by Hank Leukart
March 10, 2009
When I woke up, my teeth were gone
Reluctantly growing up and visiting Walden Pond.
Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, is the location where Henry David Thoreau wrote his most famous work.
This is the second of two essays about my trip to New Hampshire and Walden Pond in New England. Start with the first essay about the appearance of the Chipmunk Serial Killer for the whole story.H
ANOVER, New Hampshire and CONCORD, Massachusetts — I am probably the only person in the world stupid enough to have had an oral surgeon remove my wisdom teeth five days before going to his five-year college reunion. I had been putting off this rite of passage for years because of the infamous “Wisdom Teeth Choice.” Oral surgeons let patients choose whether they want to be put asleep completely during surgery or kept awake with pain numbed by local anesthesia. I was sure I wanted neither. The only thing I could imagine scarier than having an hour of my life erased from my memory — e-mail-based urban legends have made me protective of my kidneys — was being fully awake as a surgeon ripped out my teeth. More importantly, wisdom teeth removal would be my last major tooth-related life milestone before dentures. The surgery seemed like a big step — too big. But when my dentist threatened me before the reunion with forecasts of imminent mouth destruction (or, at least, imminent crooked teeth), I panicked and scheduled the first available appointment. When I woke up, my teeth were gone.
As if living out a bizarre version of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, I met my friend Suzanne for our trip four teeth lighter, toting a month’s supply of medical-strength Ibuprofen and Hydrocodone. (Of course, Frey’s drug history is significantly more sordid than mine, and my story also happens to be true.) I confessed to Suzanne that I had spent the previous week eating only cottage cheese and drinking Starbucks Crème Frappuccinos. She chuckled, and confessed that, in a strange coincidence, she had recently sprained her ankle very badly practicing karate — Suzanne is a quirky girl of many talents — and she too was taking prescribed painkillers between physical-therapy sessions.
And so, we hobbled into our five-year college reunion together, complaining like two crotchety senior citizens who had been married for sixty years. I searched around for soft foods that wouldn’t hurt my teeth. Whenever Suzanne needed to walk down a flight of stairs, it took ten minutes. I tried to speak without actually opening my mouth, in an effort to avoid jaw pain. Suzanne found a single location to stand and tried to never move. All the while, we popped painkillers. We were a pathetic duo.
Yet despite our elderly appearance, we were a bit worried that, compared to our adult classmates, we were more like children. It’s true that Suzanne had recently graduated from Harvard Law School and was pursuing a screenwriting career. Meanwhile, I was pursuing a career at a large technology company. But we weren’t sure these pursuits were our passions, and we weren’t close to getting married or having kids. Suzanne was still eating ice cream by the pint, and I was still singing about “staying eighteen forever” at rock concerts filled with teenagers.
In this state of conflict, we toured the reunion in physical pain and emotional confusion, speaking to a seemingly unending supply of newly minted lawyers. Apparently, a lot of our classmates had attended law school because they didn’t have any other ideas about what to do after college. Unfortunately, most of them seemed to be miserable with their actual work.
I couldn’t help hearing Thoreau’s voice in my head: “Most men… through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them.” Of course, there’s nothing wrong with becoming a lawyer — or any other profession — if it’s a goal that really sounds fun or interesting. But it’s easy, as we grow into adults, to get distracted by the things we feel we’re supposed to do — land a high-paying job, get married, buy cars and houses, for example. We forget or fear consequences too much to pursue our desires or even discover them.
To their credit, a few of our classmates seemed to have heeded Thoreau’s warnings. We met Dominic, an engineer who talked giddily about his work with underwater robotics. My friend Connie’s career in microfinance became more interesting when she explained her passion for bringing financial information to places that capitalism seemed to have forgotten. My old friend Michelle had joined the Peace Corps and moved to Africa after graduation. Despite the palpable uncertainty in the air, it was comforting to know that some of our peers were on life paths and were married to people that they genuinely loved.
After a banquet on the reunion’s second night, a drunken girl grabbed a microphone and embarrassed herself as she drunkenly toasted to the days she spent in her sorority, describing her every-night binge drinking. Almost on cue, a drunken guy slipped and shattered a wine bottle when he accidentally nudged it off a stone ledge during her speech.
As I hopelessly attempted to chew the prime rib and Suzanne massaged her ankle while finishing her pie, we watched their childish antics with contempt. I realized that she and I might actually be starting to grow up. Sure, we existed in a grey area behind childhood and adulthood, pursuing goals we weren’t sure about — but we had definitely gone beyond the stage of slurred toasts and drunken teenage bashes. At the very least, we hadn’t turned into maniacal truckers prone to tormenting other drivers.
“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them,” Thoreau wrote. Suzanne and I certainly had some castles; we just needed to get started their foundations — if only we knew how to build them. Maybe Thoreau could help.
After the reunion, I drove to Concord, Massachusetts to visit Walden Pond, the famous site at which Thoreau lived for two years while writing Walden. When I arrived, I hiked two miles, past a swimming area and concession stand, through the forest to the original location of Thoreau’s one-room cabin. The site was not deep in an impenetrable wilderness, but nearby a major road just across the pond from a gift shop and swimming tourists. Standing on the forest soil where Thoreau had lived under a canopy of pine trees, I wished the spot were more isolated. Thoreau, too, admitted his frustration with the nearby sounds of the railroad and rumbling carriages that interrupted his life in the otherwise serene forest. I felt some comfort in knowing that even the revered Henry David Thoreau struggled to avoid compromising his ideals. Maybe the best Suzanne and I could hope for was the gray area between passion and practicality.
My wisdom teeth cavities ached as I looked through the trees at the shimmering blue water. “A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature,” Thoreau wrote. “It is Earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.”
The eye of Walden Pond looked back at me. I wondered what it saw. I wished it could tell me. WB
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, email@example.com). As for attending your college reunion, well, good luck.