Thursday, September 22, 2016

Into the Worlds Part II: Concord Literary

"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." - Henry David Thoreau, Walden


 Ever read it? If you haven't, you should.

When I told my grandma that I wanted to visit Walden Pond on my family's visit to the east coast this summer, she said it wasn't worth my time; she'd been there some years ago, and the famous "pond" which serves as the center for one of the great American novels was little more than an enlarged puddle beside a picnic table in a pathetic little state park somewhere in Massachusetts.

This puzzled me, because I had seen photos of Walden Pond and the surrounding area (designated as a national historic site and state reservation) online, and it looked like a pretty big deal. Among other things, the Park professed to include a vast public recreation area with hiking paths and swimming facilities, as well as a recreation of Thoreau's cabin, a statue of the author, and a marker at the site of the original cabin where he wrote his book Walden - detailing how he lived for two years in a simplistic one-room cabin in the woods. Judging from these photos, the pond itself was a dazzlingly blue vastness ringed by tall green trees.

Whatever the actual state of Walden Pond, I was determined to see it one way or another, and with this aim, among others, I traveled to the town of Concord in August.
Orchard House, Concord, MA: Home of the Alcotts from 1858 - 1877

Concord, MA is a lovely little historic town with a quaint main street, dozens of historic homes, a high-quality museum, picturesque cemeteries, and the famous Old North Bridge - now Minute Man National Historical Park. The town served as the scene of some of the first events in the American Revolution, as well as the home of Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau.

As you may know, Louisa May Alcott wrote the beloved classic Little Women. If you've read the book or seen the movie, it's well worth making the literary pilgrimage to Orchard House, the Alcott's Concord home. If you haven't, it's still worth it. Some literary or historic sites disappoint - as in the Old Corner Bookstore in Boston that is now a Chipotle Restaurant, or the site of the famous Salem Witch Trials (I'll get to that later) - but Orchard House is very nearly a sacred experience. Nothing beats walking into a room and realizing that it holds the actual piano played by Louisa's short-lived sister Beth, or the small round writing desk under the window in her bedroom where Louisa wrote the entirety of Little Women. It doesn't get any better than seeing the drawings that May Alcott (Amy in Little Women) drew all over her walls, or looking at the stairs in the living room which the Alcott sisters used as a backstage area for their plays. The house is instantly recognizable as the familiar setting of Little Women, and it's worth the trip.

The only regret I have about my trip to Concord is that we didn't schedule enough time in the town to see everything there. We saw the home of Ralph Waldo Emerson - the foundational American poet, author, philosopher, and lecturer - but only from the outside; and we drove past The Old Manse, where Nathaniel Hawthorne lived briefly. The Concord Museum is worth visiting if you're interested in seeing the actual lantern hung by Paul Revere's friend in the Old North Church in Boston, a recreation of Emerson's study, Thoreau's writing desk, and similar historic and literary treasures. They also had a beautiful exhibit of N. C. Wyeth's illustrations for the book Men of Concord, which includes selections from Walden.

The Old North Bridge, site of the "shot heard round the world" is now a national park, with hiking and boating options and access to the Minute Man Monument.
Minute Man Historical Monument

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery stands amid Concord's other historic sites. And no, it is not the Sleepy Hollow of Washington Irving's short story featuring Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman. I don't know where that cemetery is or if it even exists, but it would be cool to visit if it did.

The Sleepy Hollow of Concord holds the graves of the families Alcott, Hawthorne, Thoreau, and Emerson. Apparently all of these famous authors had the decency to be buried very near each other, making a visit as convenient as possible for tourists. Thanks, guys. Good planning.

Emerson's grave is a giant slab of marble, befitting the thinker who laid the foundation of American intellectualism, but all the others' graves are surprisingly humble. Most are short and rather squat, often bearing only the first name or initials of the deceased.
The Thoreau family plot in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery; Henry's grave is on the far left

From there - at last - to Walden.

It's a short drive from Sleepy Hollow Cemetery to Walden Pond State Reservation. Leaving the parking lot (which is happily full), you're suddenly confronted with a striding statue of Henry Thoreau and a recreation of his one-room cabin. Stepping out of the car and seeing the statue and cabin was like stepping into a dream - or a place in a story that I'd never really expected to see in person.

The recreated cabin is not "authentic" in the sense that it stands in the original location of Thoreau's cabin or contains any of the actual artifacts, siding, or flooring that stood in the cabin built by Thoreau in 1845. But it is authentically recreated to resemble Thoreau's cabin as closely as possible, with the inclusion of the woodshed on one side. 
I pose with the author

From there, die-hard fans can take a semi-short walk through Walden Woods to view the original site of Thoreau's cabin, woodshed, and chimney, marked with a small, humble monument. The walk seemed longer because I visited the east coast during record-breaking heat, but I think it was under a mile. 

