by Hank Leukart
March 2, 2009

Thoreauback

An unnerving drive through rustic New England to a five-year college reunion.

New Hampshire’s Cornish-Windsor Bridge, the longest two-span wooden covered bridge in the world.

New Hampshire's Cornish-Windsor Bridge, the longest two-span wooden covered bridge in the world. (view all New England photos)

H

ANOVER, New Hampshire — My friend Suzanne and I were driving through the pastoral countryside of rural New England on a deserted highway when we passed a serial killer at 70 miles per hour, leering at us from a truck. Or at least, Suzanne thought he was a serial killer.

“I just saw the scary guy from Deliverance leering at me from that truck cab!” Suzanne exclaimed. Trying to keep my eyes on the road, I didn’t see him, and I’m always skeptical of Suzanne’s ability to understand the world of flirting. I curtly shot back, “I’m sure he wasn’t leering at you. You really don’t understand the interaction between the sexes.”

But before Suzanne had time to convince me otherwise, the truck driver passed our passenger window again, and this time, I got a good look at him. I gasped. The terrifying sight of this truck driver peering at me through his window made me feel instantly uneasy. I saw a hulking man with an abnormally large, bowling ball-shaped face baring an insane smirk and two enormous front buckteeth. He looked like a maniacal chipmunk whose only joy in life was serial murder. Against the cab’s window, he ominously looked directly into our eyes as he held a cell phone against the glass. We were sure that he planned to use the phone to suck out our souls, or even worse, take photographs of us and post them on his evil serial killer blog.

Suzanne and I had embarked on a Henry David Thoreau-inspired vacation. To escape the urban sprawl of Los Angeles with its gridlocked roads, smoggy air, and ubiquitous plastic surgery, we had jumped on a plane to Boston to flee to Thoreau’s beloved rustic northeast. In honor of our muse, on the plane, I began reading Walden — Thoreau’s seminal work about simplifying life — a book which he wrote while living in the Massachusetts forest near Walden Pond. Thoreau wrote a lot about how materialism can drive men mad, much of which seems even more relevant today than it was in his time. He also wrote about solitude and the way living alone in the wilderness can change a person. Was the behavior of this crazy looking truck driver what Thoreau meant when he wrote his famous line, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”? Why had this character from Deliverance chosen to single us out? Were the woods of New England driving him crazy? And what were his true intentions with that cell phone?

I jammed down on the accelerator, and we escaped quickly, never looking back, as we continued onward toward a cabin we had reserved near New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest. After a quick stop at the photogenic Cornish-Windsor Bridge — touted as the longest two-span wooden covered bridge in the world, a somewhat dubious honor — we arrived at our quaint lodging. We found our “cabin” to be a bit more luxurious than Thoreau’s — the owners made us breakfast and insisted that Suzanne and I make reservations immediately for a marriage in an adjacent gazebo — but the spirit of our trip, to relax in the woods far from civilization, remained intact.

“Against the cab’s window, he ominously looked directly into our eyes as he held a cell phone against the glass. We were sure that he planned to use the phone to suck out our souls, or even worse, take photographs of us and post them on his evil serial killer blog.”

After unpacking, we rented a canoe and prepared for a paddle on the nearby Connecticut River in an attempt to reenact Thoreau’s boat trips out onto Walden Pond. We set out on the river, paddling slowly with the current, drifting quietly through emerald eel grass, passing chalk-colored birch trees on the banks. We watched loons and spotted sandpipers dive carelessly in the water, their songs echoing far down the river. Thoreau wrote of the entrancing rhythm of the rise and fall of the loons on Walden Pond, and Suzanne and I quickly began to understand. For hours, we watched the birds rise and fall, rise and fall, darting playfully on the surface of the water, all the while unknowingly serving us as nature’s television. Thoreau wondered “what beside safety [the birds] got by sailing in the middle of Walden,” and he suspected that a simple love for the water drove their boundless energy. Dusk fell as we listened to the soothing night sounds of the Connecticut, and I felt certain that Thoreau was right — who wouldn’t jump at the chance to spend a life flying freely over the Connecticut?

