Thursday, July 16, 2015

Henry and Me


At a time when my teenage peers were partying, I was reading Walden and dreaming of a life of solitude in the woods. Henry David Thoreau’s experiment both fascinated me and awakened some sleeping vision of a life fully lived. I believe he became my first literary hero, soon followed by Walt Whitman and a host of other authors mentoring me from afar.

At the time that I first read Walden, I had never been to sleep-away camp or any camp, never had backpacked or visited a National Park. My experience of the natural world was limited to Warinanco Park, a block away from my house in suburban New Jersey. 200 acres of fields and woods and a few playgrounds and a lake that was my backyard in my freewheeling “let the kids go out and play” childhood. My friends and I wandered those acres often, playing pick-up baseball and football in fields of our own creation, hide-and-seek in the woods, skipping stones in the lake, shooting baskets at the playground, spying on the teenagers in Lover’s Lane. We caught Fall leaves, sledded down wintry hills, slurped Creamsicles on hot summer days.

Once I got my driver’s license, I would often go to Watchung Reservation a few towns away. Spent some time at Trailside Museum, with its exhibit of fluorescent rocks and taxidermied wildlife, climbed the tower with the view, boated on Surprise Lake and generally just wandered the woods trying to catch a bit of the magic that Thoreau wrote so eloquently about. I didn’t know one plant from another and still had never slept out under the stars, but I felt some attraction and connection to the natural world.

College was my initiation, beginning with a real backpack trip in the Adirondacks with five students and the teacher of our Man and Nature class. Only one of us had only backpacked before, but with a great deal of mishaps, mosquitos, rain with no tents and Spam dinners, we survived. I came into the trip with some fantasy of instant Thoreauvian enlightenment simply being in the great outdoors. I soon discovered that I had a mind with obsessive thoughts and chatter and simply being in the woods was no guarantee that you would pass each day in blissful connection with all creatures great and small. I believe my most memorable moments came from playing Hearts by campfire and pausing to look at the moon over the lake. Instead of trying to squeeze meaning out of a tree, my mind was busy wondering how to slough the Queen of Spades and caught off guard, a bit of forest magic crept in.

It was also in college that I wandered around in the 1000 acre Glen Helen in Yellow Springs, Ohio, worked at a school in rural Maine, another in the Black Mountains of North Carolina, that I hitchhiked around California and camped alone at Big Sur, Yosemite and Prairie Creek campgrounds. And so the die was cast for a lifetime of outdoor experiences. I ended up living in a city, but summers on Lake Michigan, annual camping trips with the kids at my school and intermittent family backpack trips kept me in touch with Henry’s delight and the pleasure of sleeping under stars, awakening to babbling brooks, bounding up cobbled mountain paths, perching on a stone to absorb the view.

And now here in Colorado at a family reunion. Have hiked five out of these first six days (one more tomorrow) between 6 and 9 miles a day at elevations between 8,000 and 12,000 ft. Every day begins in sun and the rain comes in the afternoon and both are welcome. It's true I haven't backpacked in a while and don't think about it when planning my calendar. Maybe the first signs of a more comfortable and sedentary life befitting my age. But it sure feels fine to up and out walking each day, in company with elk, marmots, chipmunks, the majesty of distant peaks, the tranquility of placid lakes, the roar of waterfalls and the conversation with fellow hikers. Exercise, solitude, sociability, fresh air, all at once.

Mr. Thoreau once said, “Things do not change. We change.” These mountains the same as they were 25 years ago when I came to the first reunion, the people the same and different— the generation above has gone, the generations below multiplied manifold, this old fellow different and yet the same. Happy to be outdoors and walking.

Until dinnertime—which is now.

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