Saturday, 15 November 2008
Colin Fletcher: The Man Who Walked Through Time
Following my last post I thought I'd post the feature about Colin Fletcher that won the OWPG Award. This feature first appeared in TGO magazine last year.
“I stood for a while looking at the mountains and listening to the silence. Then I walked slowly out into the desert that for six hundred miles would be my world”.
The Thousand-Mile Summer
Few people in Britain have heard of Colin Fletcher, yet he is in my opinion the finest writer on backpacking and wilderness walking. Every time I read the words above a shiver runs through me as I know I am at the start of a literary adventure. Although living in California for the last half century Colin Fletcher, who died in June 2007, was British, born in Wales in 1922. Fletcher inspired thousands of American backpackers. An appreciation of his work in this country is long overdue.
Before reaching California and the start of his writing life Fletcher served in the Royal Marines in World War Two then farmed and built roads in East Africa before working as a prospector and road builder in Canada. Shortly after moving to California from Canada in 1956 he decided “that what I wanted most in life just then was to walk from one end of California to the other ….. I knew, of course, that the idea was crazy; but I felt almost sure I was going”. And go he did, within a month, on a journey that resulted in his first book, The Thousand-Mile Summer, which captures superbly the nature of wilderness walking and camping. I have to admit to a bias here as this book changed my life. I first read it nearly thirty years ago and it had a profound and inspiring effect on me. Fletcher’s descriptions of the deserts and mountains, of walking through real wilderness and camping under the stars started in me a hunger to do the same. Three years later I walked the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada and long distance walking had become my passion and my life.
Many people have written about long walks and backpacking but none have captured the experience so fully, intensely and personally as Colin Fletcher. He walked alone, and indeed shunned the company of others, coming across as quite a curmudgeon in some of his writing, but what he sought was “the gigantic, enveloping, including, renewing solitude of wild and silent places” (The Complete Walker). His books are mostly about nature and his thoughts and feelings rather than about groups or other people. Indeed, he says little about his private life or relationships outside of his journeys. But the reader learns much about his relationship to nature and wilderness. Here he is describing dusk in the California desert after going down to a lagoon to wash:
“I stood still, waiting for the light to go out over the mountains.
But the mountains were not yet ready. A line of golden peaks caught fire. Black canyons gouged their slopes and pierced the iridescent red with deeper hints of hell. The iridescence deepened, the hints broadened. And then – on the very threshold of revelation – the shadow reached out and quietened everything, and the world was only shades of grey.
I found myself shivering on the edge of the lagoon, still clutching a cake of soap”. From The Thousand-Mile Summer.
Colin Fletcher wasn’t bothered about distance (despite the title of his first book) or speed. His concern was with experience. Camping was just as important to him as walking and he described many camps with a loving detail that every backpacker will recognise. Perhaps the book that describes this best, along with the intensity of feeling his walking engenders, is The Man Who Walked Through Time, which describes his walk the length of the Grand Canyon, the first time this had been done. Fletcher gives a long description of his first camp on that walk, covering every detail, even down to where he places every item. Here is a sample:
“I unzippered the mummy bag part way, pushed my feet down into it, pulled the bag up loosely round my waist, and leaned back. It was very comfortable like that, with my butt cushioned on the pillow of the air mattress and my back leaning against the fully inflated main section, which in turn leaned against the now almost empty pack. I sat there for several minutes, content, relaxed, drifting – hovering on the brink of daydreams without ever achieving anything quite so active”.
Doesn’t that just make you want to be out in the wilds sitting there almost daydreaming?
Fletcher’s best known book (an ongoing success in the USA) is The Complete Walker, now in its fourth edition (though with a co-writer- I recommend one of the earlier editions for the full Fletcher approach and the pleasure of his delightful prose). Subtitled “the joys and techniques of hiking and backpacking” this is the most detailed and the most readable guide imaginable. Fletcher covers everything entertainingly and in places with humour. It’s a very personal book, describing what he does and what he uses, with the idea that others can learn from this. Some of his approach that has been described as idiosyncratic – such as preferring tarps to tents and using a staff – is actually in tune with current trends; however his hatred of trail guides is definitely unusual. The detailed descriptions of equipment are often out of date but this doesn’t matter: they are only examples anyway and it’s the overall approach to walking and camping that matters. This timelessness is also why The Thousand Mile Summer and The Man Who Walked Through Time are fresh and relevant five decades after they were written.
Throughout his work there is a deep respect and love for nature and the wild and a strong desire for it to be protected. He’s not an out and out campaigner like that other great writer of the desert Southwest Edward Abbey, though The Man Who Walked Through Time does contain a moving epilogue about the threats to dam the Grand Canyon that existed in the 1960s. In it Fletcher warned that “unless we do something, you and I, we may soon find this book has become a requiem for Grand Canyon”. The depth of his feeling is shown when he writes “I suggest that we little men have no damned right even to consider such vandalism – for any reason at all”. The same feelings surface in The Secret Worlds of Colin Fletcher, a collection of essays on different walks, in the chapter entitled Among The Redwoods in which he is horrified by the destruction of ancient redwood groves and writes of the logging of old growth forests that it “left you ashamed … of belonging to a species that for personal gain waged war on its own planet.”
The four books I’ve referred to above are the key works for walkers interested in Colin Fletcher. Perhaps the most interesting of his other works is River, which tells the story of his trip, mostly by raft, down the length of the Colorado River at the age of 67 in 1989, another first, in which his journey down the river also stands for his journey through life. The book does contain one of my favourite Colin Fletcher quotations:
“I knew, deep and safe, beyond mere intellect, that there is nothing like a wilderness journey for rekindling the fires of life”.
His final two books, The Winds of Mara and The Man From The Cave, are both quite obscure and long out print. Devotee that I am, I hunted them down in second book shops on visits to the USA long before the Internet made finding such books easy. The Winds of Mara describes a return visit to Kenya on which he camped, with a vehicle, in the bush. He describes well the wildlife and the landscape and his interactions with people but it lacks some of the drive of his wilderness journey books. The Man From The Cave is a real oddity, a fascinating book that tells you more about its author than its subject. Fletcher discovers a cave in a remote part of the Nevada desert with some old possessions that showed someone had once lived there. The book is the story of his research into who the person was and why they were there.
Colin Fletcher writes mainly about the Southwest USA. His heart lies with the Colorado River and the surrounding landscape. Don’t let this put you off reading him. His backpacking tales are about the experience as much or more than the place and thus of interest to all who love walking and camping in the wild, whether the Scottish Highlands or the Grand Canyon. Be warned though the books might just stir a desire in you to go and walk in Fletcher’s country, as they did in me.
The Thousand-Mile Summer in desert and high sierra 1964
The Man Who Walked Through Time 1968
The Complete Walker 1968
The Winds of Mara 1973
The New Complete Walker 1974
The Man From The Cave 1981
The Complete Walker III 1984
The Secret Worlds of Colin Fletcher 1989
River: One Man’s Journey Down the Colorado, Source to Sea 1997
The Complete Walker IV (with Chip Rawlins) 2002
The photo shows the Grand Canyon from the South Rim near Grand Canyon Village. Ricoh RDC-5000 with 8-18mm lens @ 10.1mm. f7@1/350. JPEG processed in DxO Optics Pro.