Henry David Thoreau had already made three trips to Maine’s north woods by the time his essay “Walking” was published in the second half of 1862. He was also dead. Tuberculosis had taken him in May.
But that didn’t stop me from giving him a ride up north on the back of my motorcycle earlier this week — in spirit, at least. I put Portland in my rear view mirror on Monday morning and goosed it in the general direction of Greenville with my travel-stained copy of his essay stuffed in my back pocket.
“Walking” is all about wandering and wondering, of meandering and thinking. It extolls the virtues of walking with no purpose, of finding yourself or wisdom while lost in the woods. In it, he says no matter what his intentions are, when he goes out walking, he always finds himself going in the opposite direction of town.
I know what he means. I always end up motivating north, on two (or three) wheels when I need a break. I never go south. I love Portland, my city, my home. But I never head for a bigger metropolis when I need to get my head out of town. I always look for the trees.
I know motorcycling isn’t the same as walking. But I still love to “saunter” around on my bike, thinking aloud to myself, alone inside my helmet. I take random dirt roads. I have no set destination, most of the time. When the day ends, I string up my hammock in an inconspicuous place and snooze till dawn.
Thoreau thought “sauntering” came from the French “sans terre,” without land or a home.
I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks, who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering.
…therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere. For this is the secret of successful sauntering.
So, I saunter.
I still have a job. I still have bills to pay and appointments to keep. But the hours I spend in blissful ignorance of exactly where I am, are golden. In those moments, my exact location doesn’t matter. The world feels like home.
When I come out of my reverie, instead of clicking my heels to get home, I just twist the throttle and go south again. I’ll be back to town, back to reality, in a few hours.
This time out, I found myself at Onawa. It’s a village in Elliottsville Township. It boasts a lake and the tallest, longest railroad bridge in the state. The Central Maine and Quebec Railway bridge was built in 1931, replacing an older span. The Ship Pond Viaduct, as it’s more formally known, is 1,230 feet long and 130 feet high.
Above all, we cannot afford not to live in the present. He is blessed over all mortals who loses no moment of the passing life in remembering the past. Unless our philosophy hears the cock crow in every barn-yard within our horizon, it is belated. That sound commonly reminds us that we are growing rusty and antique in our employments and habits of thought.
By the end of the day, I’d found a windy point on Moosehead Lake to hang my bed for the night. I finished reading “Walking” again by the light of the sunset. I knew I had to go home in the morning. But I also knew, as Thoreau knew, that there’d be more sunsets in my future. And when my sunsets run out there’ll still be more for anyone who want to saunter off and find them.
We had a remarkable sunset one day last November. I was walking in a meadow the source of a small brook, when the sun at last, just before setting, after a cold grey day, reached a clear stratum in the horizon, and the softest brightest morning sun-light fell on the dry grass and on the stems of the trees in the opposite horizon, and on the leaves of the shrub-oaks on the hill-side, while our shadows stretched long over the meadow eastward, as if we were the only motes in its beams. It was such a light as we could not have imagined a moment before, and the air also was so warm and serene that nothing was wanting to make a paradise of that meadow. When we reflected that this was not a solitary phenomenon, never to happen again, but that it would happen forever and ever an infinite number of evenings, and cheer and reassure the latest child that walked there, it was more glorious still.