As we relaxed in our cabin that night, enjoying our isolation in the woods, Suzanne and I discussed the next stop of our trip. Contrary to popular impression, Thoreau’s life in the woods wasn’t truly solitary. He visited a nearby town frequently to see friends at a tavern, visit a barber, and retrieve supplies at the grocery. Our vacation in the woods was to include a trip to our rural New Hampshire alma mater for a college reunion to see old friends.

On a recent hiking trip, my brother and I joked that simply applying a specific brand of sunscreen containing a unique artificial banana scent caused a rush of childhood memories to bubble to the surface of our consciousness: “I’m remembering my first kiss! The first time I hit a baseball! My first steps!”

I knew that stepping back onto our college campus would be like applying the sunscreen, bringing a waterfall of memories, both good and bad. I was nervous. After all, I preferred that some memories, like my breakup with my first college girlfriend, the murder of two beloved college professors during my senior year, and the terrifying newly-formed memories of the Chipmunk Serial Killer, stay repressed in the dark corners of my mind for eternity. We fell asleep, lulled by the sounds of the forest, but uneasy about our re-entry into civilization.

The next day, after waking and eating breakfast, Suzanne and I hopped into our car and drove toward the school. When we arrived on campus, I walked across the enormous lawn in front of the blindingly white library’s clock tower. Again, I was swamped by memories. I felt the warmth of the spring sun as I studied on the prickly green grass. I smelled the clean scent of pine trees as I hiked through New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest after graduation. I felt the spray of rushing water as I kayaked through Vermont before the start of my freshman year. I heard the sound of ringing telephones as I spent hours writing in the college newspaper’s offices. I tasted the oatmeal my roommate cooked for dinner in our cramped one-room dorm room. I shivered as I kissed my girlfriend for the first time in the falling snow next to the hockey pond.

I can’t swear to it, but I think I smelled banana sunscreen too. It smelled good, and the Chipmunk Serial Killer was nowhere to be found.

Read the second essay about my trip to New England, in which I lose my teeth and visit Walden Pond.

The Chase House is a bed and breakfast in Cornish, New Hampshire.

The Chase House is a bed and breakfast in Cornish, New Hampshire.

A road sign in Windsor, Vermont advertises a “Path of Life” Garden Tour.

A road sign in Windsor, Vermont advertises a “Path of Life” Garden Tour.

How to Visit Walden Pond and Take a Thoreau-Inspired Trip

  • After flying into Boston’s Logan International Airport and renting a car, a quick, 40-minute drive to Walden Pond State Reservation in Concord, Massachusetts will put you within hiking distance of the site of Thoreau’s original cabin.
  • Take I-93 north for about six miles, then follow signs to the Concord Turnpike (MA-2) for about 11 miles going west. In addition to the hike at the park, you can also go swimming in Walden Pond from a beach and see a reconstruction of Thoreau’s cabin, with complete copies of his original furniture and a fireplace.
  • The Concord Museum, which is just a 5-minute drive north on Walden Street (I am not making this up), houses the cabin’s original furniture if you’re interested in seeing it.
  • To rent your own cabin in New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest as Suzanne and I did, contact A Better Life Cabins & Campgrounds (866-265-3158, $50 per night) for basic cabin rentals. For a more luxurious and charming bed and breakfast experience in the woods, which also puts you within a 30-minute drive of beautiful Dartmouth College (Dr. Seuss’s alma mater), contact The Chase House in Cornish, New Hampshire (603-675-5391, $175 per night).
  • To rent a canoe in this area for a trip down the Connecticut River to try some loon-watching, contact Dartmouth’s Ledyard Canoe Club (603-643-6709, lcc@dartmouth.edu). As for attending your college reunion, well, good luck.

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