Located in Adams, Massachusetts, Mount Greylock (also referred to as Saddleback Mountain) stands at roughly 3,491 feet (1064 m) tall, making it the highest peak in the state. Greylock is part of a smaller group of mountains known as the Berkshires, which as a whole form the southern-most continuation of Vermont’s Green Mountains. When Thoreau visited Greylock in 1844 several observation towers constructed by the students of Williamstown College were located at its summit.
After the loss of his brother John Thoreau Jr. in 1842 and after returning from a six month stay stay in New York in 1843, Thoreau headed west to the mountains in July 1844, starting first at Mount Monadnock in Jaffrey, New Hampshire before making his way to Greylock. In true Thoreauvian fashion he took little with him; his trek was intended to restore his troubled spirit by seeking solitude in nature. After spending a night on Greylock’s summit Thoreau descended and met up with William Ellery Channing, Jr. in Pittsfield, MA. Channing would later write about Thoreau’s disheveled appearance in his personal copy of Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. The two then continued on towards the Catskill Mountains in New York where they would spend another week before returning home to Concord. Upon his arrival home Thoreau received a letter from his friend Isaac Hecker inviting him on a hiking tour of Europe to which Thoreau graciously declined.
As the light increased, I discovered around me an ocean of mist, which by chance reached up exactly to the base of the tower, and shut out every vestige of the earth, while I was left floating on this fragment of the wreck of a world, on my carved plank, in cloudland; a situation which required no aid from the imagination to render it impressive. As the light in east steadily increased, it revealed to me more clearly the new world into which I had risen in the night, the new terra firma perchance of my future life . . . It was a favor for which to be forever silent to be shown this vision. The earth beneath had become such a flitting thing of lights and shadows as the clouds had been before . . . As I had climbed above storm and cloud, so by successive days’ journeys I might reach the region of eternal day, beyond the tapering shadow of the earth . . . (pp. 198).
William Ellery Channing Jr. writes about Thoreau’s appearance after his descent of Greylock in his copy of A Week:
“He had no shirt-collar perceptible, carried a small leather wallet belonging to the late Charles Emerson on his back and looked as if he had slept out in the fields as he was unshaved & drest [sic] very poorly” (The Days of Henry Thoreau: A Biography, pp. 172).
Isaac Hecker writes to Thoreau on 31 July 1844:
It was not altogether the circumstance of our immediate physical nearness, tho this may [have] been the consequence of a higher affinity, that inspired us to commune with each other. This I am fully sensible since our separation [sic]. Oftentimes we observe ourselves to be passive or cooperative agents of profounder principles than we at the time ever dream of.
I have been stimulated to write to you at this present moment on account of a certain project which I have formed in which your influence has no slight share I imagine in forming. It is to work our passage to Europe, and to walk, work and beg, if needs be, as far when there as we are inclined to do . . .
Thoreau responds to Hecker on 14 August 1844:
I am glad to hear your voice from that populous city and the more so for the tenor of its discourse. I have just returned from a pedestrian excursion, some what similar to that you propose, parvis componere magna, to the Catskill mountains . . .
Channing wonders how I can resist your invitation, I, a single man—unfettered—and so do I . . . I hope you will find a companion who will enter as heartily into your schemes as I should have done.
I am really sorry that the Genius will not let me go with you, but I trust that it will conduct to other adventures, and so if nothing prevents we will compare notes at last.