Day hike: Louisa May Alcott and walking to Boston

When we were children, someone told us about the time Louisa May Alcott walked from her family’s house in Concord all the way to Boston. I no longer remember the details of the story, but it always seemed to me that walking from Concord all the way to Boston was something I would like to do. So today I did. I walked over to Porter Square to catch the 8:45 train out to Concord. When the pleasant young conductor got to me, I said I was going to Concord. “Round trip?” he asked. “No, one way,” I said.

I walked from the train station though Concord center to get to Louisa May Alcott’s house out on Lexington Road. I stopped to talk with Pam, the owner of the Barrow Bookstore. She was just opening her store. “How’s business?” I asked. “Not as good as last year,” she said, “not as many foreign travelers this year.” We laughed together at some of the more ridiculous airline security precautions we had heard about.

Lexington Road was originally called the Bay Road, because it led to Massachusetts Bay. The first English settlers followed the course of the Bay Road when they first went out to Concord in 1635; no doubt parts of that road are older still, and were once paths trod by the Massasoit Indians. Not that you need to know this history; my walk wasn’t a historical re-enactment, it was more of a literary pilgrimage.

It was another perfect summer day, maybe seventy degrees, sunny, a nice breeze. Lots of cars passed me on the roads, but I saw very few people. Many of the houses I passed were perfectly painted, their yards perfectly landscaped — Concord is a very wealthy town now — but many of the houses and yards hardly looked lived in. I wondered how many people you would have seen out and about in Louisa Alcott’s time.

The Alcott family moved frequently, and lived in several houses in Concord. Two of them are right next to each other: Orchard House, the current site of a house museum devoted to Louisa Alcott and her family, and the Wayside which is now more famous as the house where Nathaniel Hawthorne lived. I don’t remember where Louisa Alcott was living when she walked to Boston, but I figured those two houses would be my official starting point.

Soon I got to the Battleroad Unit of Minuteman National Historical Park. The Battleroad Trail winds for five miles through the woods and fields of the park, connecting the towns of Concord and Lexington. At times I was walking along an unpaved road between two old stone walls, with grass growing between the road and the stone walls with open fields beyond. This, I thought to myself, must have been a little bit like what Louisa Alcott saw on her walk to Boston. But not really, for the fields were just rough grass and weeds and not planted with crops, there were no cows or horses or sheep grazing anywhere, no kitchen gardens thriving near the few houses I passed. Nor did Louisa Alcott see any bicyclists in spandex shorts, tourists with cameras around their necks, and park rangers dressed up in tricorn hats, breeches, and waiscoats.

At the end of the Battleroad Trail, I walked on the sidewalk along Massachusetts Avenue, up over Concord Hill in Lexington, through a neighborhood where the old 1950’s ranch houses are gradually being torn down so that McMansions can sprout up.

In Lexington Center, I crossed the Battle Green and passed Buckman Tavern, a historic museum where a man dressed up in 18th C. garb played a tune on a fife. Maybe, I thought to myself, I should have planned to follow in the footsteps of the Minutemen as they chased the Redcoats to Charlestown on April 19, 1775. But I was committed to my Louisa Alcott walk. I bought a sandwich to carry with me, and stopped to talk with Marianne, whom I knew when I worked at the Lexington church.

From Lexington Center, I followed the Minuteman Bike Path all the way to Somerville. The bike path follows an abandoned railroad right of way that roughly parallels Massachusetts Avenue, which is the modern name for that same old Bay Road that goes all the way to Concord. About two miles from Lexington Center, the bike path passes next to Arlington’s Great Meadows. I followed a little path in and found a knoll with a picnic table. I sat down to eat my lunch, gazing out at an expanse of marshland covered with Cattails, and Purple Loosestrife in full bloom. Away on the far side of the marsh, I thought I saw a few red leaves just starting to show on some Red Maples.

As I approached Arlington Center, two men passed me, one riding a bicycle and one on rollerblades. “Downsizing you car saves a lot of money,” said one. “Yeah,” said the other. “…Gas, insurance,” said the first. “Yeah,” said the other. Two women followed them, one woman on a bicycle and one on rollerblades, and they too were deep in conversation.

I stopped to rest in Arlington center. I wasn’t in a hurry, I wasn’t trying to set any speed records, and I had a cramp behind one knee. I sipped some iced coffee and read a newspaper.

On the other side of Arlington center, I came around a corner and there was Spy Pond. The pond was so beautiful — trees and house lining its shores, a small sailboat lazily moving along near the far shore, glints of sunlight on its surface — that I caught my breath. I left the bike path to walk along the pond’s shore. Children and dogs splashed in the water, a large extended family gathered around a picnic table, a woman typed on her laptop, a man sat reading. Regretfully, I rejoined the bike path.

After a while, when you’re walking for a long time, you tend to reach a state of mind where you don’t think about much. When I got to the Alewife subway station in Cambridge, where the bike path officially ends, I had to think because it wasn’t obvious how to get to the extension of the bike path that gets you to Davis Square. That’s all the thinking I did from Spy Pond to Davis Square.

I walked a couple of blocks over from Davis Square to Mass. Ave. and then followed Mass. Ave. to Harvard Square, and then I walked over a couple of blocks to the path that leads along the Charles River. I still wasn’t thinking about much, except that one knee hurt. I crossed over to the path along the Boston side of the Charles. Lots of people out sailing on the Charles. I watched one person sailing a Laser, a small fast sailboat, pushing the boat to its limit, coming about at the end of each tack with losing headway, heeling over until the lee gunwale was covered in foam.

Then I headed up Beacon Hill to Louisburg Square, and stopped for a moment in front of number 10, the house that Alcott bought with the money she got from her writing, and the house where she died when she was just 55 years old. Maybe I didn’t follow the exact route that she did when she walked from Concord to Boston, but that felt like a good ending to a good walk.

About 25 miles in nine hours of leisurely walking.

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