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Learn of the Green World

Maine Appalachian Trail
Maine Appalachian Trail

Here’s a paragraph, yes it’s a long one, from the Complete Walker IV by Colin Fletcher.  I haven’t read my Fletcher for many months although it has a permanent spot on my nightstand. On a whim, I opened it up last night at this passage, which struck me as particularly poignant in the way that it conveys the memory of hiking and backpacking. While I like talking about gear and discussing technique on SectionHiker, it’s not why I hike.

This is why I hike:

When I open my mind and let the memories spill out, I find a many-hued mosaic. I remember the odd excitement and the restricted yet infinitely open world I have moved through several times when I have clambered up, very late at night, and following the little pool from my flashlight beam, to the flat grassy summit of the hill on which  I wrote at last the opening chapter of this book. I remember a three-day walk along an unspoiled beach with the wind always barreling in from the Pacific and the sand dunes always humping up to my left; and I remember the ceaseless surging and drawing back of the sea, with its final, curving excursions into smooth sand, excursions that sometimes left stranded, high and almost dry, little fragments of transparent protoplasm (which set me thinking, “This is the stuff we came from”) and sometimes cast up a bottle that I could peer at (laughing at myself for being so childlike) in the hope it might contain a message. I remember standing on snowshoes outside my half-buried tent after a four-day storm, in a newly gleaming white world, and watching the guilty, cloud-bearing southwest wind try to reassert itself; I remember a northeast breeze spring up, and almost hearing it take a deep breath and say, “They shall not pass,” and then begin to blow in earnest; and I remember watching, thankfully, as the line of dark clouds was held along a front, horizon to horizon, and then was driven back, slowly but inexorably, until at last it retreated behind the peaks and the sky was left to the triumphant northeast wind and the warm and welcome sun. I remember trying to clamber up a steep woodland bank after dark, somewhere in the deep South (I think it was in Alabama), and finding myself in an enchanted world of fireflies and twisted tree roots and fireflies and clumps of grass and fireflies and wildflowers and fireflies and fireflies and fireflies, a world suddenly filled with a magic that I had not glimpsed since I was ten, and had almost come to disbelieve in. I remember striding down a desert road as dusk fell, with the wind catching my pack and billowing out the poncho like a sail and carrying me almost effortlessly along before it; and I remember how, when the rain came in, it stung my bare legs, refreshing without hurting.  I remember, in a different sagebrush desert, coming to the edge of a village and passing a wooden building with three cars that said PENTACOSTAL CHURCH OF GOD, EVERYONE WELCOME; I remember that the church door stood open to the warm evening, and that I could hear a piano and the congregation following along, with only a hint of exasperation, a half-beat behind a contralto whom nature had endowed with the volume, tempo, rigidity, and determination of a brass band. In another desert village, a long dead ghost town, this one, I remember a clump of wild blue irises growing inside the worn wooden threshold of a once busy home. I remember red, red sunsets in a small desert valley when I was not alone. I remember, further back, a dead native cow in a clearing in the dry African bush; and, in the blood-softened soil beside its torn-out entrails, a single huge paw print. I remember the small, round, furry heads of the hyraxes that would solemnly examine us from the boulders just behind our 13,000 foot camp up near Lewis Glacier on Mount Kenya. Further back still, I remember three otters cavorting across a moonlit Devonshire meadow; a stag on a Scottish moor, silhouetted, elemental; and a shoal of small fish swimming slowly over a sloping bed of brown gravel that I can still see, stone fitting into stone, down a seventy-year tunnel. And now, vaulting back into yesterday, I find I’m remembering an elk that stands regally among redwoods trees and the last tendrils of morning mist, and a surprised beaver that crouches almost at my feet and eyes me for clues, and a solitary evening primrose that has prospered in a desolation of desert talus, and a rainbow that arches over a dark mountain tarn, and the huge and solemn silence that encompasses, always, the buttes and mesas and cliffs and hanging terraces of the Grand Canyons of Colorado.

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12 comments

  1. There's a Fletcher book in my Amazon basket. That long paragraph has me questioning whether I'd ever read it. Memories of big experiences warm and stimulate but that passage is just too…

    Here's another reason for moving through the natural world, from Jean Bobet.

    "The voluptuous pleasure that ****ing can give you is delicate, intimate and ephemeral. It arrives, it takes hold of you, sweeps you up and then leaves you again. It is for you alone. It is a combination of speed and ease, force and grace. It is pure happiness."

  2. I knew Colin personally decades ago during our years living in Berkeley in the Sixties.

    Virtually unknown at the time, Colin would come in to our mountain shop on a regular basis, when he wasn't off adventuring. He enjoyed browsing and lingering with us, as so many folks did in that era. He and others enjoyed the vibes and mellow character of the place…all around was primitive outdoor gear on racks, shelving, and ever present sleeping bags and tents displayed on the floor.

