IMAGINE MY SHOCK. I was living in Massachusetts for the first time. Adjusting. The first time I saw snow falling past my Somerville apartment window, I told a woman on the phone that a neighbor was on the roof shaking out a pillow. Not many snowstorms in my desertified homeland. The first time I saw ice on the sidewalk, I thought a prankster had smeared Vaseline on the bricks to watch businessmen fall down.
This old world was all new to me. I was manhandled by quotidian revelations, wrenched by the duende of Yankee cultural hoodoo. So when I realized I could walk over to Porter Square (where the porterhouse steak was first hacked out of some Bostonian cow) and catch a commuter train to Concord, to Walden freakin’ Pond, I was off and running.
Perhaps I was a barrio Transcendentalist. Well, I was certainly one by the time I hit the San Diego ’burbs in my tweens. I loved me some Thoreau. “Civil Disobedience,” right? What Doors fan couldn’t get behind that? I also had copied passages of “Self Reliance” by Emerson and pasted them to my walls amid posters of hot rods and King Kong and John Lennon and trees. Even in the ’70s, I was deeply worried about trees.
So I trudged to the T stop and went down to the suburban rail level and caught the Purple Line. I, and all the rambunctious Concord high school kids, were deeply plugged into our Walkmans. I was all Screaming Blue Messiahs and class rage, scribbling in my notebooks about rich bastards giggling self-indulgently and shrieking “Eau my GWOD!” at each other as they ignored the woods and the mangy deer outside. For me, it was a Disneyland train ride, all this stuff I had only experienced robotically before. I was imagining the ditch diggers from my old neighborhood tripping out over all this water. These goddamned New Englanders had water everywhere. And deer.
We pulled into Concord as if it were a normal thing, and I detrained and stepped into the Friendly’s. At the time, if I could have had deep-tissue grafts of Americana I would have, and a striped-awning ice cream place where the happy lady called me “Deah” was just about the shiniest moment of my Americanness to date.
“I’m looking for Walden,” I announced. “Pond.” Helpful-like, as if she didn’t know.
“Right out the door.” Doah. “Go out and walk about a mile.”
I drank some soda. She called it “tonic.” And I was off. She didn’t tell me I had to turn south. I turned north. And walked away.
BEFORE WE PROCEED much farther on our first New England early autumn country walk, before we grow dizzy with red maples actually turning red in a natural psychedelic blowmind, we might consider the dearth of what you might call “ponds” where I come from. To me, a pond was a muddy hole you could jump across, and it housed six or seven crawdads and some tadpoles. (My friend Mark put dead polliwogs in a jar with hand lotion and charged kids a nickel to look at “elephant sperm.” We were guttersnipe naturalists.) When Thoreau said, “Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in,” I thought I knew what he was talking about, though my stream was rain-shower runoff in an alley. I had been fishing exactly once in my life, and I felt guilt about the poor worm that came out of the water not only impaled on the hook but stiff as a twig.
So there I was, marching at a splendid pace! Away to Walden Pond! Or, as my homeboys would have spelled it, GUALDENG! Delighted by every tree! White fences! Orange and yellow and scarlet leaves! Concord thinned and vanished and I was suddenly among farms! Huzzah! Well-met, shrieking farm dogs threatening me! Bonjour, paranoiac farm wives hanging laundry and glaring at me from fields of golden, uh, barley! Eau my gwod! I saw stacks of lobster pots. I saw pumpkins. It was a shock to me that pumpkins grew somewhere. Next to lobster pots! And a red tractor to boot.
Behold the festive black-and-white New England moo-cow. Scenes bucolic and poetic — scenes the Alcotts might have penned. Sad autumn light, what a hipster pal in Harvard Square had called “Irish light,” slanted through the trees to make everything tremble with the most delicious melancholy I have yet to see again. I was bellowing along to Sisters of Mercy: “Oh Marian, this world is killing me.” Cows regarded me. Goths in paradise.
Right about then, I beheld it. In a field of mown hay. Next to a small house and a slanty barn. Walden Pond. It was about twenty feet across and surrounded by meditative heifers. I removed my headphones and went to the fence and leaned upon the topmost rail and communed with the transcendent. I wrestled with man’s fate and the epic movements of the universe and the natural splendour of the Creator’s delight in the temple of His Creation.
The farmer came out of his house and stared at me. I waved. He jumped in his truck and banged over ruts in his field. He wasn’t smiling.
“I help you?” he shouted.
“Just looking at the pond,” said I.
“Jesus Christ!” he reasoned. He looked back at his cows. He looked at me. He looked at the cows. He said, “You’re not from around here, are ya?”
“California,” I said.
“That explains it.”
What ho, my good fellow!
“You walked the wrong damned direction. It’s about four mile that way.”
I looked back, as though the great pond would reveal itself in the autumnal haze.
“Could you give me a ride?” I asked.
He smoked as he watched me trudge back toward Concord with a slightly less splendid cadence.
YEAH, WHATEVER. Barking dogs. Screw you. Farm wives gawking. What’s your problem? My feet hurt. Past Friendly’s. Don’t do me any favors, Deah. And south, out of town again, across the crazed traffic on the highway, and past a tumbledown trailer park and a garbage dump. What is this crap? Tijuana?
Gradually, I became aware of a bright blue mass to my right. A sea. A Great Lake. This deal wasn’t a pond, man. Are you kidding? Who called this Sea of Cortez a pond?
Down to the water. A crust of harlequin leaves lay along the shore. It was dead silent. Thin wisps of steam rode the far shoreline. I squatted and watched and fancied myself living in a shack, smoking my pipe, scratching out one-liners with a quill, changing the world.
An ancient Dalmatian came along. He was stiff and arthritic, walking at an angle, grinning and making horking sounds. His tag said his name was Jason.
“Jason,” I said. “I’m looking for Thoreau.”
“Snork,” he said, and headed out. I followed. We walked past cove and bog and found ourselves at Henry’s stone floor. The cairn of stones left by travelers. I was glad my homeys did not see me cry over mere rocks.
The shack was about the size of my small bedroom back home in San Diego. I put my hand on the old pines and felt Henry’s bark against my palm. Jason sneezed and thumped along to his own meditations. The pond moved in slow motion before us, Henry and me. A train rolled past the far trees like some strange dream.
Crows went from shadow to shadow, arguing.
Was it just me, or did I smell pipe tobacco burning?
I placed my stone on the cairn. I tipped my collar to my chin. Fall turned cold fast in those days. “Adios, Enrique,” I said. Then I headed back to town for a hot cup of coffee and a ride home on a dark train.