Skip to main content
Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Under the Stars

How America Fell in Love with Camping

Dan White

St. Martin's Griffin



Help Me, Henry


How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book?

—Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Everyone has an overwhelming influence at a tender age. One person or entity rules over them. For some unfortunates, it’s Ayn Rand. For others, it’s Paulo Coelho, Viktor Frankl, Judas Priest, or Neil Peart, the drummer and lyricist from the rock band Rush. Henry David Thoreau is an influence that must overcome you when you’re young or not at all. Otherwise he cannot infect you. You’ll develop immunity. If you pick it up when you’re too old, his most famous book, Walden, tastes funny: a treacle pie with too much vinegar. The odd flavor makes sense, considering Thoreau was young, heartbroken, drifty, and confused when he set out to have the experiences that informed the book. That is one reason Walden remains a classic for literary-minded campers, with special appeal to youthful wilderness explorers and aspirants to the simple life. Thoreau speaks to people like my younger self: lumpy, shiftless, bumbling, insecure, unsettled, unfulfilled, and out of step with the times. In proclaiming the woods a refuge, Thoreau, in an offbeat and prickly way, helped generations of nervous Americans fall in love with camping.

In his combative and seductive writings, Thoreau gave Americans their first coherent and persuasive conservation philosophy. But it took a while for the book and its notions to take hold. Walden, published in 1854, sold briskly during its first month, but interest soon fell off. For the next fifteen years, it sold an average of three hundred copies annually. Then it got into the hands of long-haired wilderness prophet John Muir, who used it as a template for his rhapsodic and angry writings about woodlands, meadows, and mountains and the need to preserve them from lumber interests and livestock. Robert Frost, another great champion of the book, observed in 1915 that Walden “must have a good deal to do with the making of me.” The book began its upward tilt in the early twentieth century, when its ecological message caught on. Much has changed since the days when Thoreau looked out from his cabin at a nation that measured woods “in terms of board feet, not in terms of watershed protection, birds and music,” Justice William O. Douglas of the U.S. Supreme Court once remarked. Walden, with its warnings, tart observations, and detailed instructions for renewal in the wilderness, helped bring about the change.

The book was radical in its time. Even now it is divisive. It was meant to be. Thoreau sometimes acted like a Puritan, a judgmental prig, and a scold—no booze, no fornication—with annoying temperance rants and occasional salvos at his readers. “It is very evident what mean and skulking lives many of you live,” he wrote in Walden. Yet he ridiculed Puritan ideas about everything, from the importance of daily toil for its own sake to the wickedness of the woods. I see him as a turncoat, old before his time but rebelling against old ways. An agitator and mischief maker, Thoreau had no use for the busybody neighbors who considered him a gadfly and a lazybones. If he acted like a geriatric sourpuss from time to time, we can give him a bit of license, because Thoreau was the nineteenth-century equivalent of the Raging Grannies.

When Thoreau was a young man, taking his first camping and boating trips, his countrymen were still breaking away from the influence of America’s Calvinist founders. In 1662 the Puritan poet Michael Wigglesworth wrote that forests were places of “fiends, and brutish men / That devils worshipped.” In Puritan speeches and poems, the woods were always “howling,” “whooping,” “roaring,” “screaming,” “singing,” “ranting,” and “insulting.” In a cheeky riposte, Thoreau remarked in 1857 that “generally speaking a howling wilderness does not howl; it is the imagination of the traveler that does the howling.” By making natural areas seem like places of renewal instead of madness and demons, Thoreau brought America just a little bit closer to today’s world of dome tents, grill racks, and self-inflating sleeping pads.

He was a fine backwoodsman and camper, although he did some silly things in the outdoors from time to time. In one campout, he and his brother, perhaps because of bad planning, were forced to eat cocoa and bread for supper after a long day’s rowing. In a journey to Maine, he and his campmates set up their tent so close to the fire that it burned to a crisp, forcing them to shelter from the rain beneath their upturned bateau. But Thoreau’s appreciative readers value him not so much for his backcountry prowess as for his powers of observation and description. His writing is ecstatic and specific, larded with insight and biting humor, grounded in details about the natural world and his interior landscape. His antimaterialistic and antimodernist passages and promises of moral perfection in the wilderness challenge his readers to disrupt their lives by taking a journey into the trees. Venturing alone in the wild, a wanderer might discover in the first rays of the “morning star” that he or she has the same nobility as pilgrims from the heroic ages.

There lies the promise and the inherent danger of Thoreau’s writing. Deep in the forest, we might “settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion and prejudice and tradition and delusion … till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we call reality.” Thoreau tells us that a retreat to the wilderness is no retreat at all; nor is it an interruption. No, it is the life outside the woods, the toil and the compromise that intrude. Days and nights among the trees is not time off the books. It is not a subtraction from the days of life but an addition to them. Such advice intoxicates us, but Thoreau’s words can be fatal if we take them too far without sufficient preparation; he tells us to go out and do it for ourselves, but sometimes nature does not abide. Nature is freedom and sunshine. Nature is also bears, yellow jackets, rockfall, and vertical exposure. Nature wins. In promising freedom and deliverance in wild places, Thoreau sent more than a few copycats to their doom, and has put many more in perilous situations. You can do it too, Thoreau seems to tell us, but sometimes the answer is No, I can’t. Here I speak from grim experience. On more than one occasion, Walden, that beloved, accursed book, nearly cost me my life.

