Hikers Joey Ferreli, 11, front, and his father, Jody Ferrelli, both of Sudbury, Mass., make their way along a trail in Mount Misery park in Lincoln, Mass. in March last year. Though not as well known as Walden Woods, the 227-acre swath of land next to the Sudbury River was one of author Henry David Thoreau's favorite places to take his rambling hikes. - AP

Into Thoreau's wild country

MONTPELIER, Vt. — Tom Slayton set out hoping to renew interest in Henry David Thoreau, using his feet and his pen.

It turned out that following Thoreau's footsteps to Cape Cod, Walden Pond and Maine's Mount Katahdin burnished his own admiration of the "Walden" author. Now, he hopes the fruit of his travels — a book entitled "Searching for Thoreau: On the Trails and Shores of Wild New England" — will do the same for others.

"What I hope the book does is give people intimate access to Thoreau, to make him approachable to them," he said Friday. "Once people make his acquaintance, he's such a brilliant, wonderful writer on so many subjects, they'll want to know more.

"Humanize him, personalize him, make him accessible is the most I can hope my book does," he said.

"Searching for Thoreau" (Images From the Past, $18.95), which hit bookshelves in December, pairs literary analysis of "Walden" and other lesser-known Thoreau works with step-by-step descriptions of Slayton's visits to the places that inspired Thoreau and his own narrative of where he went and what he felt.

"It's an excellent read," said J. Parker Huber, a Thoreau scholar from Brattleboro who has written two books of his own on Thoreau. "It moves right along, and is well worth looking at. It will appeal to a wider audience than a scholarly book on Thoreau."

Thoreau, who lived from 1817 to 1862, is best known for "Walden," his reflection on living in nature during a two-year retreat in a small house on Walden Pond, in his hometown of Concord, Mass.

Slayton, 66, a retired longtime editor of Vermont Life magazine, was a Thoreau buff for years, but admits he never read "Walden" cover to cover until three years ago.

Once he did, he was drawn to Walden Pond and soon afterward decided to visit the author's other earthly muses and make a book of it. Battling an arthritic hip and wearing out a pair of hiking boots, he traipsed all over New England in a three-year quest to find Thoreau, nature and a bit of himself.

The resulting 240-page paperback — which is illustrated by Slayton's 36-year-old son, Ethan — draws heavily on "Walden," "Cape Cod," "The Maine Woods" and Thoreau's journals, describing in lyrical detail the flora, fauna and sometimes-treacherous paths Thoreau walked more than 150 years ago and Slayton followed.

Describing his ascent of the 5,267-foot Mount Katahdin, Maine's highest peak, Slayton writes of a raging wilderness of Gothic peaks, plugs of granite and breathtaking views.

"Dark clouds, shot through with white, and sheets of rain raced toward me; wisps of smoky mist were ripped from the vast forest and swirled upward. Torn shreds of blue sky and racing clouds intermingled with shafts of sunlight, even as the roaring winds continued to pummel us, adding to the awesome wild beauty sprawled for miles around.

"It was a vision of raw wildness that Thoreau himself would have savored. It was humbling, frightening, savage, uncaring. And completely beautiful."

On his visit to Walden Pond: "We are within 20 miles of Boston, within two miles of downtown Concord and within a couple hundred yards of the railroad tracks and the sprawling 21st-century network of highways and phone lines — the ganglia and nervous tissue of our driven society. Yet here we sit, not saying much, savoring the perceptions and thoughts — the mind, really — of Concord's resident oddball genius as we watch the swallows soar and dive above the sedges. How lovely. How unusual."

While he's proud of the book, Slayton has no illusions about its significance.

Asked what it contributes to the body of knowledge about one of the literary world's most well-known hermits, he says with a chuckle: "Not very much. I'm not a scholar. I'm not a biographer or a historian. I'm a journalist."

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