    As we gradually got to know him better on a personal basis, we discovered a side to Colin that he rarely shared; the formula that enabled him to roam so freely, so often, seemingly untethered by jobs, career, and trappings of modern life. Colin was a visionary and lived out his life as a visionary…

    His avocation as a "fixer" investor in single family residential housing in Berkeley and surrounding communities for instance was an eye-opener to me personally. His was an interesting and entertaining story, as interesting as his travels. Some of us went on to emulate Colin's example by purchasing distressed properties oursleves, then renting them out and using the cash flow (there was such a thing in those days) to expand our own travels! Colin Fletcher's life plan was a plan worth emulating in so many ways!

  3. I'd never heard that about him. Fascinating stuff. What was the name of the outdoor shop you worked at?

  4. Magical paragraph which has prompted me to seek out my own copy of this book….I am sure it will be the first of many I purchase.

    Also from Teton, thanks for sharing a wonderful story and a unknown side to Colin. It must have been wonderful to hear some of his anecdotes and to share yours with him.

  5. Jean Bobet the cyclist? I like that quote too.

  6. The **** stands for cycl but could also stand for walk on those wonderful, free striding days when the miles pass smoothly, as I vaguely remember. These days, I meander weakly from one photo opportunity to the next.

  7. Thanks for sharing Teton. Thanks for the reminder Philip.

    Sean

  8. The other day, I was trying to explain to a friend of mine why I've been so interested in hiking and backpacking. I had forgotten all about that passage in the Complete Walker and stumbled out with something far less eloquent than Mr. Fletcher's words.

    I've made sure to bookmark that page in my copy!

  9. I'm impressed you found it! (Back near the very end of the book)

  10. That is what we can see when we walk quietly in the wild.

    Back in 2007, when I heard the news, I thought about reading Colin’s books with my dad and then with my son. I posted this:

    “Colin Fletcher’s gift to us was to bring us into his own solo hiking world. His walks and his gear were totally personal, which encouraged us to think for ourselves, make our own choices, and then get out in the woods or deserts or mountains.”

    My son is out camping with his friends on the California coast this weekend.

  11. Dear Teton, I am the author of Walking Man – the biography of Colin Fletcher. I know Colin was a regular at The Ski Hut and was a friend of Alan Steck who was a manager there for a time. Alan told me what he could remember about Colin in those days but didn’t say anything about his avocation.

    Colin kept records of what he did each and every day. Even on days when he did nothing he wrote ‘fallow’. In his papers are every sort of document you can imagine because he kept it all. He even attached copies of all the response letters he wrote to fans to the original. I’ve been through every letter, personal and fan mail; read his business documents, looked at his desk calendars, examined all his maps, studied his insurance policies, read love notes, etc. In short, I’ve examined every document in his papers.

    I’ve trekked to many of the places he wrote about using his maps.

    I could find nothing regarding flipping houses in Berkeley. However, this may be because there is a gap in the papers possibly caused by a flood in his house while he was in the hospital near the very end of his life. Although there are 180 linear feet of documents, several boxes were found moldy beyond recognition. The possibility of the mold contaminating the other papers was serious, so they were discarded.

    There were some papers from the Berkeley days both pre and post Grand Canyon treks but no business documents at all. Among these are his divorce papers from his ill-fated second marriage. There is a description in his hand of his reaction to the Kennedy assassination and of watching the Oswald murder live. His desk calendars list his daily activities from 1962 until his death. There are photos of him playing Santa in Bay Area department stores. The expense receipts for his 1958 walk are there.The nickel Harvey Butchart gave him after the canyon trek is there.

    But no business documents. None. My guess is the record of his flipping homes may have been among the ruined papers.

    I spoke with many people who knew him later in life, two foxhole buddies from WWII, people who knew him in Africa, in Canada, in the UK, San Francisco, Berkeley, and even some old classmates from his school. None mentioned this avocation. Neither did Carl Brandt, his life-long friend and agent. Walking Man is due out shortly but it isn’t too late for me to add information to the ebook version if your information can be documented in some way.

    I would like very much to discuss this with you, for you may know of something I’ve missed due to a missing volume of papers.

    By the way, on page 596 of The Complete Walker III begins the same paragraph quoted above. He changed it a little for Walker IV but not by much.

  12. After reading the long paragraph about walking (above) and then looking for it in Walker III, I wrote my previous comment. But a nagging thought continued to rumble around the depths of my mind. “When did he write that?” So I looked it up in Walking Man. It is at the end of every edition of Walker including the first one.

    He wrote it while sitting atop a hill in Tilden Park, Berkeley CA. In those days it was a beautiful green spot. From up there you could see—at times—as far north as Santa Rosa, on a clear day maybe to the Sierra in the east, and all of the Bay Area. He lugged his typewriter up there and spent three days working on that part of the book.

    It isn’t in the original manuscript. But neither are any gear reviews. That came later at the suggestion of his editor.

    Colin intended the book to be more like The Paragraph and made several attempts at drafting it but was unsuccessful. Fortunately, he worked it out up there on that hill.
    RW

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