My Walden-provoked near-death incidents in the woods are legion—near drownings, tumblings, dehydration, you name it—but the most recent and frightening example took place in one of the worst areas for a man to get lost in the United States: the jungles of eastern Kentucky. I headed out there for the same reason I ever go to the wilderness: because Henry told me that “village life” would make me “stagnate” unless I enjoyed the “tonic” and “compensation” of mists and marshes, pinewoods, high grass, toads, and hickories, the “living and decaying trees, the thunder cloud and the rain” as often as possible.

Before this camping trip took a turn toward the nightmarish, the journey was lovely and elemental.

I was camped alone on the first night with my battered copy of Walden beneath some old-growth hemlocks and white oaks in southeastern Kentucky. I was settling into my sleeping spot, nipping from an eighth of frontier whiskey, listening to the night birds of the western Appalachians, close-reading passages at random, and eating cold pumpkin curry straight from the foil pouch. What more could a man ask of his life? My finger settled on a sentence I hoped would inspire me, but it turned out to be a ridiculous tirade about liquor. “I believe that water is the only drink for a wise man. Wine is not so noble a liquor; and think of dashing the hopes of a morning with a cup of warm coffee, or of an evening with a dish of tea!” “Oh, shut up, Henry! Why don’t you lighten up?”

Platforms of wrinkled limestone rose above the trees. The nightjars asked the same question all night long: “Whip or wheel? Whip or wheel?” I was having a fine time out there, and my ego was getting the better of me because I was doing a freelance travel writing assignment, involving a hike and overnight campout along a new forty-two-mile section of the Pine Mountain State Scenic Trail. When it’s finished, the PMT will be part of a sixteen-hundred-mile-long pathway called the Great Eastern Trail, connecting Alabama with New York. I could hardly believe that someone was paying me to go camping. The thought of this made me more self-confident than I had any reason to be. Somehow I’d disregarded the ominous nickname of the Kentucky backwoods: the Dark and Bloody Ground.

The next day, I packed my scant belongings and headed deeper into the forest to hike the trail through a land of rhododendron tunnels, gorges, and rose pogonia. I’d heard the pathway was well marked with square-shaped blue and yellow blazes on the trees. I thought my seven-dollar drugstore compass, the vague map I’d printed from the Internet, and my one-gallon plastic water jug would get me through.

I followed a narrow path downhill over crispy leaves, past green and lichen-encrusted brown rocks. This land of ancient rock slides, mansion-size boulders, and vertical drops had a dreamlike quality that made it hard to believe I was there. Below me, I saw a natural bridge called Eagle Arch Rock. Framed in the clearing, it looked like a levitating boulder. Blobs of berry-speckled bear scat gummed my boots. “This is your life now,” I said as I sucked in my gut and lifted my backpack to press my body through a cleft in a boulder.

My unwarranted self-possession made me careless. After a good while of sauntering, and staring dreamily, into the green, I failed to notice the path and the blue and yellow blazes on the trees were nowhere in sight. Less than two hours after leaving camp, I was lost. I spun around, looking for any signifier that would take me back to the trail. I found none. Now I remembered that even Daniel Boone, one of the most accomplished woodsmen in America, found these Kentucky backwoods confounding. “No, I can’t say I was ever lost,” the elderly Boone reportedly told the portrait painter Chester Harding in 1820. “But I was bewildered once for three days.”

I could not afford to be turned around for half a week like Boone. The day was quite warm, I was sweating profusely, and I had been profligate about my water gulping. Now I had barely enough water to last until afternoon. For another hour, I walked aimlessly, hoping for a miracle reunion with the trail, my hiking boots making burp sounds on the boggy ground. I marched into the bushes, interrupting a pair of amorous toads. A flock of eastern wild turkey crashed through the underbrush, heads bobbing. They looked like upright vultures. Their brains are two thirds bigger than those of domestic “factory” turkeys. As I was finding out for myself, the unwilding process fosters stupidity.

I was starting to panic now, walking in loop-the-loops on boggy ground. The water ticked beneath my feet. Boulders walled me off on one side. On the other side, a ridge plunged into darkness. Far away, the Cumberland Plateau rose out of the mist. Magnolias, maples, and basswoods formed a green barrier. A garter snake flicked its tongue. I tore through some nettles, tripped over pebbles, and found myself on what appeared to be an old abandoned buggy road along a slippery alcove of rocks and hard-packed dirt. The ten-foot-wide path traveled along a ledge above an expanse of black mud with streams branching across it. Between the cliff and path, murky water formed a natural moat. The fear hit me then: You are in the Kentucky backwoods, you’ve got no GPS, you didn’t bring a good map because there were supposed to be blazes, and now you’re nowhere.

I ran back and forth on the buggy trail, but I was rushing toward nothing, my old and scratched-up Pacific Crest Trail backpack clunking against me. For the next few hours, I kept on walking in mad circles. Why the hell did I bring Walden instead of some end-of-days man-versus-nature tactical survival book? “Help me, Henry,” I thought to myself. “Please. You were the one who brought me out here. I’m in a tight spot. Do something.”

In the past, I made bad mistakes when panic set in. I vowed not to do that again. Sitting on that eastern Kentucky rock, I took out the copy of Walden just to have the weight of it in my hand. I felt an odd mixture of appreciation and resentment. Because of that book, I’ve had more raptures and catastrophes than I can count; I took it with me on a dozen trips. Now it didn’t have a front cover anymore. As I flipped through the pages, I hoped that Henry would tell me something, anything, that would help me get me the hell out of there.

That copy of Walden came into my possession under strange circumstances, during the summer after my college graduation. A few of us stragglers were holding on to our undergraduate lives. I had been squatting at Alpha Delta Phi, my eccentric coed frat house in Middletown, Connecticut, dodging phone bills, filching beers from the communal refrigerator, and pining for my only girlfriend ever. We met at a writing class, where we bonded over our love for Edward Hoagland essays and Willa Cather novels. Now she was moving to Seattle to find herself without me. When I walked out of the frat and showed up at a house party near the other side of campus, I was hopped up on self-pity. “The house is red-tagged anyway,” the host told me. “Unfit for human occupancy. They’re tearing it down.” He accepted my cold six-pack and handed me a hammer. “Go crazy,” he said. Every room was a scene of destruction. Scared and jobless college kids attacked the house with broomsticks and bats, overturning a cabinet, kicking doors until they splintered on their hinges. The house shook with impact tremors. After some hesitation, I stood on a sofa, jumped up, and knocked a hole in the ceiling. Flakes of plaster settled on my eyelashes.

The next day, without knowing why, I showed up dry-mouthed and hungover at the condemned house, which had a crawl space I hadn’t noticed before. Without a flashlight, I slipped into the opening under the floorboards and crawled in the dark until my head banged into a box of books. I dragged it into the light. Someone had written TO BE DISCARDED on the cardboard in red permanent marker. I stuffed the box in the trunk of my Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme and drove to the Alpha Delta Phi house. What a trove that box turned out to be: lots of Graham Greene, some J. P. Donleavy novels, a luridly illustrated leather-bound book on spell casting and Satanism that I cherish to this day, and a mint-condition first printing of E. B. White’s The Points of My Compass, which I read in one gulp.

Every essay in the White book is compelling, but the one that really got to me was “A Slight Sound at Evening,” which called my attention to the glories of Thoreau and Walden. I’d heard of the latter book, of course, but had avoided it, assuming it was a political screed or survival-in-the-woods polemic. But White cast Walden as “the best youth’s companion yet written in America,” and said that the book was “like an invitation to life’s dance, assuring the troubled recipient that no matter what befalls him in the way of success or failure he will always be welcome to the party—that the music is played for him, too, if he will but listen and move his feet.”

Alongside the White book was a copy of Walden itself, waterlogged, underlined, dog-eared, but readable. It was as if White himself were standing there making introductions. White made Walden seem like pure uplift, but for me, in my first explorations, the most catching part of the text was its implicit threat. If I did not live deliberately, if I did not “front only the essential facts of life,” and not see what it had to teach, at the end of my days I would “discover that I had not lived.” That was quite a lesson for an overprotected, mollycoddled, and risk-averse young man whose ruling principle was fear. The book nagged at me in my postcollegiate years. I disregarded its message, though it reminded me, at all turns, that my life lacked agency. I hadn’t seen or done anything worthwhile. “What is called resignation is confirmed desperation,” Thoreau said. I could avoid such a fate by consoling myself “with the bravery of minks and muskrats.” To front the essential facts, I could commune with the creatures of the forest, or at least commiserate with them. In shielding myself from direct experience, pleasurable or painful, I was half-alive. “No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof.” In this way, I could address the uncertainty of living: “Life! Who knows what it is and what it does?”

In his late twenties, Thoreau had little to show for his college degree. Maybe he felt guilty that his mom and dad had to scramble to pay the $179 yearly tuition for him to attend Harvard. He was a schoolteacher for a while, but he resigned after whipping his students for no apparent reason after his employers accused him of being too nice to them. His other occupations: surveyor, occasional lecturer, and part-time editor of a literary magazine with a puny circulation. It wasn’t that Thoreau lacked skills. He was a better swimmer, boater, walker, and runner than most anyone in his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts. He could shoot a snowball off a post. He was so handy that he built a serviceable boat, the Musketaquid, from scratch with his brother in a week. Its mast doubled as a tent pole. The two of them used it to explore the Concord and Merrimack Rivers in 1839. Thoreau was so dexterous he could reach into a pile of pencils at his dad’s business and come out with a perfect dozen every time. He once made a pair of gloves to cover the claws of chickens rampaging through the garden of his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson. Yet he had reason to feel like a washout.

Like my collegiate self until senior year, he was a loser in love. Sometimes he came across as owlish and aloof. He was, in the words of one acquaintance, Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Ugly as sin.… He is … long-nosed, queer-mouthed, and with uncouth and rustic, though courteous manners, corresponding very well with such an exterior.”

Thoreau had a cold fish reputation in Concord, but he fell hard and painfully for a minister’s daughter named Ellen Sewall. His brother John loved her, too, but neither one could win her over. She had some affection for Thoreau, but her father considered him a transcendentalist radical and would have none of it. How I’d love to find evidence that Thoreau flattened the burdock with some lovely young Lyceum Circuit groupie, but there is no evidence to suggest he was anything other than a lifelong virgin. After another romantic heartbreak, Thoreau wrote one of the saddest references to fruit in literary history: “Our life without love is … like the cocoanut in which the milk is dried up.”

Soon, the lovelorn Thoreau would have to contend with profound grief in addition to his romantic frustration. John, his older brother, best friend, and loyal camping partner, caught tetanus by nicking himself so slightly with a shaving razor that the wound barely bled. John contracted lockjaw. He passed away in Thoreau’s arms in 1842. Thoreau was so tormented that he developed symptoms that resembled lockjaw. For a while, his family was sure he was going to die next, but the spell broke. His agonies were psychosomatic. Like so many wilderness wayfarers Thoreau has inspired since then, he looked to the woods for healing. But poor Thoreau soon had reason to doubt his prowess as a woodsman.

In April 1844, when he was out on a camping trip with his friend Edward Sherman Hoar, the two of them decided to cook up a fish stew in a rotting stump in a patch of woods between Concord and Fairhaven Bay. The friends failed to notice the dry and brittle ground all around them. This was a colossally stupid move. Thoreau recalled, “That way went the flames with wild delight, and we felt that we had no control over the demonic creature to which we had given birth.” Because of this ugly incident, which destroyed three hundred acres of forest, the townspeople of Concord gave this friendly but awkward young man a nasty nickname: Woodsburner. They also called him a “damned rascal” and, worst of all, a “flibbertigibbet.” Thoreau, in a bizarre journal entry, later described himself watching the fire with a certain amount of excitement and admiration. This was not a very auspicious beginning for the father of modern environmentalism.

His writing about the incident emphasized the spectacle of the fire. Is it possible that this strange display of enthusiasm belied a secret guilt about the accident that drove him closer to Walden? If so, it pushed him toward a destiny that became inevitable for him after he read Nature, Emerson’s ode to the wild, written in 1836. That elegant and beautiful book-length essay did more than just start transcendentalism. It presented the woods as a house of worship without walls and a place where boyhood never ends.

“In good health, the air is a cordial of incredible virtue,” Emerson wrote.

Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear. In the woods too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life, is always a child. In the woods, is perpetual youth.… In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life,—no disgrace, no calamity (leaving me my eyes), which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground,—my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.

Along with another Emerson essay, “Self-Reliance,” Nature created an instant blueprint for the experience Thoreau craved. All he needed was one more push toward the woods. This came on March 5, 1845, in the form of a letter from his friend Ellery Channing, urging him to begin the grand process of devouring himself alive. Thoreau needed a retreat to reduce his life to its elements. He wanted open time to write and pay tribute to his poor lost John and their times in the woods.

Walden Pond, in Concord, was not Thoreau’s first choice for a camping spot. If things had gone differently, his masterwork would have been written somewhere else, which meant the book might have been called Fairhaven Hill, or The Weird Dell. When a landholder named Flint refused Thoreau’s request to build a cabin near Sandy Pond, Thoreau was so enraged that he condemned the man to literary hell in Walden, where he called Flint “the unclean and stupid farmer … some skin-flint.” His choice of Walden Pond was, in part, a matter of convenience because Emerson owned undeveloped land there. Instead of a tent, Thoreau decided to camp out with something sturdier—a cabin, but a basic ten-by-fifteen-foot version, with walls to keep out the elements, but no rodent proofing (mice came and went) and no security; the doors had no locks.

If you’re out there camping with borrowed equipment or stuff you’ve scrounged from the Salvation Army—as I have done many times—take heart in the fact that Thoreau had to borrow his hatchet and make do with recycled shanty boards, “sappy” refuse shingles for roofing and siding, “second-hand windows with glass,” and a thousand recovered bricks. The cabin cost him $28.12 to make. The modern-day equivalent would be less than nine hundred dollars. Like today’s recreational campsites, his cozy shack on Emerson’s lakeside property was never meant to be permanent. It was a temporary life that he would have to leave one day so he could hit the lecture circuit, polish up his notes, and deliver his book to the world. This was camping as a public act that was meant to reverberate beyond the pond.

Walden espouses a form of living that seemed new to Thoreau’s contemporaries. But he was not the first to find pleasure, rejuvenation, and freedom by sleeping in the woods.

One early description of a sometimes-pleasurable campout comes from William Byrd II of Westover, a Virginia plantation owner, hobbyist-naturalist, and writer. In 1728, Byrd headed into the forest as part of a group of surveyors, survivalist types, and officials on a 242-mile adventure from the shores of the Atlantic into the heights of the Blue Ridge Mountains. He and his men were trying to fix the disputed boundary line of North Carolina and Virginia, which was in shambles. During their journey, Byrd and his comrades bloodied themselves on wild grape thorns, and fell face-first into piles of sucking mud. They were forced to build trenches around their camp as a rainstorm washed in. “Every thing was so thoroughly soaked,” Byrd complained.

In spite of the harsh terrain and wet weather, Byrd and his crew had fun out there sometimes. One day, he and his men arrived in a lovely open field, close to a planter friend’s “tolerable good house” with “clean furniture.” The planter offered the men lodging, “and yet we could not be tempted.” Byrd feared that sleeping inside would make his men grow “too tender.” He also liked the idea of camping for pleasure, not out of desperation. The idea of it sounded “so new, so sweet.” The evening was pure joy. “A clear sky, spangled with stars, was our canopy, which being the last thing we saw before we fell asleep, gave us magnificent dreams.”

If Byrd and Henry David Thoreau lived in the same historical period and in the same town, they would not have been friends. Byrd was a slave owner, a sexual libertine, and a creepy sadist who humiliated his servants. He was also a snob who could afford to have a romantic view of the land because he had other people toiling in the fields for him. But at least the two men had one thing in common: Byrd’s campout, like Thoreau’s stay at Walden Pond, was provocative, brash, and even shocking in its time. A North Carolina senator, staying at the planter’s house, stumbled into Byrd’s camp and was so amazed to see human beings sleeping on the ground by choice that he started jumping around and shouting. Later on, after apologizing for scaring the campers, the senator “swore he was so taken with our lodging, that he would set fire to his house as soon as he got home, and teach his wife and children to lie, like us, in the open field,” Byrd reported. In his writings about the camping trip, Byrd mocked the “Losers” who preferred “featherbeds and warm apartments” to slumbering outdoors.

Thoreau’s predecessors in the wild also included the mountain men, the scraggly group of long-haired rogues and adventurers who dominated the western frontier in the early nineteenth century, trapping beaver for pelts to feed the fur trade. Their days of glory lasted from the 1820s to the 1840s. Clad in deerskin shirts, and conditioned to hike for days without sleep while eating the most miserable food, these men could shoot with deadly precision and, like Thoreau after them, reveled in the freedom they found in the forest. Unlike Thoreau, they loved to have rowdy good times, especially at their legendary annual camping “rendezvous,” where lots of them got blindingly drunk from great big containers of alcohol, including a substance called “tangle leg”—perhaps because it made them lurch around like broken-legged insects—and “tarantula juice,” sharper than any spider bite.

Their survival techniques, borrowed, stolen, and adapted from Native Americans, would influence late-nineteenth-century woodcraft campers. But the mountain men were in no sense recreational campers. Their lives were often brutish and short. Many of them were in desperate circumstances and escaping poverty back home. Thoreau shared their wanderlust, but he framed the wilderness in a very different way. At a time when many Americans aligned themselves against nature, Thoreau stood with the forest and camped against conformity, boredom, the forces of slavery and mechanization, and America’s unprovoked war with Mexico in 1846.

If Thoreau was tone-deaf and flippant when he dared compare the “slavery” of the office worker to that of more than three million African Americans in literal slavery, his message, aimed at the quietly desperate and nature-starved clerks of America, is just as valid now as it was in the mid-nineteenth century. Perhaps there was something prankish, and not just symbolic, in the move to the pond. But if Walden is meant to be a joke, it is a deadly serious one. From his pulpit in the cramped cabin, Thoreau took aim at contemporary life, and his aim remains true. “Every aspect of the move to Walden was symbolic or representative,” notes Robert Richardson in his acclaimed biography Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind. “The move itself was an emancipation from town and family, building the cabin was proof of his ability to shelter himself, growing beans showed he could feed himself, and have something left over.”

Thoreau also used wilderness as a way to disrupt his life on purpose, to stop himself from settling into stasis, conforming, giving up, surrendering to materialism and easy comforts. No wonder so many modern-day pilgrims, such as Christopher McCandless, have fallen into the book. John Krakauer’s nonfiction best seller Into the Wild, published in 1996, tells the story of this bright and idealistic young Emory University graduate, who took to heart Thoreau’s injunction to pare life down to its essentials. A close and admiring reader of Thoreau, McCandless picked up on the smart-assed, provocateur side of his hero. Before embarking on a fatal path toward self-reliance in the Alaskan bush, McCandless burned his Social Security card and his paper money, and donated his life savings, a sum of twenty-four thousand dollars, to Oxfam America. Perhaps he looked to Walden as a model and an impossibly high standard for the transformative American campout.

For 113 days in the backcountry in 1992, the twenty-four-year-old McCandless tried to live like a combination of Henry Thoreau and a hardscrabble survivalist from the pages of Jack London, whom he also idolized. McCandless blended transcendentalist idealism with a desire to “find himself” in a more raw form of nature. A derelict Fairbanks City Transit System bus was his cabin, a raging glacial river his Walden Pond. In September 1992 a moose hunter stumbled upon the bus and McCandless’s starved, sixty-seven-pound body. A copy of Walden, with a missing cover, was lying near the corpse. McCandless had highlighted a passage:

Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth. I sat at a table where were rich food and wine in abundance, an obsequious attendance, but sincerity and truth were not; and I went away hungry from the inhospitable board. The hospitality was as cold as the ices.

I cannot imagine Thoreau, the practical Yankee who accepted odd jobs during his tenure at Walden Pond, praising McCandless for burning money or going out to live full-time in a landscape he didn’t know. Yet I find it hard to dismiss McCandless, who, if he’d survived his adventure, would have had a great deal to say about humility, practicality, and overcoming ignorance. Besides, there is something about Walden that challenges us all to go much farther than Thoreau ever dreamed. Walden was, and continues to be, a jumping-off point for adventurers seeking to go deeper into the woods. The cabin was a testing ground, a means “to live a primitive and frontier life though in the midst of an outward civilization,” Thoreau wrote. In other words, he knew full well that he was not testing himself against true wilderness, “but simulating its conditions in a sort of symbolic or laboratory experiment,” Robert Richardson, the Thoreau biographer, wrote.

