I was staring resolutely toward the park entrance, shaded my eyes, and shifted nervously on the hood of my old red Jeep, feeling suddenly embarrassed. It’s not the pretense and the need for fast, shiny things that leaves me suddenly ashamed of my mode of transport (the Jeep is a rugged beast, deserving of every outdoorsman) but its wastefulness and resource guzzling adds a new level of anxiety to my already heightened sense of anticipation and trepidation.
What should have had me fearfully scanning the horizon and suddenly questioning my life choices? A meeting of some import: a walk with none other than the grandfather of the stroll himself, Henry David Thoreau.
I choose my location carefully, a walk may not be about the destination alone, but having a trail to follow to this unknown end certainly helps. Topanga State Park, off of Topanga Canyon Road north of Pacific Coast Highway, has long been a choice destination of mine. Southern California has a unique backdrop of shrubbery, unexpected splashes of color, old trees, and ocean air. This particular park embodies them all. Looking around again at the dirt parking lot, and scanning the winding entrance once more I am still not certain exactly what I am waiting for. A car with a glowing bumper sticker that says “Here drives Thoreau” would be too much to ask for. So instead I wait. And breathe. And very nearly avoid hopping off my car and pacing around like a half mad cat.
Nearly 10 minutes go by and I’m suddenly jarred out of my frantic parking lot vigil by a noise directly behind me: part clearing of a throat, part bemused chuckle. I turn abruptly (most definitely denting my Jeep’s hood in the process) and am left staring open-mouthed at the source of the polite bemused sound: Thoreau himself. Of course the first thing I want to ask him was: how did you get here? He couldn’t have walked to the park (there’s no good way to traverse Topanga Canyon on foot without taking your life in your hands).
He looked at ease, unhurried, as if he had sprung from the very glade itself, born from that moment with a smile on his lips as if to say “I’ve always been here.” Older images portray him as a cross between Gandalf and Abraham Lincoln, so I was expecting an old man in a three piece suit and straw hat to meet me, walking stick in hand to politely talk about the weather and ask if I have a husband. I should have known better. Thoroughly modern, in some truly fantastic hiking boots, Thoreau proved once again to be king of wanderlust.
Polite introductions were made (where I attempted to not fall over myself and forget my own name) and we began our trek into his Wild.
Immediately regretting my choice to hike, talk, and think, I begin with the questions he had so kindly “walked here” to answer. Thoreau seemed to require little preamble and pretense, and was content enough to stroll easily, resolute under the weight of my rapid fire questions.
“I have to ask,” I began, “you’ve seen this country grow up. You once had great hopes for us and the heights we might reach as a nation. Are you disappointed?”
Without pause he answered: “Society and nations themselves have always been flawed. Our country is no different. Have we reached the heights I hoped for, and created a new enlightened age among men? Maybe not. But it’s the individual that holds the measure of a nation. And I think we’ve had the pleasure of fostering some truly splendid individuals. But I will say this: you all work too much.”
I laughed in surprised agreement. “You won’t hear an argument from me.” I respond. “Your works have often been seen to support a simple, authentic life apart from society. Walking, wandering, meandering as you advocated, is a necessary component to living a full, happy life. Do you still look around and marvel at how we survive without continuous injections of The Wild to maintain our humanity? Is the art of the wander lost, or even possible in our modern socio-economic landscape?”
He paused, and looked around pointedly and smiled. “Well, I certainly still wander. But I understand that I’m privileged to do so. I find it interesting that resources are dwindling on all fronts, don’t you? As nature begins to shrink acres per minute, so too does the commodity of time in equal measure. The more we consume, the less time we have to enjoy it. I have watched humanity starve earth of its resources, devour the wild places, and turn around, ever hungry, consuming the precious resource of leisure itself. How can we make everyone understand the importance of preserving the wild places of the world, when we don’t even conserve the wild within ourselves?”
I pause, midstride (and ashamedly out of breath) to ponder for a moment. Are we failing to conserve the wild within ourselves? Has somehow this lack of internal wonder and wildness given way to an environmentally indifferent attitude? Ever the modern supporter, I counter however: “Given the technological advancements we’ve seen, the scientific wonder, and the ever growing and evolving population, do you still think that “All good things are wild and free”. Have we finally proven once and for all that civilization has had one to many champions?
Thoreau is, of course, unfazed. “Science and wonder go hand in hand. Philosophy and art. The magic of modern technology. All stem from an inborn need to create. It’s true that we have transitioned into a time when creation has leapt from the canvas and page, to the screen and algorithm. The world is not as large as it once was, not as vast….or as green.” He adds, casting a lamenting look at the dull browns and muted greens surrounding us. “But it is still full of The Wild. Every man or woman that dare step outside the boundaries and create, has done so at the behest of The Wild. Look at the empire we have built on the graves of the wood and with her bones. Imagine what could have been made beneath her arms and under her protection.”
“The earth is reaching a dangerous tipping point. Every time you turn around another creature is becoming extinct, another acre of precious wilderness is being sacrificed to progress, and we are rapidly approaching a moment in human history where the world we love so well might not sustain us.” Thoreau nodded is sad agreement, awaiting the question surely to come. “Conservation, preservation, and environmental awareness is heightened. Most of us live in cities, apart from nature, breathing deeply the pollution of man. Is returning to the Wild and wandering, our best option? Can we truly turn our back on the city and attempt to live a simple life within nature and hope for the much needed change?”
His brow creases in the first lines of consternation and thought I had seen thus far. In his long time watching the world unfold, he must have given great thought to righting the course we have set on as a country, and as a race. His answer surprised me: “I say we still walk. We still wander. We still find that part within ourselves and hold tight. But the time has come for us to act as well.”
Perhaps he saw the surprise on my face, because he chuckled good-naturedly and continued. “I walked west into the future and found it. I found a future that no longer fears the wild, but it no longer fears the city either. We’ve grown immune to the noise and the cries. I longed for an escape, and found one. I looked into the heart of society, weighed it, and found it wanting. My fear is not only that we abandoned our woods and wilderness, but that we are not lamenting the loss.”
We had since begun our return trip back to my red monstrosity, and were nearing the end of our journey. I wanted to ask him so many questions: what books are on your nightstand? Do you approve of our government and its heavy handed approach? And most importantly: what should I do from here? Where should I go? Is there hope? How can I be sure that the Wild within and without never dies? Do I really have the freedoms I think I do?
Instead, Jeep in sight, I stopped mid-stride and faced him fully for the first time since our knightly crusade of the saunter began, and demanded: “Did you really walk here?