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?