Though Henry David Thoreau writes the book Walking, it is Daniel Boone that Thoreau has in mind as the ideal walker. Boone is the American Moses looking down upon Kentucky from the Cumberland Gap, leading his people into the promised land. Like Moses there is the question if he can himself enter in to this land that he proclaims the new Eden. Within half a life time Boone’s Eden has turned into his own personal hell. He leaves for Missouri swearing never to return. The pure nature of the unadulterated wilderness melts before his eyes in a short generation. 

Thoreau’s explanation of his own tendency in his walks contains the contradiction that will eat up the Eden of the Western wilderness: “I finally and inevitably settle southwest, toward some particular wood or meadow or deserted pasture or hill in that direction. My needle is slow to settle,— varies a few degrees, and does not always point due southwest, it is true, and it has good authority for this variation, but it always settles between west and south-southwest. The future lies that way to me, and the earth seems more unexhausted and richer on that side.”[1] 

Boone pictures the wilds of Kentucky as inexhaustible and Thoreau imagines that progress and an inexhaustible wilderness were west/southwest. Both come bearing surveyor’s equipment: the natives refer to it as “land eaters.”  

As a people, Thoreau says, we walk west: “I should not lay so much stress on this fact, if I did not believe that something like this is the prevailing tendency of my countrymen. I must walk toward Oregon, and not toward Europe. And that way the nation is moving, and I may say that mankind progress from east to west.”[2] 

We would continually “light out for the territory,” in the words of Huck Finn. First Kentucky then Missouri, and within another generation Missouri is one of the most violent places on earth: the “land beyond the Sabbath” in early descriptions.  

The desire for the West, for Eden, for progress, for the beatific vision, or a pure nature, in Thoreau’s description sets the direction of the nations: “Every sunset which I witness inspires me with the desire to go to a West as distant and as fair as that into which the sun goes down. He appears to migrate westward daily, and tempt us to follow him. He is the Great Western Pioneer whom the nations follow.”[3]

In the Protestant vision the Gospel has always travelled west with Progress: first Paul goes from the orient to the European continent on to Rome and Spain. America is the final phase of this westward move – the millennial kingdom, the city set on a hill.  

“To Americans I hardly need to say— ‘Westward the star of empire takes its way.’ As a true patriot, I should be ashamed to think that Adam in paradise was more favorably situated on the whole than the backwoodsman in this country.”[4] 

The image of Boone wandering the Kentucky wilds, singing alone in the woods, recorded in the biography by John Filson, captures the American imagination. As Thoreau describes it, the backwoodsman had it as good as Adam. And according to Thoreau this pure nature should produce a new, improved human being: “I trust that we shall be more imaginative, that our thoughts will be clearer, fresher, and more ethereal, as our sky— our understanding more comprehensive and broader, like our plains —our intellect generally on a grander scale, like our thunder and lightning, our rivers and mountains and forests-and our hearts shall even correspond in breadth and depth and grandeur to our inland seas.”[5]

Yet the very desire for Eden, for a new humanity, for a vision of God seems to ensure the destruction of that which is sought.  The desire itself, as it is naturally constituted, seems to ensure that the infidel cannot be shaken but shadows our steps. 


[1] Walking (Kindle Locations 136-139).

[2] Walking (Kindle Locations 145-147).

[3] Walking (Kindle Locations 162-164).

[4] Walking (Kindle Locations 204-206).

[5] Walking (Kindle Locations 197-203)


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