Walking with Thoreau: A Review Essay

by David Rompf

The longest single walkable distance on Earth is a little more than fourteen thousand miles, between Cape Town, South Africa, and the Russian port city of Magadan on the Sea of Okhotsk. Google Maps has confirmed this pedestrian possibility. It is not an officially recognized path like, for example, the Trans Canada Trail, a network of pathways that twist and turn across ten provinces and three territories, but rather an intercontinental route that can be traversed without the help of a car, train, or boat. If you walked eight hours a day, the trip could be completed in five hundred days. Near the halfway point, you could eat one of your knapsack lunches at the Great Pyramid of Giza; after the triumphant last step, you might write a book about your adventure. Why did you take that walk? Was it a spiritual pilgrimage? Did you do it for the sheer physical challenge, for a deep and thrilling sense of accomplishment? For the anticipation of discovering something new about the world, about yourself?

If those fourteen thousand miles were lined with bookshelves, a good number might be stocked with the many existing volumes related, in one way or another, to walking and walkers—narratives that meanderingly explore nature, the soul, philosophy, religion, history, love, mystery, addiction, grief, joy, aches and pains, vexing and dangerous interferences, and countless other dimensions of human experience. Books about walking published in the past two decades alone are plentiful. Rebecca Solnit threw her ample intellectual net around the history of walking in Wanderlust, a robust guide to the evolutionary, philosophical, literary, religious, and political underpinnings of her subject (which, as she points out, is one that is always straying). In the aftermath of a breakup, Olivia Laing packed her oatcakes and cheese for an excursion on foot along the Ouse River, where Virginia Woolf, stones in her pockets, drowned herself. Lucky for us, Laing doesn’t follow suit, instead delivering alluring and crystalline prose in To The River. Robert Macfarlane follows ancient paths in The Old Ways, which, he stresses in a note, could not have been written standing still. In Flâneuse, Lauren Elkin charts the course of famous literary and artistic women walking the streets of Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London, while Edmund White, in The Flaneur, ambles exclusively through the City of Lights. Speaking of straying, I would be remiss not to mention Wild, Cheryl Strayed’s memoir of trekking the Pacific Crest Trail alone, more than one thousand miles from the Mojave Desert to Washington; it may be the only New York Times bestseller and Oprah’s Book Club pick with a long, hard hike as its narrative spine. The list goes on, including books on the lost art of walking, the philosophy of walking, the science and literature of pedestrianism, walking through biblical lands, across deserts high and low, walking—improbably enough—around the notoriously unwalkable Los Angeles.

In Six Walks: In the Footsteps of Henry David Thoreau, Ben Shattuck embarks on his own version of this walking-and-writing tradition—which, if not a genuine “tradition,” has been a recurring obsession among an illustrious roster of writers and thinkers going back to the peripatetic philosophers. With that well-beaten track behind him, Shattuck walks with hefty literary baggage on his shoulders, not to mention the personal baggage he seeks to lighten. As if walking and writing aren’t hard enough, his particular walks demand emotional fortitude for mining past pain and present vulnerabilities, and also require a certain literary gumption, owing to their weighty associations with Thoreau—his extensive journals, his essays about walking, Walden, Civil Disobedience, and books about his expeditions to Cape Cod and the Maine woods. Shattuck, by implication, mingles with all the pilgrims who ever lived, all the nature writers and self-seeking walkers who have ventured out with purposes big and small.

What is Shattuck’s purpose? In the first few pages of Six Walks, we learn that he first came up with the idea to follow one of Thoreau’s walks when he was haunted by dreams of an ex-girlfriend. “This was years ago, in my early thirties,” he writes, “when I couldn’t find a way out of the doubt, fear, shame, and sadness that had arranged a constellation of grief around me.”  Walking, then, is a way of throwing off that burden. While showering at dawn, Shattuck envisions a young, bearded man standing on a beach, “wind whipping his coattails, the ocean pounding in front of him.” Unlike the author, that man is happy. In his mind’s eye, Shattuck also observes him writing in a journal and wading through dune grass. The fellow glimpsed through the mists of shower and imagination is Henry David Thoreau. Shattuck, while living on the southern coast of Massachusetts, has been reading Cape Cod every night for a week when, suddenly, impulse and inspiration take hold. He puts on a bathing suit and sweater, downs a cup of coffee, fills a backpack with bread, cheese, apples, and carrots, and sets out for the Cape by foot. “I would walk the outer beaches, from the elbow to Provincetown’s fingertips,” he writes, “as Henry had done.”

