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TraveLit--A blog about travel literature. 

     Even with the best of maps and instruments, we can never fully chart our journeys.

Review: Walking towards Walden: A Pilgrimage in Search of Place

Walking towards Walden: A Pilgrimage in Search of Place
By John Hanson Mitchell. Addison-Wesley, 1995, 301 pp.

“There never was a more passionate pilgrim, a deeper explorer of the wilderness of the nearby than Henry Thoreau,” says John Hanson Mitchell in this delightful account of a “saunter,” as he calls his hike from Westford, Massachusetts to Concord. Mitchell, a naturalist, is himself an “explorer of the wilderness of the nearby”—three of his books explore one square mile in eastern Massachusetts—and in this excursion he pays homage to Thoreau and the other “luminaries” of Concord as well as to Concord itself.

Mitchell believes strongly in the significance of place, and Concord, he argues, is a special place in America: a place where for five thousand years Native Americans would congregate, where the American war of independence started, where American literature first flourished, and where the first book “devoted entirely to the exploration of the idea of place” was written.

The pilgrimage Mitchell undertakes, accompanied by two adventurous friends he has traveled with before, consists of a 16 mile hike that avoids all roads. The trio’s aim is to reach their destination through a 17th-century landscape, bushwhacking their way “through woodlots, old fields, farms, backyards, swamps, and streambeds.” As pilgrimages go, this one is hardly extreme—it can’t compare with strenuous journeys to Mecca or Compostela. But their journey evokes the tough landscape that early Europeans encountered, terrain we have mostly lost and forgotten as we’ve farmed and settled, built developments and roads. And in fact the going is hard: they get lost, wet, stuck by brambles, mussed up, and, by the end of the long day, pretty tired.

As they walk, Mitchell reflects digressively: on birds (one of his companions is a dedicated birdwatcher); on Native American history (the other companion is a basket maker and authority on Native American basketry); on Florida and Ponce de Leon’s quest for the fountain of youth (the focus of a previous trip the three took); and of course on landscape, territoriality, and place—the good aspects, such as community, and the bad, including xenophobia and war. An engrossing thread is the American Revolution: as they cross the routes the Minutemen took as they converged on Concord to confront the British, Mitchell provides a vivid context for the soldiers and the war.

The digressions in the book reflect the indirect nature of the hikers’ “saunter,” and the quirks of his companions and the colorful locals the group meets add a warm, personal dimension to an enlightening adventure. Although I’ve been to Concord many times—I live in nearby Cambridge—reading this book, I realized how little I know the place. Mitchell is a persuasive advocate of close travel, and an excellent guide, encouraging all of us to open our eyes. You needn’t travel far to see a complex new world.

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