Henry David Thoreau was a regular hiker and mountain climber, activities he did throughout his life in Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire — experiences that he then wrote about in daily journals and in books.
John Gibson of Hallowell, author of several books on hiking and the outdoors, takes us along several of Thoreau’s trips in “In High Places with Henry David Thoreau” (Countryman Press, $18.95), and describes how people in the 21st century can experience the same mountains that Thoreau enjoyed in the 19th century.
The book offers many quotes from Thoreau, and reacquaints those who have not read him in a while with his view of the simple life. It also describes in detail what the legendary author, poet and naturalist did on his journeys.
Gibson recently talked to the Maine Sunday Telegram about the book and Thoreau’s legacy.
Q: Why is Thoreau so relevant today, more than a century and a half after he took a lot of these journeys?
A: I think Thoreau gets us back to basics. There is a lot of talk about the environment and the role that each of us plays in preservation in the context of the lives we all lead. I think Thoreau pulls us away from a lot of distractions of the present to what is important, what is essential. Simplicity is a key word, and what he sought when he went to Walden (Walden Pond, near Concord, Mass.), and lived it.
The hikes and the trips to the mountains were an extension of that. Here is a guy who, wherever he went, took nothing more than a light knapsack, rarely even a blanket, and roughed it.
Q: Would Thoreau’s style of hiking/mountain climbing be considered safe today?
A: Back then, there was one primary trail that was probably the easiest, and his departure from that was OK. Today, that would be dicey, because (with) the increased use of the backcountry, we want to keep people on trail to prevent more damage.
As for dashing off on his own, I think he was competent to do that, although someone else might not have been, and he did get into some difficulties on Katahdin.
Q: Sometimes he would pack a lot of food, sometimes he would mostly live off blueberries or other things he found. Could people do that today?
A: It depends on where we are talking about. In my own experience on many hikes, one has blueberry picking of the type that Thoreau preferred. So many mountain places are suitable for great, healthy wild crops of blueberries that usually only the locals know about.
For someone who wanted to travel light today, however, there are all these lines of food that are light, easy to prepare and easy to carry.
He walked to a lot of these sites, stopping at farmhouses where you could, if you wanted, get a bed for only 50 cents and be given something to eat. He was a forager and very adept at finding and using berries and fishing for a meal, and being content with whatever diet he could put together.
Q: Thoreau’s purpose in hiking seemed to vary quite a bit. On some trips, it seems he just wanted to cover ground and catch a view of distant mountains; in others, he was making a close examination of all the plants.
A: Some trips are very exploratory in the sense of looking at flora and fauna. He might have done more of that on Katahdin if he had not run into difficulties. On Greylock and Wachusett in Massachusetts, the form of his experience is to walk through the mountains slowly and explore pretty carefully what is there, and on others, it is to get to the top a certain way, and down another way and go home.
The second trip to Mount Washington that got him down into Tuckerman’s Ravine was certainly a botanical experience, to see how many of the botanical species that he and his companions had listed that he could find. Then, of course, he sprained his ankle, but the whole party still found all the plants that they had listed.
He must have been a strong man, despite the fact that he had advanced tuberculosis all his adult life and died from it in his 45th year. He seemed to cover ground at great speed.
Q: How do you think Thoreau would view opportunities to hike and climb mountains today?
A: He saw the danger that people would lock up (the) land for commercial purposes and the kinds of estates and hotels for the wealthy that had even then sprouted up on and around mountains like Monadnock.
He was also a walker who cut across farms and woodlots, and he knew the land better than the owners, but he knew they might close off the land in a way so he couldn’t walk across the properties.
He did not want to see the landscape radically changed. On several mountains like Monadnock, Greylock and Wachusetts, there has been preservation of a sort where they have removed the structures and let the mountains go back to their former selves.
Q: I believe that all of the hikes in the book are in some sort of a park?
A: We can certainly show many examples, particularly on the most important mountains, of acts to prevent them from being locked up in private ownership. Many of these mountains, even small ones, are protected now. That is something good that we have done. And with the trail networks, we tend to concentrate use so they are unlikely to be damaged any further.
I think Thoreau would be horrified if he saw some of the ski areas, but what can you do? Wachusett is 25 percent ski area, but the rest of the mountain is pretty well protected.
Q: Do you think people making these hikes will feel closer to Thoreau after doing them?
A: I would hope so, but that will be up to each person. You can use the books simply as a guide to retracing his routes and see what he saw, which in many cases is not radically changed. Some can use it at a deeper level. The book is full of his observations on the world and certainly can be an entry to going back to reading those observations, particularly in the journals, which are rich with his comments on everyday life.
He provides an opportunity to slow down and perhaps think more deeply, of what making commitments to leading a life that does less damage to the environment and as much as possible walking lightly on the earth.
Tom Atwell is a freelance writer living in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at: