Walking in the Footsteps of Thoreau

I try to time travel as often as possible. A book is the perfect time travel vehicle but a place can be too. Henry David Thoreau walked along this Chatham coastline about 150 years ago and wrote about it in his book Cape Cod. It’s fun to read his descriptions and follow in his footsteps to go back in time.

Asphalt from the parking lot crumbles into sand. Dunes rise up along with the path to give the feel of walking on a mountaintop or the end of the earth. From this vantage point, there haven’t been many changes since the 1800s.

Far ahead Stage Harbor Lighthouse can be seen hunched down in the scraggly bushes. Thoreau wouldn’t have seen the lighthouse since it wasn’t built until 1880. Without it as a point to walk toward, there would be nothing but this stretch of land and sky.

A snake slithers into the bushes by the path. It is so quiet that the flap of a seagull’s wings can be heard overhead. Even the fishermen standing on the shore talk in low voices so that their murmurings become one with the wind.

Thoreau said, “The sea never runs very much here, since the shore is protected from the swell by Monomoy.” This creates a sense of peace, with everything as still as a painting.

Thoreau saw Monomoy as one offshore landmass while today it forms two barrier islands. As a testament to Cape Cod’s shifting sands, Monomoy has been a peninsula, a single island and even multiple islands. A lighthouse was built on the southern tip of the island in 1823 but deposits of sand over time have lengthened it, causing it to seem as if the lighthouse has traveled inland.

A seagull plucks at a crab on the sand while sand pipers dance in the background. Thoreau loved to watch these birds, as he said, “Sometimes we sat on the wet beach and watched the beach birds, sand pipers, and others, trotting along close to each wave, and waiting for the sea to cast up their breakfast.”

The quiet waves continue to bring more treasures. According to Thoreau, “The sea-shore is a sort of neutral ground, a most advantageous point from which to contemplate this world. It is even a trivial place. The waves forever rolling to the land are too far-travelled and untamable to be familiar. Creeping along the endless beach amid the sun-squall and the foam, it occurs to us that we, too, are the product of sea-slime. It is a wild, rank place, and there is no flattery in it. Strewn with crabs, horse-shoes, and razor-clams, and whatever the sea casts up…”

The shore is still strewn with whatever the sea casts up and it remains an advantageous place to contemplate this world. It is a different world now. Although much has changed in the last 150 years or so, it is comforting to know that some places remain the same.

Do you use a certain book or place to travel through time?

32 thoughts on “Walking in the Footsteps of Thoreau

  1. “A Fine Balance” by Rohinton Mistry, one of the most beautifully written books I’ve ever read, transports me to India and all its glory as well as all its tragedy. In fact, in that book, most of its tragedy.

    This was a gorgeous piece, Sheila. 🙂

  2. That is amazing, I love Thoreau! It must have been an amazing experience for you. 🙂

    On a lighter note, two things I would like to do after being inspired by books:
    1-To walk the Road to Santiago de Compostela, from France to Spain, after reading ‘The Pilgrimage’ by Paulo Coelho
    2-To embark on a seven day train from St Petersburg to Vladivostok in Russia, after reading ‘Aleph’ by Paulo Coelho.

    Subhan Zein

    • Those sound like great adventures! I’ll have to try those books to be transported to those places – thank you. I’m glad we share a love of Thoreau. Cape Cod and Walden are full of inspiration.

  3. Being a lover of Cape Cod who spent many a vacation in Chatham, and having walked these paths, I got a warm feeling reading this. Lovely writing, Sheila. And funny, I read a book about the Cape Cod League, the best summertime amateur baseball league in the country, and after reading “The Last Best League,” enjoyed the games the following summer even more.

    • I’m glad it helped bring you back to those vacations – thank you. I wondered if you had been on this walk. It’s always so peaceful there (though I haven’t tried it in the summertime). Those baseball games are a lot of fun too!

  4. The like button is broken for me. Perhaps it is this remote, mountain top computer. Who know. Consider it pressed.

    This piece was a lovely interlude, timely and timeless. Thank you.



  5. Beautifully written, and I can quite see why you have such an affinity with Thoreau. The timelessness of the sea is such a terrific antidote to the incessant rush of today. I love the way you know how the coastline has changed since Thoreau’s time: that’s real understanding of place.

    • Thank you! It’s fun to look for those similarities or differences. He described the people here in a funny way that’s still pretty much the same as today. I probably don’t go for those ocean walks often enough (I think Thoreau walked more of Cape Cod in just a few visits than I have in a lifetime)! You’re right that the ocean really is the perfect antidote.

  6. The waves forever rolling to the land are too far-travelled and untamable to be familiar
    Just that line transports me a little 🙂 Nice piece
    I use my guitar as a time machine – songs of mine / others from times and places past.

    • Yes – I loved this part too, “Creeping along the endless beach amid the sun-squall and the foam, it occurs to us that we, too, are the product of sea-slime.” 🙂 That’s a great time machine – so true that music can really transport us.

  7. Loving your post – great photos – thanks for sharing:) I love to research the history of a place I am traveling to and sometimes I research when I get back because I want to learn more about a particular piece of that history. Have a Great One!

  8. The archaeologist and genealogist in me takes a different path with the written word. Legal documents like deeds, court files, wills, and estate inventories lead me back to my ancestors’ times and places. The ancestor who left little in the way of such documents is the most frustratingly elusive!

    • That’s a good way to figure out the past and picture it too. I think I’ll take Thoreau over deeds and court files though. 🙂

  9. Although living now in Boise, I have seen those very things. It makes me long for the Cape.

    • Well, Thoreau also called Cape Cod dreary, bleak, barren, and desolate with scraggy shrubbery, and it can still be that way. I’m guessing the fall colors are better out there too. Our scraggy shrubbery never seems to put on much of a show.

  10. This is such an evocative post. I love the line ‘everything as still as a painting’. You described silence in the most believable way. It’s like being there! My time travel book is Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, which has a warm glow of nostalgia underpinned with scathing satire. His books are my happy place!

    • Thank you – that sense of peace was what struck me the most while there. I still have to read that one. Hopefully I’ll get to it next – while I still remember SF at least!

  11. To me, it is not barren or desolate. The sea could never be either. All roads that lead there are, for me, an invitation. Thank you for this outing with you and HDT.

    • Yes, there is beauty in the gray fogginess. Now that it’s getting to be the off season, it’s a relief from the craziness of the summer. I’m glad you enjoyed the walk through time!

  12. You have crafted the perfect vision of Cape Cod for people familiar with the area as well as for anyone who has never been to visit. What a beautiful piece this is. As you know, the Cape is one of my favorite places to visit not because of the nostalgia but because there is still so much that is raw and untouched (if you know where to go). Loved this!

    • Thank you so much – Thoreau did help too. 🙂 His book is full of beautiful writing, inspiration, and humor when talking of the people he encountered. I’m happy this brought you back to one of your favorite places and that there are still some of those untouched places left.

  13. What a wonderful idea to take a book and travel through time with it. I loved this post and the photos, especially the second one, so beautiful.

    • Thank you! It is fun to travel through time that way and as long as some places stay the same, those places can take us back too. I’m glad you enjoyed the walk.

    • Thank you so much Amira! I haven’t done an award post in too long but will have to do one for this soon. It should be much easier to think of favorite books than things about myself. I think your blog is wonderful too. 🙂

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