I generally don’t do much in the way of hero-worship, at least not since I was a teenager.
In 1964 a 22 year old Welsh athlete by the name of Lynn Davies won the Olympic Games long jump event in Tokyo, an achievement that gripped my imagination. I decided there and then I would be a long jumper too and I wrote a long letter to the Welshman, congratulating him on his success and, rather naively, asked him for some tips!
Much to my surprise Lynn replied to my letter, the beginning of a correspondence that lasted for years. Some time later I actually competed against the reigning Olympic Champion at a home international event in Leicester. He won and I was last, but throughout the competition he was nothing less than hugely inspiring to this young long jumper. Lynn was a role model in every way, a man hugely committed to sport and to helping others achieve their potential. He is currently President of UKAthletics.
By the age of 21 I had given up track and field athletics and I lost touch with Lynn. By that time the mountains had replaced my love of athletics and I discovered a new set of role models – Tom Weir, Bill Murray, Hamish Brown and Chris Bonington amongst others.
While these climbers inspired me with their writings and achievements they certainly weren’t heroes in the way that Lynn Davies had been. Perhaps hero-worship is a teenage thing but over the years the work of one outdoor writer impressed me more than any other. He was another Welshman and his name was Colin Fletcher.
Fletcher was something of a free spirit, an ex-commando who, after the Second World War, went off in search of some kind of fulfillment. He spent time in Kenya, and then moved to Canada before drifting south to Berkeley in California where he spent a summer walking the length of the State. He eventually wrote a book about that expedition, ‘A Thousand Mile Summer’, and followed that with another expedition and a book, ‘The Man Who Walked Through Time’, an extraordinary account of a long, solo hike through the Grand Canyon National Park.
Other books followed and it was through the reading of these books that I eventually gave up rock climbing and mountaineering and became a backpacker like Colin Fletcher.
Fletcher enjoyed a strong and vital bond with the natural world and for the first time in my life I recognized, through his writings, that this ‘Green World’ was a panacea for all those times I felt disappointed, angry, frustrated or depressed with the world at large. I too began to appreciate the natural world as a sanctuary, a place worth protecting and fighting for when necessary.
Colin Fletcher wrote emotionally about his appreciation of wild places and the importance of wilderness. He wrote about backpacking gear and techniques in a way that was both lyrical and sensible, but he rarely mentioned his private life. It wasn’t until he gave an account of a walking and rafting trip down the length of the Colorado River at the age of 67 in a book called ‘River’ that he began to release some very brief facts about himself.
Fletcher died in 2007 at the age of 85. A car had knocked him down in his home town of Carmel, California and he never fully recovered from the accident. The world would have been none the wiser about the private life of Colin Fletcher, had it not been for a man called Dr Robert Wehrman.
I wrote about Dr Wehrman’s book, ‘Walking Man – the Story of Colin Fletcher’, about a year ago and since then it’s been published and I’ve read it. Part of me regrets having read it for my appreciation of the backpacker and writer that I’ve regarded as my major inspiration for some 40 years has been a tad diminished. According to Wehrman’s biography it seems Colin Fletcher wasn’t a particularly likeable person. I suspect I wouldn’t have got on with him at all.
Fletcher himself has always made it clear that he held his privacy very dear, so the first questions I would ask about this biography are ethical ones. Is it right to expose the darker elements of someone’s life after they have died? Is it right to expose the personal details of someone’s life when that person went to great lengths to protect their privacy when they were alive?
I don’t know; perhaps I’m being old-fashioned, and modern biographies often verge on a form of voyeurism but I feel somewhat saddened that Fletcher’s much vaunted privacy has been invaded, even violated. On the other hand, this biography has helped me piece together many of the previously unknown aspects of the character of a man who has played such an important role in my own professional life.
Much of Bob Wehrman’s research came from Fletcher’s own hand. Apparently he left behind copious diaries, copies of all the letters he wrote, and little notelets about the most basic aspects of his life. And from all of this I suspect, although I’m certainly not a psychologist, that Colin Fletcher was somewhere on the autism scale, perhaps a sufferer of Asperger syndrome?
This was a man who was socially inept; he defended his privacy to the point of extreme rudeness; had little understanding or care about others’ feelings and had a compulsive desire towards tidiness and order. He certainly didn’t suffer fools gladly – indeed he didn’t suffer many people at all! He apparently had very few friends and it would appear that even his friendships were a little edgy…
On the other hand Colin Fletcher was a wonderful writer and communicator with an intense and almost evangelistic zeal towards the protection of wilderness. This was a man who could write about outdoor gear (The Complete Walker) in such a literary way that his ‘how-to-do-it’ books sold in the millions and inspired a generation. This was a man who was active as a solo backpacker until well into his dotage, a man who had planned to walk the length of the UK in his eighties, until a dreadful accident robbed him of all further adventures.
Despite my own reservations about privacy Bob Wehrman’s biography is a massive work by someone who would admit to being a genuine ‘Fletcherite’. I thoroughly enjoyed and enthusiastically devoured much of this book but was left with a sad suspicion that I wouldn’t have got on very well with Colin Fletcher.
However, I would urge you to read Colin Fletcher’s books for yourself and allow his wisdom to percolate your own thoughts and ambitions. Allow his passion for wild places to inspire you as it has inspired me and many thousands like me, and in doing so be aware that none of us are perfect and that genuine role models, like Lynn Davies the long jumper, are very few and far between.