Chapter 3: Why I Went Back to Walden

Part 1: No Place Left to Run

One yield of practicing the three mindfulness tools I advocate in Back to Walden is the kind of clarification that monks must experience after years of contemplation, seclusion, and meditation. I think of my past as a lovely vista, which I am gazing backwards upon after reaching a summit. From here, only the defining crests stand out, in stark contrast to their surrounding valleys and hollows in shadow. From this viewpoint, my chaotic and confusing past finally makes sense.

My newfound sense of vision reminds me of a key passage in James Hilton’s profound novel, Lost Horizon, when one of the wise monks in Shangri-La explained how monasticism illuminates the journey of life: “You see, my dear sir, one of the first steps towards the clarifying of the mind is to obtain a panorama of one’s own past, and that, like any other view, is more accurate in perspective. When you have been among us long enough, you will find your old life slipping gradually into focus as through a telescope when the lens is adjusted. Everything will stand out still and clear, duly proportioned, and with its correct significance.”

My aim in setting down the following impressionistic portrait of my past, as everything stands out “still and clear,” is to show how I reached such a critical juncture of my life and explain precisely why I decided to go Back to Walden. My path to Walden has been neither transcendent, noble, nor straight.

Thoreau's Cabin

My path to Walden has been neither transcendent, noble, nor straight

I was born of old Texas stock in 1945, precisely a century after Thoreau went to Walden. For much of the next few decades, I led a life of unquiet desperation. I was the anti-Thoreau, living the antipathetic Walden. I resided in a fool’s paradise, if there ever was one. I did my own quixotic thing, questing after…What?  Who knows? Some windmill to charge, some lost cause to champion, some dewy eyed Dulcinea to save. I juked and jived, quite out of control, while dodging the same essential facts of life that Thoreau had cornered so skillfully at Walden Pond.

The trajectory of my life was formed even before my memory cells had the ability to store recollections, scars, or cobwebs. In 1947, when I was two, a four-engine propeller airliner piloted by my father disintegrated against a mountaintop in West Virginia on the approach to Washington’s National Airport.

My only remaining legacy from my dad is a sepia-toned photograph of himself in uniform, the cap and its visor tilted back jauntily, his lips fathering a toothy grin, eyes glimmering with something grander than the Milky Way in the summer Texas sky.

My early years were blessed by the presence of my grandfather, a bear-like, gruff, but kindly cotton man and conservationist, who took in my mother, brother, and me after my father died. He literally saved our lives by sheltering us in every way. My grandfather has been the one sustaining, positive, male role model of my life, one who cast a profound influence on me as a boy and throughout my adulthood.

This anecdote about my grandfather, I think, shows his love, his contrariness, and his perverse sense of humor. One hot Texas evening, I was caught in some sort of tomfoolery during our weekly family get-together; I think it might have been when I shoved my cousin Mark, fully clothed, into the fish pond in my grandfather’s spacious back yard. In terms of our family code, my offense called for an adult reprimand somewhere in that gray area between a slap on the wrist and capital punishment. My grandfather, in his role as patriarch, took control of the situation while 12 or so family members looked on.

a serene sunset

A magical place

“Gus,” he growled his nickname for me. “Go over yonder, behind those bushes, and pick you out a good switch. Then wait for me!”

I did what I was told and waited with that sense of deep foreboding that fills every child anywhere when facing swift and just punishment. Several minutes later, my grandfather lumbered over to where I was waiting in the bushes.

“Now, Gus,” he whispered, “when I slap this ol’ switch on the ground a few times, I want you to holler like all get-out, by God, so everybody can hear you.”

And I did.

My grandfather left a deep and lasting impression on me. But I will put off that story until the final chapter in Back to Walden, where my relationship with him and a magical place called Little Sandy, which was his own Walden Pond, will serve as a fitting climax to this book and everything it stands for.

Meanwhile, I will focus here on a very different kind of influence. Strangely enough, because I was so young when my father died, my personality wasn’t formed so much by that tragedy as by the tortured, larger-than-life character who would take his place, and also shoulder aside my grandfather in the bargain. This is the stuff of the next section.