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On July 19, 1842, Thoreau and Richard Fuller walked from Concord to Princeton, Massachusetts, where, after spending a night at an inn in Sterling, they camped on the summit of Mount Wachusett, one of the highest peaks in the state. Thoreau was living with the Emersons in Concord at the time, serving as handyman and gardener to earn his keep, and attempting to launch his literary career.
Four years earlier, he and his older brother, John, had opened what became by all accounts a successful school, the Concord Academy, but in 1841, the brothers were forced to shut it down when John fell ill with tuberculosis. After searching in vain for another teaching job, Thoreau took up residence with the Emersons. His move deepened his ties to the family, provided easy access to their extensive library, and gave him time to take and write about his excursions, thereby helping to establish travel and exploration as central themes in his work.
In January 1842, Thoreau's placid life with the Emersons was shattered by John's sudden death, not from the tuberculosis that had plagued him for years, but from lockjaw, which he contracted after cutting himself with a razor. Of the countless ways in which John's death affected Thoreau, perhaps the most apparent to posterity is that it deprived him of his natural traveling companion.
In writing about his excursions from then on, he generally used the pronoun "we," but seldom gave his fellow traveler a definite identity, thus inviting us, in effect, to take John's place, walking alongside him or riding in his boat, witnessing a shared landscape. John's intangible presence is especially poignant in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, which Thoreau wrote expressly as a tribute to his brother, but it also shaped his account of his trip to Wachusett, his first sojourn outside of Concord after months of mourning.
A few weeks before this trip, "The Natural History of Massachusetts," Thoreau's first venture into nature writing, appeared in the Dial. He had yet to develop the unerring power that would distinguish his later essays, but in describing what he called, "a true man of science," he defined the transcendentalist ideal that he attempted to fulfill in "A Walk" and pursued for the rest of his life:
The true man of science will know nature better by his finer organization; he will smell, taste, see, hear, feel, better than other men. His will be a deeper and finer experience. We do not learn by inference and deduction...but by direct intercourse and sympathy. It is with science as with ethics, — we cannot know truth by contrivance and method; the Baconian is as false as any other, and with all the helps of machinery and the arts, the most scientific will still be the healthiest and friendliest man, and possess a more perfect Indian wisdom.
"A Walk to Wachusett" appeared in the Boston Miscellany of Literature and Fashion in January 1843. While the piece was issued quickly, the payment promised by editor Nathan Hale, Jr. never arrived. Thoreau tried for a time to collect his due, and even asked Elizabeth Peabody, a rising light in Boston literary circles, to intervene. These efforts proved unsuccessful, but he ended up receiving a far more valuable memento of the walk from Richard Fuller, who sent him a music box with an image of Lake Lucerne on the lid. In his note of thanks, Thoreau warmly recalled their excursion: