A trip out to the woods: Despite Thoreau’s plan, living deliberately not always that simple

Voices of the Clarion

Posted: Sunday, April 15, 2007

A century and a half ago, Henry David Thoreau went to the woods “to live deliberately.” His goal was to live simply and see what he could learn from the experience.

A month and a half from now, I will be heading into the woods for what is becoming the most complex expedition I’ve ever planned -- and I’m hoping I’ll grow from the experience.

My journey will start with our annual Memorial Day paddle on the Swanson River. Sounds simple enough, but there’s a critical mass of participants -- the number that can fit in my minivan -- which, once exceeded, exponentially complicates logistics, especially when the put-in spot and the pull-out are separated by 70 road miles. My parents, who live near Boston, will be joining us this year, so I’ll be factoring in one more canoe and two more of everything else. Thoreau had it easy -- he was planning just for himself.

Following our paddle, we’ll be heading north to Denali National Park, collecting two uncles from California along the way.

Thoreau’s little cabin in the woods was not in the heart of some great wilderness, but rather just a couple miles outside Concord and just down the road from the house of his buddy, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Still, Thoreau carried his provisions, as well as the building materials for his modest home, in to the site on his back.

For my trip to the woods, I will be coordinating the arrivals and departures of multiple flights into and out of Anchorage. We will try to do as much of the food preparation as possible ahead of time -- getting the complex stuff out of the way so everything will be simpler once we arrive. Planning and packing six day’s worth of meals for 10 people -- not simple.

Our shelter in the woods will be much less modest than I anticipated. Growing up, my parents preached that camping is something best done in a tent. All camp cooking is best done over a campfire. Shortly after my brother was born, my family moved out of a large, canvas tent and into a pop-up trailer for our frequent trips to the woods. As I recall, my mother wanted something in which she could stand without stooping while tending to four small children. Though it qualified as a recreational vehicle, our pop-up was utilized more as a platform tent on wheels. The packaging never came off the built-in propane stove, and if the trailer had a furnace, we never knew about it. When we were a little older, we switched back to tents, though I recently have learned the change had as much to do with the marital strain being caused by the process of backing the trailer up a long, steep driveway as it did with a desire to simplify.

We relied on sleeping bags, long johns, knit hats and my father’s theory of thermal inertia to stay warm. (By the way, when a park ranger strolled by as we were breaking up the ice in the water jug and mentioned how cold it actually had been the previous night, “thermal inertia” was reduced from scientific theory to the punchline of many a family joke.)

Needless to say, I was a bit taken aback when my parents announced they had rented a 29-foot RV for the trip, complete with microwave, shower and outlets for a hair dryer. What would Thoreau say?

Camping in an RV might not qualify as fronting “only the essential facts of life,” but if it serves as the impetus for re-examining the reasons we have for getting back to nature, then it serves a good purpose. One can, I hope, still “suck out all the marrow of life” by at least shutting off the generator and refusing to use the microwave while in the woods.

In his conclusion to “Walden,” Thoreau says he learned at least one thing from the two years he spent living in the woods: “that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”

I continue to go to the woods -- logistical nightmares and all -- not to get away, but to bring some of it back with me. What I find there is myself, unfettered by alarm clocks and snooze buttons, schedules, chores and work. What I hope to return with is simple: a renewed sense of those essential facts of life and the insight to “give a true account of it.”

Oh, and I hope we see some bears, too. That would be cool.

Will Morrow is a reporter for the Clarion. He can be reached at will.morrow@peninsulaclarion.com.

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