For most of us who care about ecology and the environment, there was some personal experience that brought us there. For me, it was wilderness hiking, beginning 30-plus years ago in the Grand Canyon and continuing across the American West. Two books helped instigate my journeys and those of thousands of fellow adventure-seekers and nature-lovers. The Welshman who wrote them, the intrepid and blessedly individualistic Colin Fletcher, died earlier this month, at 85.
I can’t recall which I read first — The Man Who Walked Through Time, in which Fletcher chronicled his 400-mile hike through the Grand Canyon, or his compulsively detailed guide to backpacking, The Complete Walker. That’s probably because I read them both repeatedly and obsessively.
I encountered these books in the winter and spring of 1970, directly after getting my first intoxicating taste of hiking — in the Grand Canyon, actually — during a cross-country trip the previous summer. I was leading a schizoid existence, teaching at a New York suburban high school by day, and by night plotting my return to the Western wildlands when the school year ended in June.
Fletcher’s books facilitated and encouraged my full-scale immersion in backpacking and mountaineering. The prospect of continent-crossing hitchhikes (no car for me in this year of Earth Day) and ten-day Alpine treks seemed much less daunting, fortified with Fletcher’s commandments on what to wear to stay dry and warm, what lightweight food to carry and what to cook it in, how to fire a stove and rig a tent. Plus, with his example of “hiking the canyon” for two months from one food cache to another, my makeover from city boy to mountain man felt less weird.
With Fletcher’s coaching, I bore the inevitable blisters, the sudden high-altitude storms, even a 20-mile forced exit to the trailhead from Whatcom Pass in the Cascades after bears ate my food. (Inexplicably, I had buried the bag of food instead of stringing it from a tree, as Fletcher advised; just as inexplicably, but fortunately for me, the bears didn’t forage my tent for the Wilson’s Meat Bar — a Fletcher standby — that I had absent-mindedly stowed inside.)
Midway through that summer, when I found out that my teaching contract wasn’t being renewed, I made the life-changing choice to work in the environmental movement, campaigning against the power plants and coal mines that were threatening the wild country and crystalline skies that, with Fletcher’s guidance, I had come to love and depend on.
This was three dozen years ago. Despite living and working in New York City, I kept walking in Fletcher’s footsteps, with dizzying climbs of Glacier Peak in the Cascades, Fremont Peak in the Wind Rivers and Uncompahgre Peak in the Colorado Rockies, and vivid backpacking trips throughout the Colorado Plateau.
More recently I’ve mostly traded hiking boots for bicycling cleats, giving me a smaller carbon footprint and a soft bed at night. My dog-eared copies of The Man Who Walked Through Time and The Complete Walker have disappeared from my library — probably given away to friends I hoped would travel a similar road.
In my mind’s eye, I can still see both book covers: Fletcher shouldering his pack, perched on the rim, gazing over the vast canyon toward the Colorado River far below; and a blanket arrayed with the hundred or so items no backpacker should be without, from boots and walking stick to tweezers and toilet paper.
An ironic footnote: Yesterday’s obituary in the New York Times said Fletcher died from complications of head injuries he sustained in 2001 when struck by a car while walking near his home in Carmel Valley, Calif. A decade ago, I helped spearhead the Street Memorial project, a protest against driver entitlement and car violence that spray-painted hundreds of body-size outlines of pedestrians and bicyclists “killed by automobile” in New York City. Now car culture has killed “the complete walker.”
Though hiking the Grand Canyon is a long way from stenciling on the streets and sidewalks of the five boroughs, Colin Fletcher mapped out the path. Thank you, Colin, and farewell.