Completing Colin Fletcher The backpacking guru's legacy marches on
By Bob Sipchen
Joy with a Sierra Club cup: Colin Fletcher during his thousand-mile summer in 1958.
YEARS AGO A PRINT-BASED predecessor of Google called the "Yellow Pages" ran commercials with the catchphrase "Let your fingers do the walking."
If you've heard those ads, there's a good chance you'd heard of Colin Fletcher, even before the New York Times and other arbiters of cultural significance began grappling with the author's place in history following his death in June at age 85.
If not, you're probably too young to have a clue about the man who wrote The Complete Walker, let alone to believe that his work remains relevant now that our mouse- and iPhone-tapping fingers can sprint us around the globe in pursuit of anything we desire. So is there still vitality in this odd oeuvre that is mainly about not much more than putting one foot after the other?
Fletcher's first book, The Thousand-Mile Summer (Howell-North, 1964), described a trek through California's backcountry from the Mexican border to Oregon. In The Man Who Walked Through Time (Alfred A. Knopf, 1969), he recounted humping a pack through the Grand Canyon. Both are understated paeans to backpacking's rewards. Stripped of distractions, the author was entranced by nature even at its most annoying. "I can remember, just once, in a moment of purest euphoria," he wrote in Through Time, "feeling glad for a cloud of mosquitoes that they were alive."
The Compete Walker's first chapter offered this epigraph from poet W. H. Davies:
Now shall I walk
Or shall I ride?
"Ride," Pleasure said:
"Walk," Joy replied.
What makes Fletcher problematic in an age of virtual globetrotting is that he believed walking transcends pleasure to become joyful only with effort and, as often as not, a measure of risk and pain. Striving to circumvent this paradox was part of the fun, and his eager attention to the details of equipment and planning blossomed into giddy obsession in the "backpacker's bible" for which he is best known.
Reviewing the fourth edition of The Complete Walker (published by Knopf in 2002 with coauthor C. L. "Chip" Rawlins), Rebecca Solnit, author of Wanderlust: A History of Walking, chided the boys for their infatuation with gadgetry: "If there was a micronuclear rotator-cuff-link zilchifying mosquito habitat-detractor that wicks away moisture and comes with a hatchet attachment, these authors would have tested it and devoted a few pages to their conclusions."
For many readers, however, The Complete Walker's appeal is that it massages both sides of the brain. For the intuitive right, Fletcher rhapsodized about the bliss of seeing morning light on a canyon wall, perhaps while sprawled naked on a rock. Then he assuaged the brain's no-nonsense left hemisphere with checklists, quirky line drawings, and primers on survival skills. His kind of walking was "a delectable madness, very good for sanity." But the promised romance was best approached after immersion in a pages-long exegesis of camp stove minutiae.
Wayne Gregory, who gives credit for the success of his backpack company, Gregory Mountain Products, and the blossoming of the outdoor gear industry to his friend Fletcher, says that his own decision to hoist a pack and head into wild country stemmed from wanting to get away from the confusion of Vietnam-era America.
For his part, Fletcher bridled at the notion that backpacking was an escapist activity. He liked the complexities (and conveniences) of the civilized world. He also thought a long walk far from concrete added to life's fullness.
In the introduction to The Complete Walker, Fletcher recalled standing on the edge of some "wild, wild, impossible country ... huge and black and mysterious" from which two men emerged, "weather-beaten and distilled to bone and muscle." His epiphany, he said, was that these men "were happy and whole."
Author and Rodale Press correspondent Mark Jenkins, who hit the trail with Fletcher a few years ago while profiling him for Backpacker magazine, thinks Fletcher will be remembered "as a voice for the beauty of the whole experience of the outdoors." He doesn't, however, expect Fletcher's work to inspire another generation to lumber off on long, soul-cleansing treks into the desert or mountains. Jenkins doesn't think young people have the time or patience. "I don't think his sensibilities are their sensibilities," he says.
You've got to wonder, though.
Laura Colvin, 17, had never heard of Fletcher when the obits began appearing. Her father had, however, and the previous summer Richard Colvin had talked the New Jersey high school student and her brother into backpacks and onto the Appalachian Trail. The trip offered the mix of beauty and misery that Fletcher spent much of his life trying to make readers appreciate.
A rattlesnake crawled into Laura's backpack. Mosquitoes tormented her face. "It was really hard," she says. "Everything got wet, and my boots were soaked through, and my feet were hurting and disgusting."
Meanwhile her father, who runs a Columbia University program for journalists who cover education, realized that he'd been too preoccupied with work to make Fletcherian preparations. His pack was too heavy. He left his shorts at a campsite one morning and ran back to retrieve them.
That afternoon the sweltering heat dissolved into a downpour, and Laura's father stopped mid-trail, unable to move.
In "a random burst of energy," Laura hoisted her father's pack and trudged a mile to the trail's crest, then returned, pulled on her own pack, and escorted her dad to the top.
"That was the worst day," she says. But it was also the best--and not just because her father rebounded and had a blast on the rest of the trek. "I felt like I really accomplished something," Laura says. "I just think it is so cool that you can literally live off what is on your back."
Life on the trail had changed her perceptions, she says. Scenery came into sharp focus. Food tasted better. Reading was more satisfying after a hard day's walk.
It's too bad Laura didn't have a Fletcher book along, because she now hears in his voice a kindred spirit and plans to dig into his work soon--although she can't guarantee she won't be flipping pages with one finger while another surfs the Web by cell phone.
How could this young woman, who spends so much time rushing from school to soccer to music classes, not get a kick out of a passage such as this one, from The Thousand-Mile Summer, in which Fletcher awakens on a desert plateau, notices tracks in the snow, and thinks of all the city folk "pouring back into their squirrel cages"?
"I saw quite clearly that what mattered ... were the simple things--snow and vivid light and sharp-grained bobcat tracks," he writes. "My exhilaration swelled up and overflowed.... I found myself feeling sorry for any man who was not free to abandon whatever futility detained him and to walk away into the desert morning with a pack on his back."
Bob Sipchen, a Pulitzer Prize-winning veteran of the Los Angeles Times, is Sierra's new editor in chief.