pond, he described, were the purist and coldest waters around. He writes about how the quality of Walden’s waters rival the purist known springs. But for his continual exaggerations, he was correct about one superlative; at 102 feet deep, Walden Pond is the deepest inland body of water in the state of Massachusetts. The banks of Walden Pond drop abruptly off into azure oblivion; the water, in this deep watery well, stays cool and refreshing year round.Thoreau knew these depths well, for among his many intermittent occupations, he was a trained land surveyor.
I came to Walden Pond to pay homage to a man who has influenced my own thoughts on life and meaning, if not in words exactly, then by sentiment alone. Intellectually, we share many similar ideas concerning social progress and the higher humanistic yearnings for the species. Thoreau is loud and brash with a pen and passionately rants against the things he disagrees with. His words echo a fiery passion burning deep in his soul. He loathes the nearby railroad and laments material progress for the sake of a dollar. But he also advocates for his better society, seeking to improve the man in the culture; Thoreau preaches continually on freeing mankind from slavery to self and to society. The reclusive Thoreau rants against the ills of contemporary civilization in the mid-18th century and seeks his moral salvation in the woods. Though little appreciated during his own time, and living unwed, unknown, and with his parents until his young demise, Thoreau has become a prophet of the modern day.
Although I feel a tie of kinship to Thoreau, he comes off as a man one would not have wanted to spend time with, myself included. To his village contemporaries, his nature wanderings and isolated hermitage made him appear aloof, yet he was a keen observationist and a scientist at heart, daily making acute observations of the environment and human kind. Though he exquisitely bemoaned the lives of others with his words while simultaneously boosterizing his own noble endeavors—ones that he alone perceived he was discovering in an insipid sea of ignorance—he was quite sociable and gregarious with the right type of company. He lived alone, yet kept three chairs in his house: “one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.” Though Thoreau the man may have been petulant, his ideas are familiar to anyone seeking self-improvement. His writing is at times very off-putting, egotistical, self-righteous, and even shaming and chastising (with way too many verbose phrases strung together with endless commas), yet his heart and ideals were with the people. His goal: to achieve in humankind a fierce independence and self-reliance to live genuinely and whole-heartedly as one’s best self in society.
I can see a bit of myself in Thoreau. I see a bit of myself in his perpetual longings and desires for something greater and nobler in life, Thoreau’s self-described ‘higher laws’. I see myself wanting to live deliberately and intentionally to the fullest extent, where I can ‘suck out all the marrow of life’.
I can also see myself venturing down the path of Thoreau, whether intentionally or by unplanned drift. Simplify, simplify! A one-room shanty seems plenty accommodating to me. Living independently off the land with little money but lots of means—that too I can see. Work, for Thoreau, was never a major priority either. He spent his days in idle employment ranging the forests, the self-appointed ‘inspector of snowstorms’. At its roots, Thoreau’s Walden experiment cuts to the heart of a desire to break away from society and to live a true and unconstrained life, unhindered by the bonds of artificial society. Like Thoreau, the unpretentiousness of nature provides the means of escape to a better existence.
The Walden Pond of today looks different than in Thoreau’s time. Shortly after moving out of the woods, Thoreau’s shanty was relocated to the village of Concord. The forest lands around the shack as well, harvested many times previous to Thoreau’s day, grew thick and dense, obscuring the very foundations of Thoreau’s presence. Thoreau’s expansive bean field, too, has reverted back to forest. The Fitchburg Railway, the rail-line skirting the pond that Thoreau so loudly laments, has been upgraded to a busy commuter line to Boston. The lands surrounding Walden Pond have become protected as a state reserve. No longer the spot of solitude and isolation, Walden Pond has become a popular destination for recreation in Massachusetts, for both its natural beauty and the outdoor recreation aspects.
Do the many visitors to Walden Pond on a sunny day think about the ideas that were developed here? As they sun-bathe on the beach or swim across the cool waters, do they ponder the intellectual history of this place? Do they know the historical significance of this parcel of land where they are picnicking? Is it perhaps that the modern-day visitor to Walden subconsciously accepts Thoreau’s importance of nature without even realizing it? Surely they must have internalized some of Thoreau’s ideas, given the crowds of people who come to spend time finding themselves in nature.
Alas, after paying my pilgrims’ visit to this important site, the time to leave had come. After all, “I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.”
As an avid cyclist (but only an intermittent mountain biker), I decided it was finally time to try my hand at riding a fat-tire bicycle (or a fat bike, or a ‘Fattie,’ as some would say) just to see what all the hype around this new bicycling trend is about.
And so, I rented a Fattie for the weekend to throw my all at it. It was easy enough to do; I even got the idea when I was perusing my local outdoor sports store and asked if they did rentals. At a rate of $80 per 24 hours, it was a pricey commitment but still do-able, especially considering the cost of a new fat bike. The shopkeepers ended up fitting me out on the Specialized Fatboy. Its bright orange color was flashy and just begging for rugged adventure.
