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From the Stacks: Living the Walden Life

July 3, 2006

Miguel Pereira/Cover/Getty Images

In 2006, writer Jake Halpern went to Hawaii and met a hermit—an experience that left him questioning Henry David Thoreau's Walden Pond and the grittier side of leaving it all behind. On the 159th anniversary of Walden's publication, we bring back Halpern's original piece, as published in The New Republic.

As long as I can remember, I have romanticized the notion of becoming a hermit. In fact, I live just a few miles from Walden Pond, and sometimes when I visit, I play a little game where I imagine myself in the shoes of Henry David Thoreau—farming beans, watching the rain fall, and getting in touch with my inner transcendentalist. I guess, in these moments, I secretly nurse the hope that, if I could only disappear into the woods for a few months, I, too, might find enlightenment and deep spiritual contentment. Thoreau once wrote, "We live thick and are in each other's way, and stumble over one another. ... It would be better if there were but one inhabitant to a square mile, as where I live."

Lately, however, this particular notion seems especially far-fetched. For one thing, the seclusion that Thoreau found seems harder and harder to come by. In the summer, Walden Pond is overrun with swimmers and picnickers—the very mobs of humanity that Thoreau once sought to escape. The last time I visited the site where Thoreau once lived, I found a gang of suburban teenage boys guzzling beer.

On our last vacation, my wife and I opted for the hermit getaway package. We flew ten hours to Kauai, Hawaii, strapped on our backpacks, and hiked eleven miles along the rugged, cliff-hung NaPali Coast to a remote beach that we had all to ourselves. We drank from waterfalls, gathered driftwood to build fires, and slept beneath the stars. At long last, I was playing the role of the iconic castaway. Then, one morning, we ventured into the jungle behind our beach and wandered among the moss-covered stone terraces where ancient Polynesians once lived. We soon got lost in the dense vegetation, and that's when we stumbled upon him. "Give me a moment," came a voice. "I'm taking a shit."

Moments later, a sun-scorched, emaciated waif of a man emerged from a nearby bush. He wore what looked like muddy pajamas, flip-flops, and a black leather fanny pack with a sizeable jackknife strapped into the belt. He had a bamboo walking stick, and he was, of course, smoking a pipe (as all respectable hermits are wont to do). He introduced himself—I'll call him "Donald" to help preserve his low profile—and welcomed us to the island. "When did you get in?" A few nights ago, we explained. When did you get in? "Oh, about four years ago, " Donald replied nonchalantly, as he set down his pipe and proceeded to pick the dirt from his fingernails with his jackknife. "Got tired of working nine to five. Had a bunch of jobs. Worked as a substitute teacher, a used-car salesman, a boat captain. You name it, I did it, but not anymore. I opted for early retirement."

Our conversation was momentarily interrupted by the sound of a helicopter passing overhead. Donald promptly ducked into some nearby bushes and motioned for us to follow. "That's one of the state choppers," he whispered urgently as he crouched amid the branches. "It's best to stay out of view—you know, technically, I'm not supposed to be living here."

When the helicopter passed, we came out from the bushes and Donald returned to picking his fingernails. I asked him if he had any friends or family with whom he still kept in touch. "Oh, sure," he replied. "I've got three sisters on the outside, and they cried when I told them I was retiring here. Of course, I still come out and visit them every month and a half or so. But, for the most part, this place is so inaccessible. That long hike in keeps out the riffraff."

I was dumbfounded and, needless to say, impressed that Donald had actually taken the plunge, renounced civilization, and made it on his own for the past 1,400-plus days (which is twice as long as Thoreau made it, I might add). To his credit, he was quick to acknowledge the gritty realities of hermitage—he spent much of his day collecting food, hiding from park rangers, making sure that dead animals didn't end up floating in his drinking water, and generally coping with feelings of loneliness. "I am learning to be my own best friend," he declared optimistically. "Of course," he added with a shy glance at my wife, "I wish I had a beautiful woman to share this with."

So this is the life of a hermit, I thought. Why was it that I couldn't recall a single instance when Thoreau described shitting in the woods or, more importantly, a time when he discussed the romantic shortcomings of hermitage? Truth be told, Thoreau romanticized virtually every facet of being a hermit. "I love to be alone," he said. "I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude." His best friend, he claimed, was the pond itself. He wrote: "I can almost say, `Walden, is it you?'"

But I didn't buy it anymore. It now seemed as if Thoreau was selling his idyllic vision of reclusion not just to readers like me, but to himself as well. As in: I'm having a good time—no, really, what could be better than this? What's missing from Walden, I realized, was the dirt, the hunger, the loneliness—the things that should have been there but weren't. Thoreau readily admits that he often visited the nearby town of Concord. He was never really in the wild. He was just a city-slicker who moved to farm country. Thoreau just toyed with solitude and self-reliance without ever fully making the leap into that life.

Deep in the jungle above the beach, my wife and I chatted with Donald for a while longer. Eventually, he said he had to be going. "Can you tell us how to get back to the beach?" I asked. "Come on," he said, with a flourish of his bamboo stick. "I'll take you down to a place I call Jump Rock, and, from there, you'll easily find the way." So we followed him as best we could as he quickly darted though the jungle. "This is Jump Rock," he yelled when we reached a boulder that jutted out over a deep crevasse with a roaring stream below. Then, in one swift motion, he leapt across the chasm. My wife's eyes widened and she looked at me expectantly. Some part of me yearned to follow him—it really did—but I knew deep down that I never would.