Very level to Ypsilanti

“Very level to Ypsilanti, then hilly to Ann Arbor, then less hilly to Lake Michigan.”

These are not the most eloquent words written by Henry David Thoreau, but their truth remains apparent even today to anyone who has lived near Detroit. Here the hilly glacial terrain of southeast Michigan flattens on its way to Lake Erie into an alluvial plain whose very flatness is so perfect and pervasive that a passing philosopher might be moved to take note of it.

Thoreau was a diligent observer, and this passage appears in his personal journal. As is typical, after noting some cultural features for context, he turns immediately to the natural. Although he traveled regularly by foot around his native Concord, Massachusetts to serve his curiosity as well as his work as a surveyor, and occasionally to farther places, his observation rarely covers such a wide territory as we see on this spring day in 1861. We get a sense that perhaps he was moving a bit faster than usual.

Most people don’t know that Thoreau lived in his cabin at Walden for only two years, two months, and two days, after which he returned to Concord to resume a surprisingly gregarious life — for someone who today is widely but incorrectly understood as a hermit. Nine years later, he published Walden, a book built on memory as much as experience. Eight years later, in 1862, he died, at age 44.

Many lives were short then. His was shortened by a lifelong case of tuberculosis. In his time, there was no cure, but dry air was thought to help, and in 1861 that was the advice that brought him to Minnesota, and so, briefly past Detroit, Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor. Today, we don’t think of Minnesota as a particularly dry place, but the world was a smaller place then, and comparatively dry it was.

Even today, taking an Amtrak gives the same impression that Thoreau recorded in 1861. One wonders if it was the same right-of-way that Amtrak follows today, from the Michigan Central station, level to Ypsilanti and then becoming hilly as it criss-crosses the Huron River valley through Ann Arbor. It seems almost certain that it was. Crossing the river valley so many times would indeed give an impression of Ann Arbor as hilly, and there are few other routes that would give the same impression.

At that time, even the historic Michigan Central station in Ann Arbor, where the Gandy Dancer restaurant is today, was 25 years in the future. So it’s no wonder that his forests were all hardwood. Today, we would see a mixture of hardwood and evergreen, owing to a hundred and fifty years of continued occupation through which several generations have expressed a preference for a bit of green in the winter.

His trip back from Minnesota is unrecorded in the abridged journal that I have read, which seems a bit odd. Perhaps the editor felt that the trip back was too much just the same route in reverse. But an observer like Thoreau would have definitely sat on the other side of the train.