These days, Walden comes in for a certain amount of ridicule. One of the earliest takedowns of the book was printed in 1849, five years before Walden was even published. That year, Horace Greeley, the powerful editor of the New-York Tribune, and an ardent Thoreau admirer, wrote an editorial about Thoreau’s lectures regarding his “Life in the Woods,” a series of speeches that served as material for the book-in-progress. It spoke about this strange little man who lived all alone in a cabin, worked hardly ever, and rested much of the time; who communed with woodchucks and scorned those who toiled their days away. That July, a Tribune reader sent an angry letter to the editor. Writing on behalf of his shrew of a wife, the respondent called Thoreau “a whimsy or else a good-for-nothing, selfish, crab-like sort of chap” who was leading “a cold and snailish kind of existence … both infernal and infernally stupid.” Coincidentally enough, the writer of that letter’s last name was Thorough.

All these years later, the angry rebuttals continue. Perhaps Thoreau’s admirers would not have to defend him against unbelievers, year after tiresome year, if his adventure had been just a wee less rustic and genteel and a touch more extreme. Thoreau’s decision to live for a couple of years at Walden Pond was not that daring, even though his mother and sisters worried about him, way out in the lonely forest one and a half miles from town. The book that has kindled so many campfires is about an experience that was not exactly camping, and not much of a trip at all.

While Thoreau was at Walden Pond, from July 4, 1845, to September 6, 1847, where the Fitchburg Railroad passed “about a hundred rods south” of the cabin, Herman Melville embarked on a whaling ship voyage, having the adventures that informed his 1851 literary flop Moby-Dick. The Donner Party was heading westward, hoping for better things. Thoreau’s stay coincided also with the dangerous journeys of John Charles Frémont, and with Sir John Franklin’s attempt to find the Northwest Passage, which ended with the captain and his men entombed in ice and dying from hunger and exposure.

You will find no such episodes of horror in Walden. In my first read-through, before the book started to take effect, I kept wondering, “When the hell is something, anything, going to happen?” I’d been told it was a survivalist tract, but Thoreau never captures a moose in a deadfall trap or leaps from one side of a crevasse to the other; nor does he gut a pouncing catamount with a sixteen-inch fixed-blade Bowie knife.

What did Thoreau actually do out at Walden? Not a whole hell of a lot from a Survivor or Bear Grylls perspective. If you were to take a documentary film crew from one of those sweaty survivalist programs, put them in a time machine, and send them to Walden Pond, they would be poleaxed from boredom. Thoreau hoed a row to plant beans. He bathed daily in the lake. Some jerk named Seeley stole his nails, and then had the gall to stand around, idle and unconcerned, while Thoreau worked on the cabin. Two ladies came over and visited him. They took his drinking dipper and never returned it. “They came to steal,” Thoreau fulminated in his diary. “They were a disgrace to their sex and to humanity. Pariahs of the moral world.… They will never know peace till they have returned the dipper.”

Thoreau dined on simple food, including unleavened raisin bread and roasted horned pout, a sort of fish. Also, Thoreau befriended a wild mouse, which ran up his pantaloons and ate cheese from his hand. When he pulled out his flute and played a solo, the mouse seemed to listen and become his friend. He took long walks and roughed out two books. In solitude, in his patch of forest, Thoreau occupied his “sunny doorway” from sunrise until noon every day, “rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sang around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveller’s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time.”

Those who care too much about his stridency and his antisensual aspect ignore his borderline erotic episodes of transport in nature. He listened to the pond freeze up and thaw. He fretted about woodchucks bothering his bean sprouts, and asked a trapper if there was anything to be done about this. “Yes,” the trapper replied. “Shoot ’em, you damn fool.” As far as plot is concerned, that’s about it. I am always astonished when people carp at Thoreau for his “capricious” decision to reduce two years on Walden Pond to just one year in his book. I consider this reduction an editorial act of mercy. Walden is a greatest hits version of his limited experiences out there, and for good reason. How many descriptions of rocks and bean fields do we really want?

Walden is not so dramatic on the surface, but then again, not much ever really happens when we camp out. Thoreau, like all the most thoughtful campers, was a miniaturist who writ small moments large. An ever-changing music filled his ears at Walden Pond, and he, like no other camper in American history, was able to capture the sounds on paper and share them with the world: the “squirrels on the roof and under the floor, a whip-poor-will on the ridge-pole, a blue jay screaming beneath the window, a hare or woodchuck under the house, a screech owl or a cat owl behind it, a flock of wild geese or a laughing loon on the pond,… a fox to bark in the night,” and the “sturdy pitch pines rubbing and creaking against the shingles for want of room, their roots reaching quite under the house.” Few other campers have lavished so much attention on frogs and the “hilarious rules of their old festal tables.” He took the time to nail down the sound of their particular tr-r-r-oonk (ribbet-ribbet did not suffice).

I will, however, admit to being disappointed and embarrassed when I found out Thoreau wasn’t really the “Hermit of Concord.” For most of his days on the pond, he was by himself, but he had binges of conviviality, including parties, with twenty-five to thirty people stuffed in the cabin at one time or spilling into the woods. Thoreau wasn’t a drinker and was a little uptight, so I doubt it got that wild, but from the sound of it, he had loads of company, including the family of Bronson Alcott. Ellery Channing hung out at the house and slept on a cot for two weeks.

