Open-Water Swimming and Other Acts of Civil Disobedience
“I would contend that stupid behavior is sometimes the proper response to stupid laws”
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“You can’t swim there.”
The lifeguard addressing me was just a teenager. It wasn’t his fault. I should listen to him and go home. But I was already up to my hips in the water. He cleared his throat. Please, don’t say it again, I thought. God, he was going to say it again.
“Sir,” his voice cracked. “Mister, you can’t swim there!”
Most teenagers around Concord, Massachusetts, are incredibly polite, which is to say scared speechless most of the time. He was just doing his job. I should have been kinder. I should have explained to him that “can’t” wasn’t exactly the right word, that I most assuredly could swim right here, that I’ve been doing it for many years—every day, actually, between the months of April and November. I should have quoted Henry David Thoreau: “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams.”
I now regret the gesture I made with my hand. What I do not regret is taking off. If you swim around Walden Pond without cutting any corners, it is 1.48 miles. I usually take this route, skirting the shores where Thoreau sauntered beginning in March 1845. It takes me a little over 36 minutes. This time I went straight across. The lifeguard would have to take the dinghy if he wanted to physically stop me.
I know all of this sounds incredibly petty, like a philosophy professor having a temper tantrum when he is denied a nerdy pleasure or his intellectual birthright. It sounds petty, maybe downright stupid, because on some level it probably is. But I would contend that stupid behavior is sometimes the proper response to stupid laws. Last month the Massachusetts state legislature responded to a spate of drownings by banning open-water swimming in all state-owned bodies of water, including Walden Pond. I know drowning is tragic and horrific: it came close to happening to me as a kid, swimming in the Pacific, and I’ve been part of several successful saves—and one that failed.
But I also know the legislature could have attempted to curb the drownings in other ways, like redoubling lifeguard training, or providing swim instruction to the landlocked, or even insisting that swimmers wear yellow inflation devices when they brave the high seas. I get it—we have to wear seat belts. A little paternalism is a smart way to mitigate unnecessary risks. Mountain climbing is dangerous. Mountain biking is dangerous. Football is dangerous. Skiing is dangerous. Open-water swimming is dangerous. Life is dangerous. Maybe the point of being human is to take necessary precautions and face these challenges deliberately.
Thoreau went to this pond to “live deliberately,” to live deeply so as to avoid the danger that we all face—discovering at the end that we haven’t lived. Last year, after bypass surgery at the age of 40, I came to this pond in a wetsuit on the front edge of April. The water was 58 degrees, which is to say dangerously cold. I slipped in and started to swim as best I could with a sternum that had been hacked apart a month before. I got 30 seconds in, gasped, gagged, and flipped over on my back. And I decided at that moment, on that day, I really couldn’t swim across Walden. It is a decision that many people have made, and should continue to make. But it is a decision that I would still like to have, for the many days when I can and do swim in the pond.
I was halfway across. I popped up to see if I was alone. My lifeguard was nowhere in sight. The dinghy was still firmly affixed at the boat launch.
I am not for one second suggesting that my swim was some grand act of civil disobedience. When Thoreau wrote the essay “Civil Disobedience” while living at Walden, he was protesting gross injustice—slavery and imperialism. He refused to pay his taxes because he refused to support a government that had lost its moral compass. He was thrown into jail as a result of this refusal, and made the argument that jail was the only appropriate place for a person of character in unethical times. It was something like Martin Luther King Jr. saying that while we have a moral obligation to follow just laws, we have an equal obligation to break unjust ones.
My minor protest in the waters of Walden wasn’t like this. There are more important things to protest than a philosophy professor’s right to ply his way across a body of water in search of enlightenment. That being said, swimming in Walden, across Walden, will remain a simple, joyful freedom in a modern life that tends toward restriction and convention. And my refusal to listen to the polite young man awakened something like moral indignation in a mind that tends toward the amorality of private and privileged life. Protesting wasn’t so hard or so scary. There are things in life I care enough about to get in trouble defending. This was one of them. Perhaps there are others I should consider.
Five hundred dollars—that’s the fine for open-water swimming in public waters in Massachusetts. For better or for worse, I will never find out what happens to criminal trespassers at Walden. Three days after the altercation with my teenage guardian, the open-water swimming law was overturned—but just for Walden. Fifteen thousand signatures on a petition of protest swayed the governor. In the end, I wasn’t alone in the middle of that pond, but I will always be glad that in a passing moment of protest I felt like I was. Some limits are worth trespassing. I plan on swimming tomorrow at 6 A.M.—with my bright yellow, state-mandated buoy.