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  • by Chris Stewart

A Rebel Without Any Luck

Thoreau's White Mountains Headaches

"Spring, summer, fall . . . no matter what season you pick to vacation, it's a great season in Mount Washington Valley."

-- Mount Washington Valley Chamber of Commerce 1982 - 1983 Vacation Guide

Most visitors traveling to the Mount Washington Valley agree with the Chamber of Commerce's assessment. Some do not. Despite all the Valley has to offer, a few tourists will always rate their experiences on a par with an audit by the IRS. Flat tires, mosquito bites, rain storms, lost wallets and other more serious mishaps turn a certain percentage of dream vacations into memorable headaches.

Hounded by bad luck, these people might find solace in knowing that Henry David Thoreau encountered troubles when he explored the White Mountains more than a century ago. He appeared unimpressed after his first visit, and ran into an unusual number of difficulties when he returned to the area a second time. The author of Walden chalked up these problems to poor planning.

"Though I had a good time in the mountains, I confess that the journey did not bear any fruit that I know of," he wrote to a friend following his 1858 vacation. "I did not expect that it would. The mode of it was not simple and adventurous enough." In point of fact, his trip may have been a bit too adventurous.

Judging by Thoreau's rather blase reaction to his first White Mountain sojourn, it's easy to understand why he waited 19 years before coming back After all, in the summer of 1839 the mountains were only a brief detour which took him away from the rivers he wanted to explore. As a 22-year-old teacher from Concord, Massachusetts, Thoreau decided to spend two weeks boating on the upper reaches of the Concord and Merrimack rivers, following what he described as the "natural impulse" to learn about the river's path.

With his older brother John, Thoreau departed from Concord on August 31st, and for the next six days the brothers enjoyed sunny skies and smooth sailing on their way to Hookset. From here, leaving their boat in the hands of a local farmer, they hiked 10 miles to Concord where they passed a quiet night with friends. Three days later, traveling by stagecoach and horseback, they arrived at Franconia Notch in the midst of a protracted spell of rainy weather.

LIke other tourists, the Thoreaus roamed through the Notch and gazed at its famed natural attractions -- the Flume, the Basin, and the Old Man of the Mountain. Henry, however, wasn't inspired, if his lack of written comment is an accurate gage of his feelings. Aside from noting that the Basin was a "remarkable curiosity," Thoreau had little to say about Franconia. Contrasted with his lengthy prose describing other facets of this journey - prose which appeared in his book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers - this silence puzzles historian Frederick W. Kilbourne.

"It is rather curious that the great wonder of the New Hampshire highlands seems not to have impressed him sufficiently to call forth any recorded description of it or comments upon its aspects," Kilbourne wrote in the June 1919 issue of Appalachia. Foul weather may have soured Thoreau's feelings for the area, although (as Kilbourne suggested) a more likely explanation is found elsewhere. Since the focus of Thoreau's trip was the rivers, the mountains fell outside the scope of his narrative. Moreover, because the sales of his Week book floundered, he was probably discouraged from writing about his travels even if he had taken accurate notes. In addition, many other writers had already penned volumes on the subject, and Thoreau - listening to the beat of a different drummer - had no desire to rehash a belabored topic.

Whatever the reason, the brothers moved on to Crawford Notch where they took a room at Tom Crawford's hotel (at the Gateway to the Notch) on September 8th. The following day, they climbed to the summit of Mount Washington via the Crawford Path - an event which earned a paragraph in the Weeks book: "Thus in fair days as well as foul, we had traced up the river to which our native stream (the Concord) is tributary, until from Merrimack it became the Pemigewasset that leaped by our side, and when we had passed its fountain head, the Wild Amonoosuck, whose puny channel was crossed at a stride, guiding us toward its distant source among the mountains, and at length, without its guidance, we were enabled to reach the summit of Agiocochook (the Indian name for Mount Washington)."

From a man who excelled in translating the out-of-doors into print, such a curt report does seem odd. While the dismal public reception his Week book received may indeed be the reason why he didn't write more about the mountains, the truth may be must less complex: Clouds obscured his view. Thoreau's own actions on his return trip to the mountains in the summer of 1858 confirm this explanation. During this trip, descriptions of planned and unplanned events filled the pages of his Journal.

Inspiration for a second visit stemmed from Thoreau's passion for wildflowers; together with his friend Edward Sherman Hoar, he hoped to collect 46 species common to the mountain's Alpine zone. Without doubt, he also hoped for a break from the pressures of writing in Concord.

In June of 1858, a month before his trip. Thoreau discovered that the Atlantic Monthly had omitted a sentence from his story about the Maine woods - a sentence he specifically requested be included. "It was a harmless enough sentence," Thoreau biographer Philip Van Doren Stern pointed out, "one that implied that a tree might be immortal as a man and thus go to Heaven with him, but Thoreau was outraged because such liberties had been taken with his prose."

Adding insult to injury, the magazine's editor, James Russell Lowell, had been late in paying Thoreau for previous Atlantic articles despite his repeated requests. Thoreau was fed up and refused to write for the Atlantic until Lowell resigned in 1861.

Aside from his dispute with the Atlantic, Thoreau was engaged in a much more serious battle with tuberculosis, a disease which forced him to convalesce during most of 1855 and part of 1857. Since he believed the mountains were a place where a person could breathe "the free air of the Unappropriated Land," he may have decided to head northward to recover his health. Having traveled to Maine and Cape Cod the year before, he may simply have wished for a change of scenery. In any event, he and Hoar left Concord by horse and carriage on July 1st.

Moving north at a leisurely pace, the men reached the Lakes region on Independence Day. On July 5th, they climbed to the summit of Red Hill - just north of Center Harbor - where Thoreau was struck with the view of Mount Chocorua. "In some respects," he wrote, "this mountain was the wildest and most imposing of all the White Mountain peaks." He also observed that locals pronounced Chocorua as "Shecorway" or "Corway," a far cry from present articulation.

They journeyed on the following day, passing through Tamworth, Conway, North Conway (whose environs he described as a "level interval with soft and shady groves, with mountain grandeur and ruggedness") and Jackson, finally arriving in Pinkham Notch where they slept in the comfort of the Glen House. There they were joined by their guide, a man named Wentworth who lived to the south of Pinkham Notch and was "a native" in the region. Not so early the next morning, half an hour before noon, the three men set out on foot for Mount Washington, having arranged for the horse and carriage to be kept at Wentworth's home for the duration of the hike.

Thoreau's route to the summit followed the Auto Road, at least on the first day of his hike. Work crews had completed four miles of this eight-mile toll road the year before Thoreau's trip, though no construction was in progress in 1858. The original road company had gone bankrupt, and the final four miles would not be completed for another three years (opening for the public in August 1861). The Halfway House, however, stood where it stands today, making it probable that Thoreau and his companions slept there. Since Thoreau described his sleeping quarters as a "shanty," this issue is in doubt.

Early the next morning, Thoreau took off for the summit half an hour before Wentworth and Hoar, wising to ascend Washington before the expected arrival of inclement weather. This action supports the argument that he was clouded in when he first scaled the peak in 1939. In any case, his plan worked. "He was rewarded for his earliness," Kilbourne wrote, "by enjoying a good view, which was denied his companions by a cloud which settled down before their arrival." From this point, Thoreau's hike proved to be downhill in more ways than one.

Ignoring Wentworth's advice, Thoreau decided to descend in thick fog to Tuckerman Ravine, relying on his compass to guide him. "Thoreau had a habit in mountaineering of following his own path in a straight line to his objective," F. Allen Burt recalled in The Story of Mount Washington. "Descending through the Ravine, he found one difficult spot, a narrow portion of snow, which was "unexpectedly hard and dangerous to traverse". Here he lost his balance, slipped and "tore up" his fingers trying to arrest his fall. Analyzing this accident, he advised others to be cautious. "It is unwise," he wrote, "for one to ramble over these mountains at any time, unless he is prepared to move with as much certainty as if he were solving a geometrical problem."

Once Wentworth and Hoar rejoined Thoreau later that afternoon, his luck went from bad to worse. The men settled down in a makeshift camp a third of a mile above Hermit Lake where they staked out their tent and began preparations for the evening meal. When Wentworth started to gather sticks and moss for a fire, Thoreau advised him about the dangers of burning moss. Since Thoreau - never famous as a compromiser - had disregarded Wentworth's advice, Wentworth was probably in no mood to listen. Perhaps he should have. Just as Thoreau feared, flames from the campfire escaped and touched off the surrounding vegetation.

"The fire, as a result of this carelessness, soon set the fir leaves ablaze," Kilbourne wrote, "and spread with great violence up the mountain, even above the limit of the trees." A quick decampment ensued as the men scurried toward Hermit Lake away from the inferno. Some 200 yards from the Lake, they made a second camp and watched as the fire burned. About this time - as previously arranged - two of Thoreau's friends arrived from the Glen House where Thoreau had left instructions to look for "a white tent and smoke from a campfire." "We had made smoke, sure enough," Thoreau observed.

Steady rains proved a mixed blessing to the five men who crowded into the tent that night. While precipitation slowly extinguished the forest fire, its soaking effects - coupled with persistent attack of black flies and mosquitoes - made sleep difficult. In spite of these discomforts and the continued rains which greeted him the next morning, Thoreau was determined to accomplish what he had planned. Eventually, he was able to identify 42 of the 45 wildflowers he wanted, but not without even more misfortune.

After retracing his route to the lip of the Ravine, Thoreau spent most of the next day botanizing in the Alpine Garden. That afternoon, on his way back to camp, trouble struck again. While hopping from rock to rock at a brook crossing, he slipped and sprained his ankle so badly that walking was impossible. With the help of a friend he hobbled back to the tent, but the pain lingered and prevented him from sleeping for a second night in a row. Considering Thoreau's injury and the doggedly inclement weather, the party remained in camp for three days through the night of July 11th. By that time, with the healing effects of soaking in ice-cold mountain water and "local herbs," his ankle had recovered sufficiently enough for him to carry his own weight.

Most tourists would have made a beeline for home after this kind of vacation, but Thoreau wanted to climb Lafayette and climb it he did, conquering the summit on a clear July 15th. He also proved to be different from other visitors in his observations about the region. Instead of lamenting about the weather, the dangerous condition of the hiking trails or the blood-thirsty insects, he criticized the creeping development in the mountains where people were making the area "as much like the city as they can afford to."

"I heard that Crawford's House was lighted with gas," he wrote, "and had a large saloon with its band of music for dancing." If he were alive today, he might have a few more comments.


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