And the woods are beautiful.

Yes, Walden Pond is a shimmering blue lake, ringed with sky-stretching trees - a very far cry from the bench-side puddle described by my grandma (incidentally, if you're wondering, we finally deduced that she visited the wrong Walden Pond on her visit to the east coast). Surveying Walden Pond from different angles, you can see many of the features that Thoreau so painstakingly describes in his book, such as the bluish-green color of the water's edges.

And, the ants.

If you've read Walden, you may remember that Thoreau spends a good amount of text describing the ants that live in Walden Woods. It's one of the things that causes some people to write the book off as tedious and boring, but to Thoreau, a battle between different ant breeds was honestly the most exciting thing imaginable. As I traced the path that Thoreau and Emerson often took together through the woods, I looked down to see an ant scurry across the dirt in front of my feet. Anywhere else, it would have been a commonplace occurrence, but in Walden Woods - it was somehow extremely exciting.

As I trekked towards the site of Thoreau's original cabin, large gusts of wind shook the trees around me. I'm not so self-absorbed to believe that I'm the only true lover of Thoreau ever to have visited Walden, or that all of nature conspired on my behalf to make my visit to Walden particularly memorable, but sometimes we're granted little mercies, and this was one of mine.

And there, at the site of the cabin, beside a pile of rocks casually heaped like a monument, stands a wooden placard with Thoreau's famous quote painted on in white:
"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."
Light breaks through Walden Woods

From Walden, we drove to Salem, MA, site of the historic Salem Witch Trials in 1692 and 93.

I'm going to give any prospective tourists to Massachusetts some advice that they probably won't heed: don't visit Salem.

I know you won't heed it because if someone had told me that prior to my trip, I would have completely disregarded them and gone to Salem anyway. But it would have been more worthwhile to spend the whole day in Concord and not try to cram in Salem.

I know what you're thinking: "but the Salem Witch Trials!" Yeah, I know. I've read my share of books about the Witch Trials, learned about them in history class, found them intriguing, thought it would be beyond cool to visit the site where they actually took place. But the thing is, that site doesn't really exist anymore. Salem, MA today is not really a cool town. It has some lovely historic houses, but most of them date from the 1800s, and only one was actually standing as is during the Salem Witch Trials. It's called "The Witch House," because it belonged to one of the judges implicit in the Witch Trials, and it did feel kind of creepy, but that could have just been because it was dark when we went to the house. Also, it was closed, so I can't tell you whether or not it was cool inside, but I'm guessing it wasn't worth visiting Salem just to see the inside of that house.

Salem also houses Nathaniel Hawthorne's "House of the Seven Gables," which seemed mildly cool, but once again, it was closed when we got there, so I can't tell you whether or not going to the House of the Seven Gables is worth a whole trip to Salem. I mean, if The House of the Seven Gables is absolutely your favorite book, then maybe it's worth a trip. I can tell you that it did definitely have a lot of gables.

Also in Salem is the custom-house Hawthorne worked at for a while, and the original East India Company Trading Store, which is also fairly cool, but not worth an entire trip. I visited the Salem Witch Museum, which was sort of spooky but not really in a cool way, and mainly focused on presenting a highly political agenda.

Apparently there is a museum in Salem where actors and actresses reenact the Witch Trials, and I do think that would have been cool to see, but it was closed when we got there. Also closed was the Pioneer Village, which I have been told is really neat. However, the curator at the House of the Seven Gables told us that the Pioneer Village is open very sporadically. So I guess my advice to those of you who are dead set on seeing Salem is: check out the hours of the Pioneer Village ahead of time, and get there early in the day so all the non-lame attractions are still open.

Basically, the best thing about Salem was this awesome nerdy store that was selling Harry Potter and Dr. Who merchandise. But everything was too expensive for me, so yeah, even that was kind of a bummer.

By complete accident, we stumbled upon the memorial to the Salem Witch Trials, which is legitimately cool but extremely hard to find and not at all well-marked. It stands on the other side of a cemetery wall, and it was dark when we found it, so atmosphere = good. The names, death dates, and causes of death of the victims of the trials are inscribed on large stones set into a wall. It's a well-done memorial, but again, very difficult to find. I expected more.

I had a slightly creepy feeling in Salem; I don't know if it was just because I was there in the dark, if it was because I went through the Salem Witch Museum first, or if it was a legitimate feeling, but it was a little discomfiting, and I like to think (because it's more interesting than the other options) that the town has a bad aura because of all the innocent people who were executed there out of fear, ignorance, and spite. I suppose there's no way to know for sure.
Literally the coolest thing in Salem is this statue of some random Puritan dude

Go to Concord; skip Salem. And, whatever you do, live deliberately.


Until tomorrow.

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