Walking Towards Walden by John Hanson Mitchell

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Walking Towards Walden

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

“Why would you want to walk to Concord, when you can ride there?” asks a man encountered by the travelers as they uncover long-forgotten paths on their journey to Concord, Massachusetts. This book is John Mitchell’s response. Part of the answer lies in the nature of the friends themselves, “sufficiently eccentric to appreciate the folly” of their adventure but also firm believers that “exploration of true places occurs not by design but by accident.” The rest of the answer unfolds as Mitchell weaves mythology, history, and natural ecology to create a personal and cultural statement that may encourage readers to investigate their own places on our planet. Although John, Barkley, and Kata are hacking their way through overgrown brush, their thoughts and discussions range from Plato to Christopher Columbus (they are walking on Columbus Day), Native American legends to Greek mythology, Henry David Thoreau to Revolutionary War militia.

Instead of competing for attention with the terrain, such diversity encourages the reader to delve beyond specific expressions to consider the abstract, universal values which support them. Like heroic adventures throughout the ages, these modern-day pilgrims have their own trials to overcome. They are startled not by wild animals, for example, but by dogs from housing subdivisions and horseback riders from local stables. Rather than bands of marauding highwaymen, they encounter the highways themselves. (Anyone familiar with the area will appreciate the obstacle that crossing Route 495 presents to the foot traveler.)

Readers interested specifically in New England will appreciate Mitchell’s keen eye for detail. Yet this is not a typical “back-to-nature” book, and it makes room for—even encourages—the unexpected and the contradictory. Mitchell suggests that “place holds no sway in the American soul,” but makes a clear distinction between nomads who move with direction and the lost, luxury traveling done by many Americans, “wheeling along at sixty miles per hour just for the sake of the trip.” Mitchell, and others like him, show readers that this is not necessarily the only way to go.