Henry David Thoreau Packs for an Excursion
When July and August rolled around, Henry David Thoreau was ready, for what he called, an excursion. Thoreau is well-known for having traveled a good deal in Concord, but his excursions carried him farther afield to Maine, Cape Cod, Philadelphia, New York City, the Great Lakes, Niagara Falls, Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Mackinac Island. Several of these journeys were transformed into books: A Yankee in Canada, The Maine Woods and Cape Cod . Thoreau’s biographer Henry Seidel Canby describes these travel guides as “propaganda for the art of sauntering with an open eye, and for the proper use of leisure.” In them, we can catch a glimpse of Thoreau on vacation.
Thoreau’s excursions were inspired by books on travel and natural history. Like many of us, he used the winter months to read about and dream of summer destinations. “Books of natural history make the most cheerful winter reading. I read in Audubon with a thrill of delight, when snow covers the ground, of the magnolia, and the Florida keys, and their warm sea breezes ….” (Natural History of Massachusetts). We know that Thoreau also read books by William Bartram, Charles Darwin, Magellan, James Cook, the arctic explorers John Franklin, Alexander Mckenzie and William Parry, David Livingstone, Richard Francis Burton and Lewis and Clark, to name only a few.
When he was 22, Thoreau traveled lightly. In A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Thoreau chronicles a journey taken by boat and afoot with his brother John, from Concord to the White Mountains of New Hampshire. He notes that: The cheapest way to travel and the way to travel farthest in the shortest distance is to go afoot, carrying
· A dipper
· A spoon
· A fish-line
· Some Indian meal
· Some salt
· Some sugar
We have to imagine that the brothers may have carried a few more items than just these on their journey. But at this time in his life, Thoreau was more an adventurer than a natural historian.
Compare the 1839 list with this one: “Outfit for an Excursion.” It was published as an Appendix in The Maine Woods. For twelve days travel in Maine in the month of July Thoreau suggests:
Wear – a checked shirt, stout old shoes, thick socks, a neck ribbon, thick waistcoat, thick pants, old Kossuth hat [a soft hat with a wide flexible brim], a linen sack
Carry – in an India-rubber knapsack, with a large flap, two shirts (check), one pair of thick socks, one pair drawers, one flannel shirt, two pocket handkerchiefs, a light India-rubber coat or a thick woolen one, two bosoms [dress shirts] and two collars to go and come with, one napkin, pins, needles, thread, one blanket, best gray, seven feet long.
Tent – six by seven feet, and four feet high in the middle, will do; veil and gloves and insect-wash, or, better, mosquito-bars [a net or curtain] to cover all at night; best pocket map, and perhaps description of the route; compass; plant-book, and red blotting-paper; paper and stamps, botany, small pocket spy-glass for birds, pocket microscope, tape-measure, insect boxes.
Axe, full size if possible, jackknife, fish-lines, two only apiece, with a few hooks and corks ready, and with pork for bait in a packet, rigged; matches (some also in a small vial in the waist-coat pocket); soap, two pieces; large knife and iron spoon (for all); three or four old newspapers, much twine, and several rags for dishcloths; twenty feet of strong cord, four-quart tin pail for kettle, two tin dippers, three tin plates, a fry pan.
Provisions – Soft hardbread [hardtack], twenty-eight pounds; pork, sixteen pounds; sugar, twelve pounds; one pound black tea or three pounds coffee, one box or a pint of salt, one quart of Indian meal, to fry fish in; six lemons, good to correct the pork and warm water; perhaps two or three pounds of rice, for variety. You will probably get some berries, fish, &c., beside.
A gun is not worth the carriage, unless you go as hunters. The pork should be in an open keg, sawed to fit; the sugar, tea or coffee, meal, salt &c., should be put in separate water-tight India-rubber bags, tied with a leather string; and all the provisions, and part of the rest of the baggage, put into two large India-rubber bags, which have proved to be water-tight and durable.
The plant book, blotting paper, botany, spyglass, pocket microscope, tape measure and insect boxes show Thoreau’s deepening interest in recording his observations of the natural world. William Howarth in his book Thoreau in the Mountains, suggests that the meat, bread and coffee were taken to satisfy his companions on the Maine adventures. He believes that even in his later life Thoreau’s personal style was Spartan and more in line with the list from A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Howarth also describes Thoreau’s pack: “An average load weighed about fifty pounds, not suspended on a frame (as with modern packs) but hanging from narrow, unpadded straps. With that load he climbed the steepest trails, setting a faster pace than most of his companions.”
In his Journal Thoreau adds one more item to his list of suggestions on packing for an excursion . Before setting off on your journey, create a list of questions that can, hopefully, be answered during the course of the trip. “I have found my account in travelling, in having prepared before hand a list of questions which I would get answered – not trusting to my interest of the moment – and can then travel with the most profit.” (Journal – August 30, 1856) The questions you carry with you will keep you engaged with new places and people and may lead to unexpected answers and a whole new series of questions. This tidbit of traveling wisdom may be Thoreau’s best advice for us today as we plan our own excursions and adventures.