Hiking the Mountain With the Words of Thoreau

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NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — In July 1844, writer and naturalist Henry David Thoreau hiked alone through North Adams and up Mount Greylock on a route quite similar to what is now known as the Bellows Pipe Trail. 
 
"My route lay up a long and spacious valley called the Bellows, because the winds rush up or down it with violence in storms, sloping up to the very clouds between the principal range and a lower mountain," Thoreau writes. "It seemed a road for the pilgrim to enter upon who would climb to the gates of heaven." 
 
Thoreau wrote an account of his "pilgrimage" years later in his book "A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers," published in 1867. The climb up the mountain and his short stay at the top are not central to this book; in fact, Thoreau calls his account "this long digression."  
 
A Thoreau anthology I bought several years ago does not even include his Greylock ascent in its excerpts from "A Week." On Saturday, July 20, local environmentalist and author Lauren R. Stevens, and Alec Gillman, visitors services supervisor with the Department of Environmental Management, led a hike up the mountain following Thoreau's route. As Stevens noted, "A Week" is mainly the story of a trip by boat Thoreau and his younger brother, John, took in 1840. John died in 1842 from an infection he received from cutting himself while shaving. At the time of his walk up Greylock, Thoreau, age 27, was struggling with his grief over his brother's death, fleeing from scorn in Concord because he had accidentally set fire to 300 wooded acres there a few months earlier, and dealing with disappointment at having been turned down in a marriage proposal to a distant cousin, Ellen Sewall. 
 
Moreover, intellectually and professionally, as Stevens noted, Thoreau was very much in the shadow of his great mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson. 
 
Finally, and related to all of the above, Thoreau was on a spiritual journey as well. As a Transcendentalist he was seeking a transcendent ideal truth, a truth "into which poets have had but a partial glance over eastern hills," i.e. more akin to Eastern spirituality than traditional Christianity. 
 
"He was, in fact, looking to change his life," Stevens said of Thoreau and his journey. 
 
About a dozen people gathered on a bright and temperate July morning near Notch Road and the entrance to North Adams reservoir land where the Bellows Pipe Trail begins. The main reason I came along is I wanted to hike up the mountain from North Adams. I had done so multiple times from Adams and once from Williamstown, but never before from my hometown. 
 
As for Thoreau, his trip interests me for both psychological and historical reasons. Thoreau as a man climbing a mountain in disappointment and bereavement, fleeing scorn, I can identify with. Thoreau as a man giving an account of familiar terrain in a very unfamiliar time fascinates me. 
 
But actually, much of the terrain was not particularly familiar. I can tell you where I was at the beginning and at the end of the hike up the mountain, but in between I'm not quite sure. The summer foliage was so thick I could not see into the valley, or to the top of the mountain, to get my bearings from it. One thing I can tell you, much of the trip was steeper than anything you'll find on the gentle Cheshire Harbor Trail up the mountain from Adams. I almost turned around before I got to the top, I was so winded. 
 
At the beginning of the hike, Stevens showed the hikers depressions in the earth just off the trail where farmhouses Thoreau stopped by once stood. Thoreau: At "the last house but one ... its mistress was a frank and hospitable young woman, who stood before me in dishabille, busily and unconcernedly combing her long black hair while she talked, giving her head the necessary toss with each sweep of the comb, with lively, sparkling eyes, and full of interest in that lower world from which I had come, talking all the while as familiarly as if she had known me for years, and reminding me of a cousin of mine." 
 
Stevens suggests this cousin may have been Sewall. Thanks to the research of Susan Denault of Adams, we know the woman at the house to have been Rebecca Darling Eddy. As we climbed higher, members of the group took turns reading excepts from Thoreau's account. I cannot walk in the woods without at least slight worry about getting lost. I marvel that about halfway up the mountain, Thoreau departed the path to "bushwhack" his way to the top. But, as Stevens noted, Thoreau was a surveyor and knew how to take his bearings. 
 
"I at once entered the woods, and began to climb the steep side of the mountain in a diagonal direction, taking the bearing of a tree every dozen rods. The ascent was by no means difficult or unpleasant, and occupied much less time than it would have taken to follow the path," Thoreau writes. "So far as my experience goes, travelers generally exaggerate the difficulties of the way. Like most evil, the difficulty is imaginary; for what's the hurry? If a person lost would conclude that after all he is not lost, he is not beside himself, but standing in his own shoes on the very spot where he is, and that for the time being he will live there; but the places that have known him, they are lost "how much anxiety and danger would vanish." 
 
He adds, "I am not alone if I stand by myself. Who knows where in space this globe is rolling? Yet we will not give ourselves up for lost, let it go where it will." 
 
At the top before it got dark, Thoreau made an extensive search for water, found some, and then after dark he read scraps of newspapers by light of his fire. His comments are much more favorable to the advertising side of newspapers than to the editorial side. At Stevens' suggestion, I read this section to the group as we paused for lunch about halfway up the mountain. 
 
"It seemed to me that the advertisements, or what is called the business part of the paper, were greatly the best, the most useful, natural, and respectable," he writes. "Almost all the opinions and sentiments expressed were so little considered, so shallow and flimsy, that I thought the very texture of the paper must be weaker in that part and tear more easily." 
 
At the top of the mountain in those years stood an observatory "erected by the students of the Williamstown College." Thoreau had the mountain to himself, and covered himself with a door to keep warm, not having a blanket. Stevens suggested the image of a coffin. But if Thoreau's night suggested a death, his morning "with the clouds beneath him" suggested something else. 
 
"As the light in the east suddenly increased, it revealed to me more clearly the new world into which I had risen in the night, the new terra firma perchance of my future life," he writes. "There was not a crevice left through which the trivial places of Massachusetts, or Vermont or New York, could be seen, while I still inhaled the clear atmosphere of a July morning" if it were July there. 
 
"All around beneath me was spread a hundred of miles on every side, as far as the eye could reach, an undulating country of clouds. ... It was such a country as we might see in dreams, with all the delights of paradise. ... It was a favor for which to be forever silent to be shown this vision." 
 
The only similarity between Thoreau's ascent of the mountain and mine was an extensive search for water at the top. There were many cars and many people at the summit that day. It took me about 10 minutes to find a place to refill my canteen, and I wasn't looking forward to the 6-mile hike with the group back down the mountain to our cars. 
 
Thoreau's descent, to the south, after his magical morning experience on the mountaintop was something of a cold shower: he soon found himself "in the region of cloud and drizzling rain, and the inhabitants affirmed that it had been a cloudy and drizzling day wholly." As for myself, with just a twinge of guilt, I hitched a ride with three of our group who were driving down the mountain to the parking lot. Within minutes I was in my living room watching the Red Sox and Yankees on television.

Tags: Mount Greylock,   

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