As I drove back to camp with the bike securely stowed in my hatchback, the thought that this bike cost fifty percent more than my car itself crossed my mind just a number of times (read: $3,000). I really didn’t want to risk damage to such a pretty penny merchandise, but to heck with it—I was ready to see what this bike could do.
There was a steady drizzle in the air the afternoon I picked up my rental, and that rain meant mud—and lots of it. The trails back at camp were profusely waterlogged, leaving plenty of puddles to splash around in as I got acquainted with the Fatboy. Getting prepared to ride by unloading the bike from my trunk, I really noticed how unexpectedly light the bike was. It’s the carbon fiber frame that reduces the weight, but also substantially increases the price.
I eased into riding my new Fattie by starting on some simple double tracks in the woods behind camp—just to get acquainted to the feel of riding. Much like any other bicycle, the fat-tire bike is simple to operate. Just put your legs on the peddles and go. The fat tires though, as one would expect, do make a noticeable difference in riding. Acceleration is markedly slower, and on a flattish surface my peddle strokes seemed to be transferring more energy into bouncing the entire bicycle up and down on the balloon tires, rather than adding to ground speed. Yet, the Fatboy plodded on like a tank. The single front chainring is small, which allows lots of torque to be put on the chain. That makes the Fatboy easy enough to start riding in difficult terrain, but it also makes it easy to spin out the tires when starting out in a lower gear. The rear cassette offers 12 speeds—plenty of options for any riding conditions, but way more than I needed for my simple jaunt.
After a warm-up on the double track (including riding through the pervasive mud puddles), I was ready to move on to the advanced single track—tight curves, sudden drops, and a variety-pack of obstacles in the way. The Fatboy handled it all like a champ. No obstacle seemed too obscene to mow over. The ubiquitous Cape Cod cobbles littering the forest floor were obliterated without a hesitation. Downed logs, even girthy ones, posed little challenge to surmount. Whereas lesser mountain bikes would have backed down and buckled, the four-inch wide tires on the Fatboy conquered any challenge I threw at it. It seemed that the only limitations I encountered on my ride were from my own skills (or lack thereof). Additionally, the front and rear disc brakes came quite in handy for easing my way down steep hills, and when encountering the unexpected obstacle in the slick terrain.
An afternoon of testing out my first Fattie was a success. Uphills, downhills, rocks, logs, puddles, sand, mud, and even riding through Spectacle pond proved no challenge to the Fatboy.
With day one in the books, I took the Fatboy out to one of Cape Cod’s most popular off-roading destinations—the Sandy Neck Conservation Lands in the town of Barnstable. As a prominent feature of Cape Cod geography, Sandy Neck is a long, continuous beach lining Cape Cod Bay comprising a stretch of dunes separating the Bay from the expansive saltwater tidal marshes of Great Marsh. The only land access to Sandy Neck begins, remarkably enough, at the Sandy Neck Gatehouse. On a cool and overcast October morning, I set out to ride the entire length of Sandy Neck, all the way to the fabled Cottage Colony at the tip.
Riding the Fattie on Sandy Neck was a challenge in endurance, both physically and mentally. It’s a seven mile haul from the gatehouse around the tip to the Colony, and with the expansive ocean views, the scenery—though stunning—changes very slowly. Though the terrain is flat the entire way, the beach is a loose consolidation of sand and ocean-rounded cobbles. My peddle revolutions on the ride were just enough to keep me balanced upright, and speed was never a priority. With its fat tires, the Fatboy is very inherently stable, and that stability was the only thing that got me through the beach sand with no wipeouts. All along the ride I had the challenge of adjusting where I was riding to find the optimal traction for the various beach surfaces. And since the ride was on the ocean, it was rather nice to be able to frequently stop and do some beach-combing along the way.
It took about one and a half hours to finally reach the Cottage Colony and its lighthouse, which put my ground speed at just over a measly 4.5 miles per hour. I could now take a break and explore this cryptic summer destination. After all, I had earned my right to be there, and had gotten there it fat-bike style too. No maintained roads lead to the colony, so only 4-wheel drives, horseback riders, and boaters can reach the colony. From my observations, I was the only one who had arrived by bicycle.
Being October as it was, the summer cottage colony was practically deserted. I took a break and looked around. Pure Cape Cod right there. A spattering of a half-dozen clapboard shanties springing from the sandy dunes. Weather-beaten, rustic, coastal. The mist blowing into the colony from the Bay and gloomy gray overhead skies created an ambience of a rather sea-beaten place to live.
