Walking in Thoreau’s footsteps

I found Thoreau the same way many people did — his name on a high school reading syllabus, with the book title Walden, next to it. And as with many 17- year-olds, the syllabus quickly found its way to the backseat of my car. There it mingled with the other litter that inhabits a teen’s backseat. A few days later, with reluctance, I retrieved the page, bought the book, opened it and began reading.

And read I did. Later in life, I read Walden again, and I am in the process of re-reading it for a third time along with a new biography on Thoreau. I read now with renewed interest and passionate fervor, because we both have shared, figuratively and literally, this place called Maine.

In Maine, Thoreau was at peace and in love. In love with a place more saturated with life than his boyhood home in Concord, Mass., or even with that of Walden Pond, where he built a small cabin on its shore and lived for two years and two months. At peace, because the land afforded him vast space, untainted by man, to explore.

Throughout his life, Thoreau would travel to Maine three times. I can relate to his wanting to return after he first set eyes on the wild place in 1846. After my first visit to the “way life should be” in the early ‘80s, I never looked back. Since that time, I have not missed a summer in Maine, and five years ago took up full-time residency.

“Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads”—Thoreau

Returning in 1853 and, again, in 1857— his last trip to Maine— Thoreau captured his thoughts in essays about what he saw and what he did, culminating in the publication of The Maine Woods shortly after his death. It is a book as deep in experience as Walden but bounded by the observations of others rather than solely by that of Thoreau. Penobscot guides, loggers, trappers and friends all helped Thoreau see and experience Maine in its glory and in its hardships.

For Thoreau, Maine was a seemingly endless ground in which to venture and explore the nooks and crannies of a new land and into his soul. From the Penobscot River, to Abol Stream, Katahdin, Moosehead and Chesuncook Lakes, the Allagash, and the North Woods, Thoreau spent a total of 47 days in Maine.

“What is most striking in the Maine wilderness is the continuousness of the forest, with fewer open intervals or glades than you had imagined. Except the few burnt lands, the narrow intervals on the rivers, the bare tops of the high mountains, and the lakes and streams, the forest is uninterrupted.” —Thoreau

Here, I believe Thoreau was speaking about the forest in two ways: the one within man, and the one in front of man. Is that not how we all feel when we take a walk in the woods of Maine?

Although Henry David Thoreau lived a short life—1817 to 1862—during a much different time, I am certain his days were much fuller than mine. Reading Thoreau is as though one is walking with Thoreau. His days were saturated in the observation of life amidst his surroundings. From an ant colony’s migration through the woods to the decaying of a mushroom amidst a woven carpet of colored leaves on a wooded floor, Thoreau became a part of the flora and fauna through his interactions and observations. He gave of himself, to find himself. Many of us today could only hope to touch a fragment of what Thoreau experienced in his short time on Earth.

In Maine, Thoreau would marvel at its size, gape at the never-ending forests and stare in awe at Mount Katahdin with a sheepish smile because the mountain beat him — it beat me, too. But in all of these encounters—whether forlorn or joyous— Thoreau was steadfast in giving of himself so he could observe all that was around him, touch life and write about it.  To read someone’s words and then walk the path of which they spoke is a journey unto itself; it is as if a window has opened, and you now see what they saw.

Most of us today are not as observant. We may catch bits of life as it happens, fragments of movement, but rarely see something from start to finish. All life moves, and we, today, miss most of it. Distractions are plentiful and grow exponentially daily. Commercials and commentary of and by others blot out the sun for each of us. We might think that Thoreau today would be blinded by all of it. Yet I believe he would raise his hand, cast a shadow across his eyes and observe more of it than he missed. And he would write about it, so others could find his words, find him and, over time, themselves.

“We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.”—Thoreau

A walk in the woods in Maine is special. It continually teaches me to slow things down, to stop, look and listen — in a sense, live the life we all once did a long time ago. I hear the trees creak, distant waves rumble, see the wind comb its way through treetops, look up to see gulls catch that same wind, look down to see juncos square-dance on a forest floor, chickadees peak and poke, chandeliers of moss hang from tree bark, ripples crease on the surface of water as a waterfall gurgles, as the peak of a mountain squints along with me in the morning light.

Thoreau died 157 years ago on May 6. His last words spoken were said to be: moose and Indian. Two words that are appropriate bookends for a life— though short—well lived, rich and full of experience. Every time I set foot in the woods or in a canoe, I cannot help but think of Thoreau and his journeys in Maine. The trek by land or water is made with a silent partner, murmuring words so eloquent they bend with the wind, sway with the trees, travel over rocks down a stream cold, clean and continual. I keep his words in my back pocket and his breath close to my heart.

RJ Heller

About RJ Heller

Having arrived here from Pennsylvania over four years ago, there has been plenty to learn and even more to observe. This place is different, but I mean that in a good way. Born and raised in Pennsylvania, I am a college graduate with a teaching degree, a business founder and seller, and a father of two children with my wife Stephanie; life has been full and somewhat adventurous, but finding Maine remains a high watermark in my life.