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Off the Trail: Walden Pond

April 27th, 2011 · No Comments · Time and Place

Author and conservationist Ron Strickland is perhaps best known for his role in establishing the Pacific Northwest Trail. This excerpt is from his latest book, Pathfinder: Blazing a New Wilderness Trail in Modern America, due out May 1. In it, Strickland describes an “outlaw expedition” to Walden Pond in Massachusetts, the site where transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau built his famous cabin in 1845 as an experiment in living simply.

I met Tine, then-39, the old-fashioned way, via the Internet. Actually I was looking for a backpacking partner with whom to explore the Sea-To-Sea Route. Instead I found a 4-star hotel maven whose interest in trails was minimal but whose tolerance for me was both unexpected and very welcome. She and I had both been hitched before and had a sense of the compromises inherent in marriage. So forsaking thirty years of nomadism, I decided to propose to her on Valentines Day at Walden Pond, home of my hero Henry David Thoreau.

Since a proposal is one of the few acts in life for which there is little or no guidance, I mass-E-mailed my friends for advice. The resulting hilarity showed that many people doubted that marriage was part of my vocabulary. Their suggestions ranged from the quaint (hide the ring in a snowman) to the literary (read aloud to her from Thoreau’s Journals.) My recently-divorced buddy Keith Clark wrote from Anchorage to warn, “I got married on Valentines Day. Don’t do that. Hard to get dinner reservations every year, and now, it really sucks as a remembrance.”

“Bah humbug, to you, Keith,” I thought. However, on V-Day, fate intervened with the winter’s most hellacious snowstorm. Blowing every which way, the blizzard convinced Tine that travel was too dangerous. That coincided with my learning that Walden Pond was not the bucolic retreat popularized by my hero Henry D. Actually it was a state park with 9-5 hours and zillions of recreationists who were prohibited from parking anywhere but in the $5 lot that closed at 5 PM. So Valentines Day was out. However, the next evening Mr. Romantic decided to lead an outlaw expedition in the dark to declare his love.

The object of my affections was decidedly uninterested in trudging to Walden by headlamp. Thoreau held no more appeal for her than the smell of unbathed thrus. Nevertheless, the night after Valentines we found ourselves on busy Walden Street south of Concord. The only light came from the glare of oncoming headlights. To avoid being hit we slogged along a high berm into the frostbite wind while the snow squeaked loudly under our boots.

Half way to the park, Tine balked. What was the point of risking our lives on that dangerous road? Why couldn’t we be in a warm restaurant ordering something tasty? That somehow reminded me that both Thoreau and his brother John had proposed unsuccessfully to the same girl. If Walden’s greatest hero had been shot down, what chance did sorry Strickland have?

Frightened by the incessant traffic, Tine felt hungry and cold. But I explained that the evening’s associations with Thoreau were important to me, so she gamely gave it another try.

We continued south across the Concord Turnpike’s river of cars. Soon we were in deep woods and crunching along a snowy trail in search of the pond. Dressed in Golite down parkas and rain pants, we defied the temperature and the wind. I was excited by my mission and by the sense that I was where the American conservation movement had begun.

Tine’s mood brightened as soon as she saw the lake’s flat, white expanse bordered by its ring of dark hills. As a Mount Holyoke undergraduate, she had loved winter ponds so much that she’d spent many hours peering at their ice-entombed leaves and bubbles. So when she found Walden’s expanse of snow-covered ice, she forgot her earlier reservations about my daft date.  She ran out into the middle of the pond and flopped down on her back to drink in the stars.

I lay beside her, aware of the vast silence between us and Venus on the western horizon.  Walden seemed almost a part of the familiar constellations overhead. Snow cushioned my hips and head. Feeling at home, as I always do in the wilds, I sought the courage to tell Tine what she had meant to me. “Our whole is greater than the sum of our parts,” I stumbled, aware that any words sounded insignificant in such a magnificent setting. Keep it short, I thought. So I reached for her gloved hand, and simply said that I loved her and wanted to marry her.

She hesitated so long that I became aware of the cold seeping up from the snow and ice.  My fingers, exposed to the air for a photo, began to throb painfully.

What would she say? I suddenly realized that I truly had no idea what her response would be.

The moments stretched by interminably.

I began to fear that maybe I was making a fool of myself.

Finally she blurted, “Yes, I will  marry you.”

The relief I felt boomed through my mind like a giant crack in the ice.

We embraced despite the barriers of our puffy coats. When we kissed, I felt lost in a dream.

Yes, I will  marry you, she’d said. I wondered if I could both make her happy and wean myself from my nomadic lifestyle.

“Yes,” she said again. And, as if reading my thoughts, she added, “It will be the beginning of many exciting new trails.”

From Pathfinder: Blazing a New Wilderness Trail in Modern America by Ron Strickland, published by Oregon State University Press, 2011. Excerpted with permission from the publisher. More information about the book is available from: http://oregonstate.edu/dept/press/o-p/Pathfinder.htmlOff The Trail: Walden Pond

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