Thoreau’s spirited social life reminds me of certain backcountry and car camps, where instant communities form. Everybody seemed to know where Thoreau was staying. At least he made note of this in Walden, without providing details: “I had more visitors while I lived in the woods than at any other period of my life.” Another passage implies that he volunteered his cabin as a stop on the Underground Railroad; he described encounters with “runaway slaves with plantation manners, who listened from time to time, like the fox in the fable, as if they heard the hounds a-baying on their track, and looked at me beseechingly, as much as to say,—‘O Christian, will you send me back?’” He also wrote about helping one of them on his way to freedom: “One real runaway slave, among the rest,… I helped to forward toward the north star.”

People barged in on him constantly. Peepers were common; Thoreau had no curtains on the windows. A local alcoholic went to the cabin begging for a drink. “I knew that rum or something like it was the only drink he loved,” Thoreau said, “but I gave him a dish of warm pond water, which was all I had, nevertheless, which to my astonishment he drank, being used to drinking.” Thoreau, in turn, made no effort to sequester himself from the town. He visited the village of Concord frequently because he hungered for “homeopathic doses” of gossip, which gives lie to the notion that he was a joyless misanthrope.

Aside from being a nonhermit, Thoreau gratefully accepted handouts from his family during his time on the pond. The scolds and skeptics of Concord claimed that Thoreau’s mother and sisters brought him fresh pies and baskets of delicious doughnuts and let him raid the cookie jar. According to one often-repeated and perhaps apocryphal account, he came running right back to his parents every time he heard the dinner bell tolling during one of his forest rambles. His alleged behavior makes me wonder if there is such a thing as a “pure” self-sufficient campout that is anything less than a form of physical and mental torture. How often does our solitude and pleasure in camp depend on the largesse of others? How many times did I take handouts (including family-size cans of cling peaches) from horse campers along the Pacific Crest Trail? How many times have other campers saved me by leaving out caches of water on desert crossings, or feeding me cheeseburgers?

He could have hidden himself in a cave or retreated to the western territories. But Thoreau, by choosing a place so close to town, shows us that the best campouts are where you find them, that you don’t have to head way “out there”—as I was doing in Kentucky—to lose yourself in nature’s power. In praising the wild things on the margins of town, Thoreau gives us a strong antidote to an obnoxious sort of acquisitive, where-no-man-has-gone-before, chest-thumping manifest destiny–tainted strain of camping.

At a time when other men were conquering and charting and exploring the world and risking their lives, he dared to suggest, in his essay “Walking,” published posthumously in 1862, that “Two or three hours’ walking will carry me to as strange a country as I expect ever to see.” In saying such things, he showed us how to appreciate the nature that is all around us, in urban corridors, in suburbs, or right down the block. He became the father of the backyard campout, and the pioneer of the campout as an interior journey. The exterior journey is not all-important. It is possible to be in a forest physically and tied to your office mentally. It was Thoreau who gave Bill Bryson and Cheryl Strayed permission to have complete and fulfilling experiences on the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails, respectively, without having to hike the whole goddamn thing. The outward and interior journeys reinforced each other. “Be rather the Mungo Park, the Lewis and Clark and Frobisher, of your own streams and oceans,” he wrote.

Still, the purists who ignore the symbolic and satirical aspects of Thoreau’s enterprise might carp, “Why listen to this clown? What has he ever done to test his ideas against wild nature?” To them, I can only say that Thoreau appreciated the difference between wildness and wilderness. Just as McCandless may have read Walden as an invitation to explore the Alaskan frontier, Thoreau used the cabin as a sort of base camp. During his trip to the Maine wilderness in 1846, when he was taking a respite from his Walden cabin, he built up his spirits with a hearty breakfast and “a dipper of condensed waterspout.” Then he left his campmates behind, climbed to the clouds, and felt the strong winds on the summit tablelands of Mount Katahdin, where a “vast, Titanic, inhuman nature” confronted him. Nature spoke to him, and not kindly.

Why came ye here before your time? This ground is not prepared for you. Is it not enough that I smile in the valleys? I have never made this soil for thy feet, this air for thy breathing, these rocks for thy neighbors. I cannot pity nor fondle thee here, but forever relentlessly drive thee hence to where I am kind. Why seek me where I have not called thee, and then complain because you find me but a stepmother? Shouldst thou freeze or starve, or shudder thy life away, here is no shrine, nor altar, nor any access to my ear.

Such threats made Thoreau want to run for his life. Having seen the “real” wild nature, he knew full well that Walden was not going to be a survivalist memoir. Like all the best camping stories, it’s more of a stand-off between domesticity and the wild. And his decision to leave the cabin was just as important as his decision to move there. The pond was only the beginning. When he left, he kept up his life of mischief, lecturing on the time he spent in jail for tax resistance, in a bold antislavery statement that led to his famous essay “Civil Disobedience.” The simplicity of camping stayed with him when he moved back from the woods in 1847. In 1855 his only piece of taxable property was a rowboat, or so he claimed. He continued to study nature, and he made his famous speech about wildness containing the preservation of the world. The spirit did not desert him when he was wasting away from tuberculosis, either. His final mumblings about moose and Indians, shortly before his death at age forty-four, on May 6, 1862, were infused with the spirit of the camp.