Thus begins Shattuck’s journey: not just with a footstep but also with the decision to refer to Thoreau as Henry throughout these chronicles. The choice seems, at first, unusual, and it takes some getting used to. “Henry” is quaint, and perhaps a bit precious, but as we travel along with Shattuck this first-name basis humanizes the literary giant, yanks him down from the pantheon to the fertile, buggy earth he once trod, reminding us that he was a man who drank from the pond he bathed in. “Henry,” on the page, also has the inexplicable effect of suggesting that Shattuck might find what he’s looking for on these six walks, discoveries that could soothe and surprise the twenty-first-century acolyte—and maybe the reader, too. Henry is like a sage old friend who, though long gone in body, still walks among us as a companion.

Shattuck’s initial three walks, in Part One of the book, take us to Cape Cod, Mount Katahdin in Maine, and Wachusett Mountain in Massachusetts. Before setting out for the Cape, he puts a notebook in his backpack, “not because I ever journaled or made sketches, but because Henry had, and I wanted to try someone’s habits for a few days.” Part Two spans new geographical and emotional terrain, with a sixteen-mile pilgrimage from the author’s childhood home on a saltwater river to a peninsula isolated by the sea in Sakonnet, Rhode Island, where his great-great-great-grandparents summered away from their home in Chicago. This is Shattuck’s version of the southwest walk that Thoreau discusses in his famous essay “Walking.” The Sakonnet outing is followed by a journey to The Allagash in Maine, and the final walk is a do-over to Cape Cod, this time accompanied by his fiancée, whom he refers to only as “Jenny” but who is identifiable as Jenny Slate, the actress, author, and former cast member of Saturday Night Live. Both parts include off-trail interludes that allow Shattuck to wander without walking and to provide the backstory behind his quest for self-understanding. In the first of these, he visits a hypnotist in an effort to halt the nightmares that end up propelling him to take these walks. In the second, he visits Walden Pond.

Six Walks contains no map of Shattuck’s—or Thoreau’s—travels, as one might expect. Unfamiliar with much of the terrain, I began to toggle between the book and Google Maps in a mostly futile effort to visualize Shattuck’s routes. I soon gave up this disjointed exercise when I realized that the omission of maps—like calling Thoreau “Henry”—was probably a deliberate choice. After all, this book isn’t really about tracing the land journeys. It isn’t a guide for planning your own walks in the footsteps of Henry David Thoreau. The itinerary here is a circuitous one to Shattuck’s interior, a compass of the soul. Eschewing maps, I was happy to find, in these pages, some of the simple but exquisite black-and-white drawings that Shattuck, an artist and curator as well as a writer, made during his walks. Many, like “A Stone on the Beach,” “Light in the Grass,” and “Bullfrog on River Path,” reflect, even in their titles, a Zen aesthetic of understated elegance.

An intense yearning to get close to Henry is palpable at every turn. Shattuck’s goal on day one of his first Cape Cod walk is to visit the oysterman’s house in Wellfleet where Henry slept for a night. When he finds it, finally, with the help of a local couple, he peers through the windows. Our hearts sink even before Shattuck reveals his own reaction, because by now we recognize the tenacious grip of his sadness. “I felt no connection, no insight, no sudden power,” he writes. Henry’s spirit is nowhere to be found. Continuing on his walk toward Provincetown, Shattuck picks up a wedge of red clay that has tumbled down to the beach from the cliffs of Truro. It’s as big as a slice of wedding cake, he tells us, and he gives in to the urge to take a bite. “The chunk dissolved, milk-chocolate like, when I massaged it with my tongue into the roof of my mouth.” Denied even a morsel of fulfillment at the oysterman’s digs, he can, as consolation, consume a helping of earth once touched by Henry. It is a poignant moment that shows the depth of Shattuck’s hunger.

The hankering for Henry—as an ideal, a symbol, a literary mirror—recurs. After Shattuck is swarmed by blackflies in Maine, he quotes Thoreau’s Maine Woods: “I now first began to be seriously molested by the blackfly!” Shattuck applies DEET while Henry dabs on his own compound of turpentine, spearmint, and camphor oil. Shattuck is awakened by loons singing to each other, a sound he exquisitely describes as being “like a flute somehow played underwater”; Henry, too, hears the voice of the loon in the middle of the night. Shattuck sees a rainbow and we are offered a rainbow from Henry’s journal. In less talented hands, this one-to-one correspondence might come off as gimmicky: a writer dipping into Thoreau to pluck out tidbits of look-alike experience. Here the symmetry seems natural, organic even—there’s no pretense of seeing himself in Thoreau, or Henry in himself.

