Concord: Where redcoats and Walden Pond meet

LA Times | Travel

\"The change from storm and winter to serene and mild weather, from dark and sluggish hours to bright and elastic ones, is a memorable crisis which all things proclaim.\" So Henry David Thoreau described the ever-changing woods of Walden Pond in 1846, during his experiment in living deliberate...

By Susannah Rosenblatt // 06.12.09

"The change from storm and winter to serene and mild weather, from dark and sluggish hours to bright and elastic ones, is a memorable crisis which all things proclaim."

So Henry David Thoreau described the ever-changing woods of Walden Pond in 1846, during his experiment in living deliberately.

More than a century and a half later, visitors to the clapboard-dotted meadows of Concord can discover the same thing for themselves.

The town about 20 miles northwest of Boston is a living shrine to American revolution, both political and literary. Chockablock with historic homes, battle sites, museums and graveyards, Concord offers a quiet amble through early America, a chance to retrace the pathbreaking footsteps of the town's favorite transcendental son. Around here, they just call him Henry.

A central starting place for exploring Concord (locals pronounce it "conquered") is the Colonial Inn, a rambling yet cozy 56-room hotel overlooking Monument Square's village green. The inn, which consists of several historic buildings dating as far back as 1716, was once an operating room, munitions storehouse and home to Thoreau's grandfather -- plus Henry himself during his studies at Harvard. These days, it boasts savory chicken pot pies, a warm, low-ceilinged pub and a ghost in Room 24.

Getting around town is easy: Founded in 1635, Concord is walkable, with most attractions within a mile radius from one another.

As March wound down during my recent visit, spring hadn't exactly sprung, with gusts of 30-degree wind and patches of snow lingering even as purple crocuses poked through dried leaves. The pink lady slippers weren't in bloom but, by March 23, the pond's 62 acres of ice were declared officially melted. The wintry weather didn't stop one intrepid fisherman, bundled in flannel and fleece, from wading hip-high into the chilly water in search of trout.

Walden Pond State Reservation might be hallowed literary ground, where Thoreau retreated to a 10-by-15-foot cabin he built to live simply and write for two years, two months and two days. But the birthplace of conservationism is also a popular state park, drawing half a million visitors each year to hike, swim and fish, said Michael Mitchell, visitor services supervisor. At the Thoreau Society gift shop, devotees can buy very un-"Walden" souvenirs -- Thoreau onesies, anyone?

Although Thoreau's original cabin was dismantled, a faithful replica housing one (hard) bed, one desk, one table, three chairs and that's about it sits a half-mile from the original site. A short, brisk stroll partway around the pond led me to Thoreau's handpicked spot, marked with a stone cairn.

For lunch, meander the quaint strip off Monument Square known as the Milldam, home to cafes and shops selling toys, cheese, jewelry, tools, antiques and clothes. No chains here: Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts are tucked discreetly down the road. Nearby is La Provence, a tasty French bakery and deli where I scarfed a rich leek quiche.

A 15-minute walk from Monument Square took me to the Old Manse. There, historical interpreters walked me through the weathered gray house overlooking the Concord River, chatting about inhabitants Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne as if they were old pals. (Hawthorne, historical interpreter Joan Grassey-Spinazola said, was a hottie.) Emerson's grandfather built the house, where his wife watched redcoats face off against patriots in 1775 across the North Bridge. A newly married Hawthorne wrote "Mosses From an Old Manse" here, while wife Sophia etched musings into windowpanes with her diamond ring. And it was in an upstairs study with a river view that Emerson penned "Nature."

The house is crammed with inscribed books, 150-year-old doodles on attic walls and the same grandfather clock from Limerick, Ireland, that has kept time for centuries. The docents are constantly unearthing tchotchkes in drawers and closets and puzzling over who their owners might have been.

The homes of Emerson, Louisa May Alcott and another of Hawthorne's residences are also popular stops.

The most comprehensive overview of Concord's outsized historical legacy can be found at the well-edited Concord Museum. Crisp, clear exhibits take visitors through the town over time. Highlights include Paul Revere's lantern and the largest collection of Thoreau's belongings, including his little green writing desk, snowshoes and spyglass.

In Concord, where people still gossip about Thoreau and Emerson's wife, history touches everything, said museum curator David Wood: "Because these things happened here, it changes the way this place thinks, looks and feels about itself."

I ended the day with the sun setting over the hillocks of picturesque Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, dedicated by Emerson. Of its 10,000 graves, the most famous top Authors Ridge, the final resting place of Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, Alcott and other local luminaries.

There's more than a day's worth of discoveries in this charming town of 17,000. As he recounted in "Walden," Thoreau paid $28.12 1/2 cents for his slice of solitude and natural wonder; but your trip might cost a little more.