I was amazed when I first learned you can go swimming at Walden Pond. I mean, really, why not, just because someone lived in a little shed and wrote books there, but after hearing about it all my life it seemed too historically significant to be open to the public for recreational purposes. You may have read E.B. White's funny essay talking (as I remember it) about the clash between modern-day Walden, with its beaches and changing rooms and ice cream wrappers, and the place on which Thoreau ruminated so famously. It's like that.
Anyway, we are very fond of it. It's not too far from Boston, about a 30 minute drive, and while the beaches do get crowded on a hot day, there's always plenty of room in the water. I like to choose a really good book to bring when we go there. It feels like that kind of place, where you want something excellent to read, like a wood-paneled reading room at a public library, but outdoors.
There are two main beaches along the shore of the pond. The one by the bathhouse has a lifeguard and a roped-off swimming area; this is the domain of the very little children. Farther along the path, to the right, is the more risque "unprotected swim" beach. (When I say "beach" I mean "stretch of gritty, hard-packed dirt with lots of stones that get in your shoes.") This is where we choose to lay our towels.
On this particular visit, we sat next to a group of a type that has already become familiar to us in the Boston area - the time-warp 40-something hippies. They wore batik tunics and loose lavendar linen trousers; one of them carried a tiny, tiny baby in a cloth sling against her stomach. Also in the group was a little girl named Miriam, around 3 years old, who wore an almost-transparent white leotard as her bathing suit (which became completely transparent once she got in the water).
This outing turned out to be in celebration of her half-birthday, and the adults made a big fuss about how "all her friends" were there in her honor, though we thought it was a tad pitiful that all her friends were over 40. Not much fun for little Miriam. She was a good sport though - she didn't seem in the least disappointed to be blowing out a candle stuck in the middle of a bowl of fruit salad, and was not puzzled when the grown-ups chose to sing "Happy Birthday" to the tune of "Jump Down Spin Around Pick a Bale of Cotton." I wonder if the hippies knew they were singing an old slave song. After that they sang it again, but in Hebrew.
If you want to escape the fruit salad crowd and you have a bit of luck, you may be able to claim one of the private stone-step landings that lead down into the water, scattered at points around the pond.
People paddle around next to the steps, or else drape clothes and towels across them to stake ownership while they launch out into the depths. Sometimes you'll see a lone person perched on them, dangling toes in the water, reading a book, or smoking a cigarette, or both.
The cabin that Thoreau lived in (and built) is no longer standing, but there's a replica across the road. It's quite small.
Inside are a writing desk, a chair, an iron stove, a bed with a stern gray-wool blanket.
The actual site of the cabin is about half-way around the pond from the bathhouse, near where the train now passes by. It's marked by a large heap of stones placed there in memorial by visitors over the years. The true footprint of the house was uncovered years after this tradition began; its outline and the location of Thoreau's hearth are marked out several yards away from the cairn.
Do these ducks give a damn who did or didn't use to live at Walden Pond?
I think not.