Monday, August 28, 2006

Where's Walden?

The weekend began at 8PM on Friday. I had been craving social interaction and was reminded of a recent acquaintance’s pond-side party down in Western Mass. So I set off for an hour-long drive trending south and west.

Take a look at any map of NH and one thing you won’t see, are roads that trend south and west. Four dark, winding, bumpy, hours later, I arrived at her house, only to find that everyone had already gone home. Because I don’t really know the hostess, I turned away with my case of Coronas un-cracked and my need for people unmet. At this point, I just wanted to put the day to bed and start anew in the morning. I needed to find a place to crash.

Just outside the town of Athol, I found what looked like an abandoned driveway. I plunged the Eurovan through overgrowth and crept down the little tunnel of shrubs. At the end I came to a big derelict house. Besides the creepiness of the building, the yard was perfectly quiet. It looked out over a quaint stream that flowed under the arc of an old stone bridge.

After a quick reconnaissance, I sat for a while listening to the babbling water and staring into the night sky. Then I brushed my teeth, nestled into bed with Copernicus, and drifted into tomorrow.

I woke up early to bright new surroundings. Across the bridge I found an expanse of wild riparian land to explore. After greeting several birds and chasing away a housecat, I came across this GIGANTIC wasp sitting on a boulder. She seemed pretty chill and allowed me to pick her up long enough to snap this cell phone video. As she crawled up my arm you can see her obscenely long ovipositor.

This was going to be a good day!

For breakfast, I headed into the town of Athol and found what could be the grungiest diner north of that one “Waffle House” in Alabama. It was tiny, and cramped with locals. I chose the only stool left at the counter.

I love to study in places like this, so pulled out an assigned reading. This one was an analysis of the Chernobyl accident. Soon an old guy came in and sat down on my left. He started to chat across me with another not-so-old guy on my right. There was not six inches between us so I could not help but be a part of the conversation. Guy-to-my-right was the owner of the biggest business in Athol (some kind of electronics) and Guy-to-my-left was the Executive Director of the Quabbin Regional Chamber of Commerce. Apparently Wal-Mart is coming.

In casual conversation, I expressed how much I enjoyed the country-feel of the region and made clear my preference for family-owned business and small-town Americana. I walked away feeling like I may have actually had a positive impact on these two guys on either side of me.

Guy-to-my-left professed to be an avid “outdoorsman,” So I asked for some leads on good hiking trails. He told me about Gate 29. The next little adventure brought me deep into the woods of the Quabbin Reservoir where I found this little shack.

Next stop was Atkin’s Farm Stand where I discovered the locally-grown peach. I was completely unprepared - like I pulled the pin on a fruit-grenade. It reminded me of a Mango I once found on the side of the road in Tortola that left me sticky for days.

After a thorough fresh water rinse, I saw the words “Dinosaur Tracks” on my Rand-McNally road atlas. From my days as a student of geology, I could not recall how the volcanic and tectonic history of the Connecticut River Valley could have sustained roaming dinosaurs. I could not resist setting my knowledge straight and ended up getting into a long nostalgic talk with the ranger at the Dinosaur Tracks exhibit. He reminded me that the accretion of terrains occurred during the Paleozoic era about, 500 mya while the dinosaurs inhabited the area during the Mesozoic from 165-65 mya. A mere oversight of 400 mya.

When he saw how excited I got at the mention of a basalt/conglomerate nonconformity, he revealed a secret outcrop high on Mt. Taylor. With a hand-drawn map, I trekked up to see and it met all of my expectations. It was a gorgeous hike. Those rocks told me ancient stories and the birds sang to me personally.

Another peach and another freshwater rinse later, I headed up the road to Northampton. Northhampton is one of those places that everyone tells me I should live (along with Eugene, Oregon?). So I had to check it out. It was nice, very liberal, but soon to be hippie-critical. It highlights to me how I am often misunderstood. Although I share many of the values of deadheads, I care deeply about the planet and it’s people and I’m driven to making a positive impact. I struggle everyday to communicate an idea which I'm not yet qualified to do, but I’ve not given up yet.

As I strolled through town, I passed a haircutting place. On impulse, I decided to get a haircut. I was a little concerned because the place was blasting club-thumping techno music. But the girl did a good job, and it was worth the fifteen bucks just to have her wash my hair.

In a small bookstore, I bought a book of the letters of Thoreau at half-price. I then caught a movie “Little Miss Sunshine” (very good), had some sushi (wicked good), and settled in for the night up the road in a Clarion Hotel parking lot. In the back of my 2001 Eurovan, under the blue LED light of my Petzel mini-headlamp, I read Thoreau for the first time in my life.

The next morning was cold and rainy. So I was proud of myself for remembering to bring an umbrella. But when I opened it, I realized that not only was it tiny, but it had a scalloped edge – almost frilly. A little embarrassed by this girly thing, I ducked into the first café I could find. I sat there for several hours, my nosed pressed into my new book. “The heavens are as deep, as our aspirations are high “ wrote Thoreau. I was stunned. I decided to make a little pilgrimage.

I jumped on the Turnpike and headed east toward Walden Pond. With the words “Simplicity, simplicity” ringing in my ears, I stopped for a quick visit with my brother, to check out his humongous new, wide-screen, Hi-Def, digital surround sound, TV (which was cool).

The tenuous island of woods surrounding Walden Pond is now a National Historic Site run by the State. On this cold and rainy day the place was vacant. I found a bronze statue of Thoreau positioned near his cabin - as if he had just set out to go exploring. He has a determined stride and a familiar intense look on his face. His hand is held up, as if studying a piece of fruit.

Since no one was around, and Henry was distracted, I poked my head into the cabin. Inside, was marvelously stark. A slanted desk, three chairs at a three-legged table, a woodstove, and a small lumpy bed with a wool blanket. I could not resist. The door creaked open and I sat down at his desk. I daydreamed for several minutes and then found myself lying on the little bed listening to the rain. The last things I remember were the soft song of a robin, imagining the smell of wood smoke, and feeling the residual warmth from the long extinguished stove.

I was woken up by a wet Japanese family peering into the cabin. The father was nice enough to snap this photo on me and the old bugger (he’s a lot shorter than I imagined).

Of the many must-do things in a lifetime, two of them come to mind now (and no, peeing on the Plymouth Rock isn’t one). One is swimming in a tropical “bait-ball” – see earlier post, and two is sneaking a nap in Thoreau’s empty bed.

I have just begun to explore…

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