Living Thoreau

Living Thoreau

In a modern society, I wanted to explore what it was like to live by my own two hands away from the demands of the time punch card and the ticking clock.

As conscious hit me, the first thing that crossed my mind was my furry, filthy teeth. Sounds of traffic could be distinctly heard above someone rustling in the trashcan next to me. When I opened my eyes the graffiti left by the West Side Street Mob glared down on me; a blinding rainbow from the underbelly of the bridge. I sat up and shoved the back of my friend, hoping to wake him up. It had been a cold night, and he was curled tightly in a ball under the one coat we had allowed ourselves to bring. This was the beginning of the last day of our venture: day seven of an eye opening week.

In high school, we had been assigned “Walden Pond” by Henry David Thoreau. The escape from societal demands had appealed to me. What would life be like if everyday was free to us: if we gave up all responsibility to the world and demands of the world? What would it be like to live with nothing but the shirt on our backs? This is what we set out to do. However, we decided to live a different experiment than Thoreau. Instead of a cabin on the edge of society, we decided to live smack in the middle of, yet socially separated from, society. The rules were simple. We would go to a city that we had never inhabited, and thus be away from the familiar. Neither change of clothes, nor any cleansing or beauty products were allowed. No money was to be brought and the car would be inaccessible for one week. If we needed food we could wash dishes but no exchange of money or begging would be permitted. Other than that, the world was our oyster, and our only job was to observe the human race and to live life uninhibited.

Spokane, Washington was the frontier of our adventure. After we stuck the car in a pre-paid lot, and stuffed all our processions into a pre-paid locker, we strung the key around our neck and walked away from our past life with nothing but our clothes and a small, hidden knife. With hours of ambling behind us, we stumbled upon our new home. It was a bridge, located in some inoffensive neighborhood, which connected two shores divided by a larger stream. Grass cushioned the people who already inhibited the bank to the left, while the right remained rocky and devoid of life.

We were nervous about approaching the rough crowd who seemed veterans of the life, but we knew allies were needed to enter the world of estrangement. We were frank with them about our quest, feeling that honesty was the only way to survive in the harsh realities of the lifestyle. However, after eyeing us with suspicion, they let us be and went back to their activities of rest and survival. We had moved in successfully.

The first day was the hardest to get used to. The separation from our familiar environment was startling, not because of loneliness, but because of idleness. We were completely removed from the “must do’s” of life and lived with necessity as the guiding force behind our actions. Without the grocery list to complete, we were allowed to live based on our wants and needs. Our entire days were free to us, to spend however we wanted, and it took awhile to grasp. The constant nagging of life was present only because it had become engrained in our brain. It took me three days to get rid of it.

Within the week, like Thoreau, we had fallen into a routine of bliss. We would wake, wash our dirty faces in the stream and head out on the new adventure of the day. While hunger was the main thought on our minds, we grew accustomed to eating whenever the circumstances presented themselves. We were no longer tied to the schedule of breakfast, lunch and dinner. It was eating a crust of a sandwich found before a waiter took the plate back, or waiting for a child to drop an apple at the fruit stand. It would have been degrading, if we still belonged to society, but as free citizens, we were allowed to be happy with what we got. When in the same situation Thoreau says, “Most men would feel shame if caught preparing with their own hands precisely such a dinner […]yet till this is otherwise we are not civilized” (Thoreau). When removed from society, we have only to judge ourselves to define our shame. A few times, we did work in a few restaurants, after explaining to a busboy or the trash collector our situation. They would smile at our bravery and quietly sneak us into the back for an hour of work. We would eat like a royal couple on those nights. The food tasted sweeter and richer. We had earned our food and it belonged to no one but us. The juices would slide down our faces and we would let them, enjoying the moments we had earned.

In that week, we learned to live for ourselves. We would trek from the busiest street, filled with noise, lights and height; to the quietest, flower filled meadows on the shore of the Spokane River.  We experienced all aspects of life that the modern world had to offer. The uninhabited forests to the parts of the city only the unattached dare to penetrate.  We would watch the weight of crowds scuttle past and holds hands while we moseyed behind them, with no where ‘important’ to be. By the sixth day, the lines had erased themselves from my too-young face, and I was born again: free of sin.

That is, until the seventh day.

As he slowly uncurled himself, he grinned at me while he stretched out his long limbs. Our eyes connected and his smile faded as the harsh reality of the number seven hit our brains. One week.

We weren’t sad at the thought of returning to our past lives, only by realizing the end of this one. We recognized how easy it is to change one’s circumstances and were heartened to know we weren’t trapped into any sort of life. We had come to understand Thoreau when he stated, “I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours” (Thoreau). Whichever life we chose for the future, it is ours to make what we will. We had discovered how to find the beauty in idle moments and undiscovered paths. Life can lead you anywhere; one just needs the courage to walk ahead.

-Miranda Rawson


  1. Thoreau, Henry David. “Walden.” The Thoreau Reader. 2009. Thoreau Society. 13 Sept. 2009 <>.