Eventually I left the colony. It was time to head back and complete the round-trip trek. My fat bike had proved me well, and had gotten me places I couldn’t have otherwise. For one weekend, it was quite the experience.
I biked across the country this past summer.
No, I didn’t actually bike across the country this summer. But it felt like I was there. A friend of mine, a close pen-pal, was the one doing the biking. Every once in a while I would receive updates from a letter describing the places my friend had biked to and her thoughts on the adventure. If I was on the biking journey this summer, it was only vicariously, through her letters.
It wasn’t necessary to receive these letters in order to learn updates about my friend’s biking adventure. After all, she openly posted photos and statuses about her journey regularly through the democratic medium of Facebook. I followed along closely the progress of her and her partner’s trek. Add in electronic communication through email and text messaging, and I had all the modes of contact I could possibly need to stay in touch right at my fingertips. Why then go through the archaic effort of writing letters, especially when I’d be mailing them to a moving target?
In defense of the waning art of letter-writing, there is something incredibly personal and amicable about receiving a hand-written letter. There is something transcendent about it that quick and easy electronic communication can never replicate. A letter is a physical token, something tangible that puts weight in your hand. Even though far apart, the letter is something that both friends have touched and felt and handled; it’s an object that you both have shared in, that bonds you together. The scrawled handwriting on the pages is unique—artistic forms that can never be duplicated, stemming from the very hand of your friend themselves. Though the physical letter has little extrinsic value in itself, the intrinsic value it delivers is priceless.
Each letter received is a gift. Though you can anticipate a letter’s coming, you can never know exactly when it will arrive. Daily you may check the mail, waiting for the surprise delivered by the postman which brings with it a kind of fraternal pleasure. This hand-written letter, addressed exclusively to you, is a conversation between you and your friend alone. Unlike social media posts which have an extensive audience and beg for viewership, the personal letter has become subversive in our culture. It pronounces that some correspondences are meant to be kept private; some conversations are not meant to be laid out open for the wide world to see. And there is something incredibly special about a friend choosing words to write just to you, personally. Even though the content of my letters is nothing incriminating, nothing risqué, it nevertheless feels like they must be kept private to save the mysterious allure of the written conversation. The bulk of my mail correspondences are of absolutely no interest to the general public. But I like that. I like having people write to me and include in their curation of all the possible topics to write about, those things that they thought would interest me. It is their selection—for me.
I have a handful of pen-pals with whom I keep a semi-regular correspondence. Not all of them bike across the country. In fact, most of the time they are doing quite unimpressive stuff—the ins-and-outs of daily life: discussions of work duties, of visiting friends and of making food, of trifling hopes and dreams, of random thoughts. Though their correspondences may not regularly tell of events on the impressive scale of a cross-country bicycle journey, the content they write is nonetheless the fodder of an impressive life-journey lived by every one of my friends. No matter how quotidian the content of the letters may be, I still live vicariously through those words. My friends may benefit from hearing about my own journey which has taken me to many different places and through many different jobs (and I get a lot of feedback that people wish they were doing the things I’m doing). Still, the reverse is also true: my friends who are more settled, though they may not travel as much as me, are nevertheless leading lives that are incredibly interesting to me. They write about things that I too would love to be doing, if only I had the benefit of a stable household: beer-brewing, wine-making, gardening, home improvement projects, community formation. There are many different lives to lead, but not enough time to live them all. My friends are out living some of those lives, and I am out living others. With each letter I receive from my friends, I feel a bit more like I’m there alongside them sharing in the experience of all those different lifestyles, lifestyles that I too wish I could participate in.
Because I travel around as a transient, I don’t get to see a lot of my closest friends in person. Sending and receiving letters through the mail is one small way that we can physically interact via a shared object, something more physically expressive than mere words alone. And since my postal address changes every few months, those who put forth the effort into tracking me down and sending me a piece of mail are truly great friends. The thought and time put forth into writing each letter, despite the inconveniences, makes me value them all the more greatly.
So this summer, I got to experience a cross-country bicycle trip. I was there for the high hopes and growing pains at the start on the Olympic Peninsula. I felt the anguish and the subsequent relief after climbing up and over those grueling snow-covered mountain passes in the northern Rockies. I met good-hearted and welcoming families in our nation’s plains states. I was there through the forests and lakes and mosquitos of the Midwest. I felt the pressure of the trip through the monotonous crossing of flat Ontario, and then knew the relief at seeing mountains once again in the Adirondacks. Eventually, I got to experience the joy of reaching Maine and seeing the bicycle trip to completion. And I did all this without ever leaving Massachusetts.
You see, I value my friendships and still seek to deepen them even when we are apart. Perhaps I may never get to bike across the United States, or perhaps I never will live permanently in a place of my own. That’s OK. Through my friends, and our letter-writing experiences, I feel like a part of me has been along for the experience of it all.