Learn of the Green World: A Taste of Colin Fletcher

Here’s a paragraph, yes it’s a long one, from the Complete Walker IV by Colin Fletcher.  I haven’t read any Fletcher for several years now although his books have a permanent spot on my bookshelf. On a whim, I opened one up last night at this passage, which struck me as particularly poignant in the way that it conveys the memory of hiking and backpacking.

“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 PENTECOSTAL 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.”

Colin Fletcher’s Books

Colin Fletcher published many great books which celebrated backpacking and the natural world. His epic Complete Walker IV (co-authored with Chip Rawlins) was the first time anyone reviewed a lot of backpacking gear in one place. While it is dated today, it’s an interesting glimpse into what outdoor gear was like in 2002 (the publication date of the 4th edition) and how to inspire backpacking enthusiasts by reviewing it.

However, most of Fletcher’s other books are about the long solo backpacking trips he took in the natural world. They’re timeless descriptions of the landscape and history, grounded by gritty descriptions of his journey and routine. Fletcher was the first person to write about going backpacking for an extended period and being self-sufficient. This is best exemplified in his classic, The Man Who Walked Through Time, which helped establish his legacy as the father of modern backpacking.

The Colin Fletcher Biography

Robert Wehrman has published a meticulously researched biography of Colin Fletcher, called Walking Man: The Secret Life of Colin Fletcher. but I’d encourage you NOT to read it because it will forever change your mind about Fletcher, and not in a good way. The guy definitely had a few issues and reading about them may forever snuff the pleasure you’ll obtain when reading or re-reading Fletcher’s books. I wish I’d never read Walking Man because it tainted the well for me. Make up your own mind, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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6 comments

  1. Colin Fletcher’s writing has had more influence on my enjoyment of the outdoors than any other author, bar none. Highly recommend.

  2. I remember reading Fletcher a very long time ago…..while an enlisted Aircrewman stationed in Brunswick, Maine in the mid 1970s…I picked up a copy at Freeport’s old LLBean store where a bunch of us would go “inebriated somewhat” at oh dark thirty because the store was open 24/7! . As a New Mexico kid., though, it was Edward Abbey that “got me out there” and appreciative of “what was left”. Tolkien and Cousteau…..strange as it may seem now were my guides into a rewarding career with the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Thank you, sir, for the brief revisit with Fletcher’s style.

  3. Colin Fletcher is the reason I became a long distance hiker. He was a man of his time, and I never had any illusions about who and what he was. Wehrman’s book even includes a warning iirc, but did not deter nor change how I feel about the man.

    I’m 62, and read The 1000 Mile Summer at the library in Newport VT, in 1968. I read The Complete Walker shortly after that. My first forays into the woods alone were failures. I was barely 16 by then and fatherless. I wrote to Fletcher, and he answered in a hand-written letter. He was kind to me, and gave me good advice. I will never forget that. I needed a strong male presence, even one so far away and tenuous.

    His writing style and thought and sensibility have influenced every part of my outdoor life. At this point that includes nearly 20,000 miles of hiking. He was in many ways, my hero.

  4. Well, this is the strangest book review I have ever seen. It extolls the writing and the depth of research and then warns the reader not to read it because it may disturb long-held fantasies over who you thought Fletcher was. That is just not reality… Fletcher was able to do the many things he did, and write those great books, because he was the person presented in Walking Man. There will never be a more authoritative biography of Fletcher, for many of the primary sources Wehrman quotes have passed away. Did you want the author to lie so Fletcher’s personality would align with your own ideas? Really? I’ll just say what Fletcher told me when I asked about re-walking his 1958 Walk: he said, “You need to get a life of your own.” As usual, Fletcher’s thoughts are appropriate to this current state of affairs and I refer his comments to the writer of this article.

    Evan Boulton

  5. I respectfully, disagree with your comment about Wehrman’s Fletcher biography. I read it twice, enjoyed it both times, and it just brought home that fact that Fletcher was a human being, just like the rest of us, warts and all

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