In the Walden Pond interlude, Shattuck’s pursuit of Henry and all that his walks stood for—happiness, freedom, truth of the soul, a return to childhood—takes a brief, engrossing detour into the realm of paradox. He enters the replica of Thoreau’s cabin and sits in the replica rocking chair next to the replica woodstove. Soon a tourist walks in with her young son. “Oh, look, there he is,” she says to the boy. “Ask him a question.” Shattuck, too, has become a replica, a realization that seems to stun him. “No,” he says to them. What have they encroached on—an image of Henry? A communion with Thoreau on sacred ground? He abruptly gets up and leaves. Reflecting on this discomfiting interaction, Shattuck speculates that “maybe my leaving was in character.” He means Thoreau’s character, of course, and specifically his overblown reputation as a recluse who shunned society. But maybe his leaving also revealed a sharp sliver of Shattuck’s own character, or a hybrid of his and Henry’s. Though he balks at the idea of playing along with the mistaken identity—that of reenactor—his walks are essentially, and self-admittedly, reenactments, for that is what it means, in part, to follow in someone else’s footsteps.

Is Shattuck questioning his mission, recognizing a certain futility in the walks? His self-doubt prompts an ongoing interrogation of his very being, which is what makes this book so relatable and compelling. It is not the trudges along the New England seaboard or up a mountain, but rather Shattuck’s probing odyssey, however it might unfold, into despair and his search for a way out that grips us as readers. A wise cliché tells us that it is the journey, not the destination, that counts. Shattuck’s particular journey—inward and outward—avoids self-absorption. As the French philosopher Frédéric Gros argued in A Philosophy of Walking, “By walking, you escape from the very idea of identity, the temptation to be someone, to have a name and a history.” Perhaps this explains the unnerving brush at Walden Pond. Shattuck bristles at being ascribed an identity—Thoreau in the boy’s mind, a reenactor for the mother. The attempt at shedding his identity, if just for a few days, is under threat. The tiny cabin and its trespassers are too close for comfort.

On his walk to Wachusett Mountain, Shattuck takes MDMA, which is in the last stages of clinical trials for the treatment of PTSD. “I’d wanted to feel some of the transcendence in nature that Henry felt,” he writes, “and which I hadn’t really yet experienced in the walking, and thought the pills might help.” Shattuck goes on to describe Henry’s own drug experience when he was thirty-four, citing an entry in Thoreau’s journal documenting the effects:

By taking the ether the other day I was convinced how far asunder a man could be separated from his senses. You expand like a seed in the ground. You exist in your roots, like a tree in the winter. If you have an inclination to travel, take the ether: you go beyond the further star.

Thoreau, however, didn’t get high on ether as a means of enhancing his walks or achieving transcendence; his dentist administered it—once—before extracting some bad teeth. In his account of ascending Wachusett Mountain, Shattuck intersperses several Thoreau quotations describing the same walk, allowing the reader to mistakenly infer that Henry, too, was under the influence at the time. But Thoreau’s three-day walk to the mountain summit occurred in 1842 and his essay, “A Walk to Wachusett,” was published in The Boston Miscellany in January 1843; his dentist gave him ether in 1851. A clarification could have cleared up the confusion and, in turn, spotlighted a more salient, ironic link between the author and Henry: both have taken a drug in order to suppress an ache, and to make an experience more pleasant.

Throughout Six Walks, and especially in Part One, Shattuck’s anguish seems stubbornly intractable. While a drug might offer only a temporary transcendence, it’s easy to sympathize with Shattuck’s desire for relief. We feel for him when he asks himself whether Henry, whose brother John died six months before Thoreau’s Wachusett walk, was “doing the same thing I was doing? Walking to husk the dead skin of grief? Looking up to feel the comfort of one’s own smallness in the world, to displace bulging selfhood, under the shadow of such urgent beauty as the night sky?”

Ten years pass before Shattuck begins the walks and the writing of Part Two, and a lot has happened in that time. His anxiety and distress have subsided. He gets engaged to Jenny. He no longer feels the urgency to leave home. Reading Thoreau, however, has been a constant, and in this new era of love, maturity, and greater perspective, he still feels the impulse to replicate some of Henry’s journeys. If there’s one thing he’s learned from reading Thoreau’s journals, “It’s that stepping out your front door gives you an offering in all seasons and moods. Something would come from continuing to follow him.”

