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.