Walking - Thoreau Style
Join me on a hike up Montague's Mt. Toby.

This column appeared in the Spring 2012 issue (Vol.1, No.1) of The Recorder's Outdoor Adventure Magazine

In May of 1862, as the flames of the Civil War were fanned into an inferno, an essay called “Walking” was published. The author was Henry David Thoreau and the essay, which was published posthumously, has since become a classic. One of the great transcendentalists, Thoreau was thoroughly convinced that man was at his best when free of the constraints of society’s institutions. Self-reliance was the key to freedom of the heart and mind and Nature (with a capital “N”) was the key to self-reliance.

One hundred and fifty years later, the world is a very different place. The Civil War is long over, but some of the discord remains. War, at least in the realm of domestic politics and rhetoric, continues to be waged and it takes its toll on us. Severe fires of violent conflict burn throughout the world and we seem to know all about them. We don’t understand them – even the people being consumed by these fires may not completely understand them – but an awareness of their staggering number can sear our hearts and hopes.

I have a remedy for anyone so afflicted requiring nothing more than the desire for a respite from the furnace of information overload. Grab your coat, grab a friend, and go walking. And, if it is within your power, walk in the woods. The streets and avenues of a town are nice, but they are the products of humanity. To get out of the heat, and to feel the soothing balm of Nature, you must go into the woods; you must forego paths and trails and simply ensconce yourself in forest.

I recently found such relief on the slopes of Mt. Toby. There are many wonderful trails that seek the summit of this local gem, but on my last visit I decided to head down Rt. 47 where I could turn onto Reservation Road and park my car at the Tower Road trailhead. With ample parking, an informative kiosk, and the plethora of hiking opportunities it provides, this is quite a nice place to start your walk. The path that you finally select is not important. Simply go and you will feel the weight of the world start to shift off your shoulders. Tower Road is a broad, gentle trail to the summit of the mountain. It is easy to walk on and though I found my first few steps to be tarnished with concerns of time, distance, and schedules I was able to relax once I got underway.

It was a chilly afternoon, for though it looks like spring has arrived it is definitely still winter out there. The wind blew through the tops of the pines and made that wonderful whispering sound that would have you looking over your shoulder for an oncoming car if you were walking on a paved road. The lack of snow allowed an unusually vibrant green to accentuate the forest floor. The mosses and evergreen ferns were a luscious treat for eyes tired of the dead browns of winter lawns. It was this verdant scene that lured me off the trail, lulled into the unhurried comfort that small children know by the siren song of Nature; unfettered by the mundane and free to explore. It felt so good to be outside.

Spring and rebirth are a common theme in literature. We can experience this effect by planting seeds and bulbs in our gardens, but there is nothing quite as magical as witnessing the birth of seeds no human ever touched. My particular walk took me up the Telephone Line trail and at an intersection with the Robert Frost trail I noticed a vernal pool off in the woods. Again, this is something I might not have noticed if there had been snow on the ground, but the little ice that clung to the margins of the pool made it stand out in bright contrast with the forest floor.

Once again I was lured off the trail and I spent quite a while standing and contemplating the changes that the coming of Spring promises. Would little frogs find this pool and lay their eggs? Would salamanders come out of hibernation and find their way to this precious place on a warm rainy night? Would their eggs – seeds of their futures – be safe in this secret little place? They will gamble that the answer is yes, and I will be sure to return to this place to see if their gamble was a good one. Just knowing that other beings inhabit this world, struggling against the unknown, but optimistic about the future, makes the human condition a little less lonely.

My walk in the woods was wonderful for the moments I was there, and it has had a lasting effect; the memories of the trees, the mosses, and the pool still reverberate inside me. I was only outside for a couple of hours, but I have felt good ever since. I met a kindred walker named Paul as I was headed down the mountain and when I asked him why he was out walking he said that he was retired and taking advantage of a new knee. He explained that being outside made him feel like he had a chance to be young again.

In his essay “Walking,” Thoreau confesses, “When I would recreate myself, I seek the darkest wood…” He continues with, “There is the strength, the marrow of Nature. The wildwood covers the virgin-mould, – and the same soil is good for men and for trees. He wasn’t talking about the kind of dark, forbidding place exemplified by Tolkein’s Mirkwood Forest, but rather the forest furthest from the reach of man. There, each of us can find the peace, tranquility, and the joy like that we used to know when we were children. Why? In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “In the woods, is perpetual youth.”

Go for a walk in the woods my friend. You’ll thank yourself when you get home.