Several years ago, when my wife Mary Lee and I were getting ready to go on a hike from Melrose, Scotland to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne off the coast of England, we drove over to our friendly L.L.Bean store and bought hiking poles. Now, Mary Lee had been using what she called walking sticks for at least ten years. Her doctor had recommended them to her as a way to build upper body strength on her early morning walks, while at the same time reducing wear and tear on her hips and back. Although I thought what Mary Lee’s doctor said might make sense for her, I didn’t need any help walking, thank you very much, and, based on her experience, I didn’t want to hear one more clown ask where my skis were.
But a 72-mile hike was different, so we both bought adjustable hiking poles with these little shock-absorbers in them to provide further cushioning. They also have straps into which you insert your hands, one for the right hand and one for the left. Maybe because I don’t have a lot of human friends and I’m not big on pets, I often name possessions. (My banjo, for example is “Joy” and our car is “Tembo”—Swahili for “elephant”). So I named my right hiking pole Waldo and the left one Henry.
Waldo is the name Ralph Waldo Emerson’s friends called him. I’d recently read Robert D. Richardson Jr.’s book on Emerson called The Mind on Fire, which brought back memories of how important this nineteenth-century American philosopher and writer had been to me at one time. When I was teaching American literature and before I started attending church again, Emerson’s essay “Nature” inspired me to take long Sunday afternoon walks through the woods of Down East Maine in search some kind of “spiritual” life, and I’m still more likely to feel in touch with the Holy in the woods or by the seashore or on a mountain than I am in the grandest cathedral. Later in my life, as I began to feel more and more tied down in a loveless marriage and living in a town I detested, Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance,” with its emphasis on discovering one’s true self and attaining independence, had helped give me the courage to leave both marriage and town.
From The Mind on Fire, I learned that Emerson, often portrayed as the passionless “Sage of Concord,” was a family man and good neighbor whose life was marked by grief. His first wife had died at the age of twenty, and, after he’d remarried, his first son, Wallie died from scarlet fever at the age of five. I resonated with the story that in the last hours of Emerson’s life, forty years after his son’s death, someone heard him breathe, “Oh, that beautiful boy!” As we grieving parents know, the grief never goes away, and when it hit me during our hike, it was helpful to have Waldo at my right hand.
One of Emerson’s neighbors was Henry David Thoreau whom Waldo befriended throughout Thoreau’s life, hiring him to do odd jobs around the house, inviting him to dinner once a week, even during the two years that Henry was living what he portrayed in his classic book Walden as a solitary life on the shore of Walden Pond.
I first discovered Thoreau during what I call my Kerouac years in college, when I read his famous line, “The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation,” thinking it described everyone but myself until those unhappy years in Down East Maine. After I fell in love with a woman from Colorado and I met her in Boston for an October weekend in New England, we shared tins of sardines on the shore of Walden Pond, where I read to Mary Lee from Walden: “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you’ve imagined.”
Fifteen years or so after that, I took a retreat day and my tattered copy of Walden and drove to Concord, where I spent the day walking around Walden Pond, stopping periodically to read from the book and write in my journal. I got there early, and a morning mist hung over the water. I walked for a while and then sat on a rock, reading and staring out over what little water I could see. Out of the mist, a canoe appeared with two elderly (probably the age I am now) women in it. As they neared, sun parted the haze, highlighting the woman in the bow of the canoe: her plaid shirt and denim jeans, her lined and leathery face framed by a red hat and bandanna. I pulled out my journal and wrote how cool I thought it was that the women were so active at their ages.
These days, I think it’s even cooler.
I used Waldo and Henry on our trek through Scotland and England, and found, as Mary Lee’s doctor had said, how much easier it was to walk with them. They gave me a boost up the hills. They supported me on the way down. Several times they kept me from falling into the mud. I found myself talking to them, which isn’t that unusual: I not only name inanimate objects, I talk to them (especially recalcitrant jar covers—come on, damn you, open!), but I also discovered I was listening to what they had to say back—Okay, slow down here… Come on, you can make it up this hill. Move!
Since then, Waldo and Henry have accompanied me on hikes through the saguaro in Arizona, along the rocky coast of Maine, through the poison ivy along the riverbanks in Massachusetts. I’ve given them baskets to use when I go snowshoeing. They’ve come to symbolize a spirit of adventure, of pilgrimage. (After all, most images of pilgrimage show the pilgrim with a staff. The trouble is, a single staff throws my back out.)
A couple of years ago, I started using Waldo and Henry after winter storms to keep me and my increasingly fragile bones from breaking. This winter I’m using them almost all of the time for my walks. I say it’s because of the ice, but the fact is, I just feel better when I use them. I don’t have to soak my back after walking. My knees don’t ache. So as much as I hate to say it, Waldo and Henry are coming to represent my aging body. I notice people at church using hiking poles to get up and down the aisles and I see my future.
They also indicate my need for help, my need to admit that I’m not as independent as I like to think I am. The irony is, I’m more confident in who I am, less concerned with what other people think about me. When I hear, “Where are your skis?” I smile and say, “Oh, I knew I forgot something.”
In some ways, then, I’ve become more self-reliant. I think the real Waldo and Henry would like that.