In the first summer of the pandemic, Shattuck heads on foot from the house where he grew up to an ancestral home in Rhode Island, a route marked by reminders of his childhood: “Past the pond where I used to go duck hunting with my dad. Past the bushes of wild hazelnuts my mom and I picked when I was boy—the memory of which so quietly imprinted itself in my mind that I had forgotten we’d done that until I walked past them one day, saw their frilled encasings dropping by the footpath, and thought of my mom.” And then: “To the beach where my grandmother, mother, and I all played as kids in our own times, the beach surrounding the farmland my great-grandfather bought in the early 1900s. The outgoing tide had left a trim of folded particulate—seaweed and flecks of stone—that looked like a line of drawing of distant mountains.” In the fuguelike passages of this “Southwest” walk, Shattuck hits a Proustian stride. The prose is lilting and graceful here in a book of already lush prose.

Thoreau, in his seminal essay, “Walking”—published in the Atlantic Monthly a few weeks after his death in 1862—declared that when he left his house for a walk, he inevitably headed southwest, “toward some particular wood or meadow or deserted pasture or hill in that direction. [ … ] The future lies that way to me, and the earth seems more unexhausted and richer on that side.” In Part Two, one key to Shattuck’s future is found not by heading southwest but by recounting the uncomplicated pleasures of his youth. Therein lies one of the most striking affinities with Henry and his walks—a craving for an infinity of childhood freedom. While Thoreau’s obsessive, hours-long walks and his essays on the subject are often automatically associated with Nature—with all that the word has come to signify: ecological awareness, preservation, a romantic return to the pastoral, and “nature writing,” to name a few—or with a supposed rejection of society, the expression of his true purpose in sauntering can be found in his journal entry of July 21, 1851, three years after abandoning his Walden Pond cabin and eleven years before succumbing to tuberculosis. That long, rhapsodic entry, shortened here, can be read as a manifesto for Shattuck:

Now I yearn for one of those old, meandering, dry, uninhabited roads, which lead away from towns, which lead us away from temptation, which conduct to the outside of earth, over its uppermost crust, where you may forget in what country you are travelling; where no farmer can complain that you are treading down his grass [ … ] along which you may travel like a pilgrim, going nowhither; where travellers are not too often to be met; where my spirit is free; where the walls and fences are not cared for; where your head is more in heaven than your feet are on earth [ … ] where travellers have no occasion to stop, but pass along and leave you to your thoughts; where it makes no odds which way you face, whether you are going or coming, whether it is morning or evening, mid-noon or midnight [ … ] where you can walk and think with the least obstruction, there being nothing to measure progress by; where you can pace when your breast is full, and cherish your moodiness [ … ] by which you may go to the uttermost parts of the earth. [ … ] There I can walk and stalk and pace and plod. [ … ] That’s a road I can travel [ … ] There I can walk, and recover the lost child that I am without any ringing of a bell [ … ] There I have freedom in my thought, and in my soul am free.

On his last walk—his second to the Cape—Shattuck and his fiancée, Jenny, stay in an old shack in Provincetown. Fitted out with a hand pump for water, an outhouse, and lanterns, the shelter seems more like Thoreau’s original cabin than its replica at Walden Pond. Shattuck doesn’t make this explicit comparison; he doesn’t need to. His masterful approach to past and present evokes a place that no longer exists and the profound satisfaction he takes in the night’s ramshackle accommodations. No reenactments required. In speaking with someone he loves, Shattuck has found the real thing. “I didn’t want to walk anymore,” he writes. “I didn’t want to sleep in a stranger’s house. I didn’t want to wake up before dawn to hike up Mount Katahdin or take MDMA under a chairlift or empty my breath and be pressed by the weight of Walden Pond.” Transcendence, then, is felt when it’s least expected—when we aren’t looking for it or following someone else’s lead.

The epigraph for Six Walks is a definition: “Footstep (‘fóot, step): A step taken by a person in walking, especially as heard by another.” In these pages we hear an echo across time, terrain, and imagination: Thoreau rustling in the distance as Shattuck moves forward with his life. You might read this book because you’re a fan of Thoreau, or because you’re an ardent walker and nature-lover. Or you might just read it to wander in the generous presence of Shattuck. You might cross the finish line, as I did, thinking of him as Ben.

Published on June 30, 2022