Where's Walden? GPS often doesn't know
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LYNN, Mass. -- Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau's idyllic retreat in the woods of Concord, Mass., has long been one of the most famous day trips in New England, drawing droves of visitors seeking the tranquil beauty immortalized in the 19th-century philosopher's writings.
But some 21st-century conveniences -- namely Google maps and some GPS devices -- have been leading a distributary of travelers to the wrong Walden: an identically named reservoir, next to a golf course, in this old industrial center on Massachusetts' North Shore.
"I pulled up to that park and felt like I was in a county park -- any old local county park," said A.N. Devers, a writer from New York City who has visited dozens of writers' houses and was hoping to add one more during a trip to Boston this summer. Ms. Devers had entered the phrase "Walden Pond" into Google and cross-referenced directions on her iPhone.
As in more than a dozen tests on iPhones, Android phones and Google searches, she was pointed to Lynn, to a reservoir named for Edwin Walden, the president of this city's water board in the late 1800s.
"I do think I knew somewhere in the back of my head that Walden was near Concord," Ms. Devers said. But like many wayfarers in a world increasingly reliant on GPS devices, "I just didn't really process the directions."
On its support website, Google says it considers the user's location, in part, to determine its mapping search results -- but a search from Cambridge, Mass., for example, returns Lynn's reservoir, even though the Concord pond is closer in both miles and travel time. Although the simple phrase "Walden Pond" tends to pull up the Lynn reservoir, additional autocomplete options do show the site in Concord. (MapQuest and Microsoft's search engine, Bing, first pull up the Concord Walden Pond.)
"It happens all the time," said Dan Small, the ranger for Lynn Woods, where the reservoir is.
Dick Katin, a ranger at the neighboring golf course, has found himself zooming over the green in his cart to collect misdirected visitors who wander through the fairway, seeking Walden. "Which is very dangerous," he said. "They don't pay attention when they're walking through here. They think they're on a trail hiking or whatever."
The Lynn Walden Pond itself is a scenic place, although the few empty beer cans that dot the surrounding woods and the lack of Thoreau's cabin pretty quickly clue people in to the fact that something might be amiss. "We finally get there, and we're like, is this it?" said Jeremy Corn, a restaurant beverage director who used his iPhone to navigate a trip to Walden Pond during his honeymoon road trip, inspired by his new wife's love of Thoreau. When the two took a closer look at the map, they realized where they were -- or rather, weren't.
"At this point, my wife's livid," he recalled. "The Walden Pond thing was one of the only things she wanted to plan out, and we completely screwed it up."
The couple decided to take a look anyway, with Mr. Corn's panoramic camera. They now have a framed photo of the faux Walden in their home. "It was a nice hike," Mr. Corn said.
There is more enthusiasm for the pond among area residents who intend to be at this locale.
"We call it the Rez, with a Z," said Sean Lannon, a 19-year-old college student from neighboring Swampscott, Mass., who fished at the reservoir with some friends one afternoon. "I've never been to the actual Walden."
Tony Bellerose, a veterinary technologist, walks his dog daily. "This is like doggy Disneyland," said Mr. Bellerose, who like other locals has taken on the responsibility of explaining to mistaken visitors where they really are.
"Just a couple of weeks ago, people were down here and they asked for a picture," he recalled. "They're all happy, and at the end I kind of whispered to the guy, 'You know, it's not the Walden Pond.' And he's like, 'Don't tell my wife!' "
Mr. Small, the ranger, tries to break the news kindly. "I do it gently. I tell them that, 'You know, it's not the right Walden Pond, but apparently Thoreau was here at one time," he said, adding, "He supposedly mentions coming to Lynn Woods. I should really track that down."
Thoreau does, in fact, refer to a visit to the area in a journal entry he made on April 26, 1859. Unlike today's digitally bamboozled travelers, it seems that he came to Lynn on purpose, guided by the botanist Cyrus M. Tracy.
"Walked with C.M. Tracy in the rain," Thoreau wrote of his visit to the area now called Lynn Woods. "This is the last of the rains (spring rains!)."
First Published September 2, 2012 12:00 am