Mt. Greylock and Thoreau

Thoreau engraving

When I reached the summit of Mt. Greylock last weekend, during a trip with the Boston University Outing Club, I couldn’t have been happier to find this engraving by Henry David Thoreau. Like HDT, who is probably best known for his retreat to Walden Pond, I periodically find myself drawn—with an almost gravitational force—back to nature.

One summer in college, I spent six weeks in the Maine woods with a group of University of Michigan students studying New England Literature and modeling our experience after HDT’s philosophy of simple but deliberate living. We abstained from cell phones and laptops while rediscovering the art of letter writing and plunking away on typewriters. We gladly traded weekend parties for camping trips, square dancing, and acoustic jam sessions. We held class on the dock overlooking a lake and read poems and essays in the natural environments that inspired them. The following passage from Walden was our battle cry:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. . . . I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

Like HDT, we eventually left nature and went back to society. But the next summer, I worked as a canoeing instructor at an outdoor treatment program for troubled youth. After college, I moved to NYC and taught at an urban high school in the Bronx—about as far from nature as I ever imagined I’d find myself. Even so, I took a part-time job as an outdoor guide so that I could get free trips to the woods and mountains of New York and New Jersey.

I couldn’t escape the call of nature. The craziness of my life in the Big City only made me yearn more for the occasional beauty and peace of mind offered by shaded trails, changing leaves, and pristine waters.

The same urge brought me to the BU Outing Club last fall. After surviving the first year of law school and returning for an even busier second year, I wanted—needed—a dose of that old natural healing. Because I didn’t have a car or time to plan my own trips, I jumped at the opportunity to hike and camp Mt. Washington (the tallest peak on the East Coast) with transportation, food, and other logistics already arranged by the student-run group.

I missed the epic law school Harbor Cruise for the Mt. Washington trip, but I didn’t regret the decision. It was one of my most memorable and rejuvenating weekends of law school.

This last weekend was no different. I met the other eight BU students in front of Marsh Chapel at 10:30am and was on the trail leading up to Mt. Greylock by 2pm. My backpack was loaded down with my own tent, another tent provided by the BU Outing Club, my sleeping bag, a headlamp, and a few other items. I wore trail hiking shoes, quick-drying pants, a pocketknife, and an Obama ’08 tee shirt.

I was ready to take on Mt. Greylock—and the world!

Greylock hiking pic

After a grueling afternoon hike, during which I cursed myself for being macho in volunteering to carry two of the three tents, we arrived at our base camp. We set up tents, collected firewood, and prepared dinner. Gluey pasta with lukewarm sauce and beans never tasted so good.

That night, crammed into my tent with three near strangers, I got hardly any sleep. The next morning, the crisp air woke me up in the absence of coffee. A senior business major was having difficulty getting the fire going, so I lent a hand (and a few tricks I picked up in the Boy Scouts), and before long, we had M&M pancakes, bacon, and corned beef hash.

The hike to the summit was much more relaxing without my heavy pack, which I had left at the base camp. Unencumbered, I observed the variety of leaves carpeting the trail and tried to discern different tree species. I inhaled the scent of pine, musty leaves, fresh air, hints of distant smokiness.

I relished the moment (video).

I felt the hiker’s equivalent of a runner’s high. I contemplated where I’m at in law school and in life and where I want to go in the future. I recalled Thoreau’s words:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived . . .

Greylock jump

I wasn’t sad to return home from the trip, though less than excited to write a paper outline due the next day. But I was thoroughly refreshed after a weekend outdoors and grateful that Boston and BU had once again provided an outlet for my inner Thoreau.

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