*   *   *

Since those early days of poring over Walden, I’ve wondered if I’d have been better off if the book had never entered my life. I guess it depends on what you mean by better off. If not for Walden, I would not have sloshed my way through sphagnum bogs in Oregon, or woken under white birches and mist on the Grafton Loop in Maine. I wouldn’t have scars on my leg from barbed wire near the California-Mexico border after ditching my job with my then girlfriend and hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in my early twenties. I wouldn’t have tried to hike part of the Appalachian Trail in the mud season and lost a boot in the process, which forced me to hop all the way down Killington Peak with a trash bag tied around my dripping sock. I’d never have had frostbite on my fingers and toes from camping in the White Mountains of New Hampshire in late October; nor would I have bad dreams from walking thirty waterless miles near Lassen Volcanic National Park, or from the time in the North Cascades when one of my hiking partners went insane and threatened to cut the throats of everybody in the trail camp, forcing us all to sneak out in the middle of the night, not even lighting our flashlights for fear of waking him up, and leaving notes on the ground to misdirect him.

In those fraught times in the wilderness, when home was far, my return was not guaranteed, all my water was gone, and the path was nowhere to be found, I blamed Thoreau for praising the woods from the comfort of his cozy cabin. I cursed him for starting the fights I had to finish. That trip in Kentucky was one of those times. Lost, confused, feeling thirsty, down to my last sip of water, running my index finger down the spine of that ratty paperback, I could not decide whether Walden was a boon or a liability. It had led me into the deep woods and given me no direction home.

When I stood searching through the book, all I found were instructions on the art of getting lost, which did me little good: “… if we go beyond our usual course we still carry in our minds the bearing of some neighboring cape; and not till we are completely lost, or turned round—for a man needs only to be turned round once with his eyes shut in this world to be lost—do we appreciate the vastness and strangeness of nature. Every man has to learn the points of compass again as often as he awakes, whether from sleep or any abstraction.”

“Gee, thanks, Henry,” I said out loud.

Lacking any other recourse, I tried it out. Embrace the strangeness when you’re lost. I looked toward a distant gap and flat-top mountains in the distance, rising over pools of fog. Falling leaves swirled, reversing their course before touching ground, falling upward. The leaves were black-and-blue spicebush swallowtail butterflies—felty, with orange glow dots, and pointy appendages on their wings.

The butterfly cloud directed me toward a knife-drop ridge. My almost worthless trail map had few details. It seemed to be printed on two-ply toilet paper and had barely legible letters smeared across it. What now, Henry? The land was a mad tangle of ridges and mountains. My map showed a highway due west of here. To get there, I would have to cross hellacious terrain—near-vertical drops and ledges leading to valleys full of invasive rosebushes. The grade was too steep to walk but fine for sliding. I cinched my backpack, sat on it, and launched myself off the cliff. “Arrrrgggghh!” I shouted. My backpack was a toboggan, bouncing down the mountain. On the way down, I could hear the huffa-huffa-squonk sounds of a black bear. The grunts scared me enough to make me slide faster. The backpack’s detachable, clip-on side pocket, containing my copy of Walden, banged against the cliff as I plunged toward a black gully and soared toward the bushes.

After crashing, painfully, to the ground, I bundled myself in my nylon rain pants and windbreaker, put the hood on, and tore through an acre of invasive thorns. It was like rushing through a pile of wildcats. The bushes ripped my legs and shins, drawing blood. I pushed west and wound up on a dry and sandy hill. The sound of a rushing stream turned out to be traffic noise. I was tired and thirsty now, with blood running into my socks, but at least I’d gotten out. I emerged onto the highway just in time for the sunset. “We did it, Henry,” I said aloud.

I took off my pack to assess the damages. I had fresh cuts all over me. My bottle of frontier whiskey was, remarkably, intact. I’d stowed it in the pack’s interior. But when I reached for the side pocket where I’d stored the book, I found that the entire pocket, and my copy of Walden, was gone. The rosebushes had claimed it. A desolate feeling overtook me. A book is a book. Its loss shouldn’t matter. But certain copies are talismans.

Big rigs came rolling. It was dark now. I decided to stick out my thumb and hitchhike back to Whitesburg, Kentucky, where they have lodging and good food, not to mention more bourbon. I hoped the truckers would disregard the bloodstains on my socks, the dirt on my face, the rips in my pack, and the red scrapes on my arms and legs. But first I looked back to the black ridge I’d slid down. I looked up at the mountain I’d escaped and traced my finger along the slope and down a stream. I thought of the rosebushes and, somewhere inside them, the greasy old book that had brought me out there in the first place.

*   *   *

Thoreau’s stay in his rustic retreat yielded one of the great outdoor classics of American literature. But who can say what essays and books he might have written if he’d ventured into the woods of far upstate New York to a place that he’d only read and marveled about?

In the 1840s, Thoreau was amazed to find that outsiders got lost in those dark forests without help from paid wilderness guides. “New-York [sic] has a wilderness within her own borders,” he marveled. “And though the sailors of Europe are familiar with the soundings of her Hudson … an Indian is still necessary to guide her scientific men” through its forests. His friend Ralph Waldo Emerson set out to visit those woods, but Thoreau never dared.

The name of that wild and mysterious place was the Adirondacks.


Copyright © 2016 by Daniel White