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Thursday, July 18, 2013

July 18, 2013: AmericanStudies Daytrips: Concord

[If you’re like me, you’re always looking for new places to take your crazed 7 and 6 year old sons/wrestlers in training, while introducing them to some American history and culture at the same time. Even if you’re not like me, daytrips are fun. Because I live in New England, I’ll be highlighting NE daytrips this week, leading up to a special weekend guest post; I’d also recommend prior blog focal points Salem and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. But feel free to share great daytrips from around the country, or the world, in comments!]
On three reasons to visit one of America’s most defining spots.
Concord’s Minute Man National Historic Park is one of the most unique and effective historic sites I’ve ever encountered. While the park does have a perfectly acceptable visitor’s center, complete with exhibits and an orientation film and the like, its true genius resides outside—in the five-mile Battle Road Trail, a walking path that takes visitors from Concord to Lexington, along the route of the Revolution’s first battles. The Trail encompasses famous sites such as North Bridge (home to the “shot heard ‘round the world”), anonymous yet exemplary ones such as the eleven 18th-century “witness houses” that stand along the way, and various wetlands, woods, rocky terrain, and open fields along the way—and while of course it can’t possibly be what it was in 1775, it sure feels in many spots as if we could be then and there, marching with the Minute Men or the Redcoats.
A few miles away stands a much more overtly artificial yet just as compelling historic re-creation: a replica of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond cabin. If the Battle Road Trail impresses at least in part because of its extent, the sense it gives of how far the troops on both sides marched through still-dark terrain, the uncertainty and fear of battle and death all around them, the Thoreau cabin replica does precisely the opposite: the tiny dwelling looks more like an outhouse than a man’s primary abode for two years. Yet it is apparently a close approximation of Thoreau’s cabin, based on the extensive details he provides in Walden (1854); and while it smallness might at first make the cabin feel anticlimactic, that emotion quickly turns to admiration, to a recognition that (however much he mythologized certain details in his book) Thoreau did indeed construct a home in which he could—must—live very simply during his sojourn at the pond.
Walden Pond itself does not feel as it did during Thoreau’s 1845-1847 stay, of course. While Don Henley and other activists have so far succeeded in their quest to save the pond from development, the trek from the replica cabin to the pond crosses a busy state road and leads down to a public beach, complete with restrooms and lifeguard station, left-behind plastic shovels, ropes extending into the water to designate the children’s swimming area, and so on. But to my mind those things are not only generally good (it’s a beautiful spot for a family beach trip) but specifically right—Thoreau liked to emphasize his solitude (again, often at the expense of reality), but he also wanted all Americans to get to Walden Pond and its equivalents far more often. And if you swim out, past the ropes and across the pond, out where you might indeed encounter a loon, you can most definitely find your way to the essence—of the place, of Thoreau’s ideas, of the powerfully American histories and stories to which it all connects.
Next daytrip tomorrow,
PS. Thoughts on these places? Other daytrips you’d highlight?


  1. PPS. A couple other reader suggestions:

    --The Shelburne Falls Bridge of Flowers (

    --Holyoke's Dinosaur Footprints (

    --The Rokeby Museum's "Free and Safe" exhibition (

  2. If one does visit Walden Pond, continue beyond the replica cabin and remember to find the site of the real thing, a relatively short and simple hike from the swimming area at Walden. Also, a visit to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery is an absolute must for those who admire the Concord authors (and Concord grapes, if you can find Mr. Ephraim Bull).

    Also, I feel obligated to point out that The Wayside is one of those witness structures and one generally open to the public (currently under rehabilitation). Unrecognizable today from its appearance in 1775, it is probably better remembered as the home of the Alcott family and the Hawthornes. It is one building which very well sums up so much of what makes Concord great.

    Great post.