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Walking Man – the story of Colin Fletcher

viewpointAN American backpacker, Dr Robert Wehrman, has written a definite biography of Colin Fletcher, a Welsh/American whose works have inspired legions of backpackers across the globe, including Chris Townsend and myself.

Indeed Chris and I have probably spent hours hiking and discussing what we know about Fletcher, or more pertinently, what we don’t know about Fletcher, for he was an extremely private person and it would seem there is plenty we don’t know. But what we don’t know, Bob Wehrman does.

Wehrman has been looking for some financial help in publishing the biography and initially set up a Kickstarter fund, but curiously he didn’t raise much support from the world-wide backpacking community.

However, the good news is that the book will definitely appear in some form, probably as an ebook.

The author, Dr. Robert Wehrman is a retired Professor of Music at The University of Hawaii and is considered the foremost living authority on Colin Fletcher. This is what he says about the book;

“Recently, spurred by the film and book Wild, along with other soon-to-be released films, there has been an explosion in wilderness walking. Colin Fletcher’s work between 1958 and 2000 enabled these emissaries to escape the tinseled human world and return in one piece to share their discoveries, for Fletcher was the father of modern backpacking—and much more. Without Fletcher, the current popularity of wilderness adventuring would not exist.

CF in NY mtns“The story of Colin Fletcher’s life has never before been told, for its primary sources were only recently made available. The book will focus on Fletcher’s explorations, writings, world-view, and most importantly, his highly complex personality.

“The book is not a literary biography, nor a rehash of his writings. It is the chronicle of a large, adventure-filled life that takes place in the exotic and often spectacular regions where he lived and the lands through which he trekked and wrote about.”

I think it sounds fascinating and I believe Chris Townsend has read some sample chapters. He is just as enthusiastic about seeing this book in print as I am. But, you may be asking, who is Colin Fletcher and why is his work so special?

On a personal level, the inspiration I’ve had from reading Colin Fletcher’s books over the years has set a solid platform for my own understandings of the natural world and how I relate to it.

Fletcher’s writings have delighted, motivated and amazed me for forty years and although some would suggest that his writing style is no longer fashionable I would argue that the quality of Fletcher’s work is above such transitory notions as fashion or trends.

I first became aware of Colin Fletcher through the enthusiasm of my old friend, the late Robin Adshead, the author of Backpacking in Britain. Sometime later I was given a copy of The Complete Walker by a publisher who asked if I could write something similar for a European market.

In response I produced a book called The Backpackers’ Handbook, but it was a very, very pale shadow of Fletcher’s worldwide best seller.

The Complete Walker is the book, along with its later editions, that made Colin Fletcher such a respected name in US backpacking circles. It’s a how-to book that unashamedly concentrates on gear and how best to use it, but it’s a how-to book that has become a literary classic.

Fletcher’s prose sucks you in and makes something as mundane as a cook-pot sound desperately exciting and it’s when you become caught up in all this enthusiasm about outdoor gear that he tells you the gear is actually not that important after all.

“I was afraid that in the course of several hundred fundamentally how-to pages we might have forgotten the feel-how – afraid that the ways and means might have masked the joys and insights that can come, in the end, from the simple act of walking,” he wrote.

And here lies Fletcher’s great strength as a writer. He recognises those simple joys and insights that many of us experience, so that as we read his words we can empathise with him, we know where he’s coming from. We can sense the comforting familiarity of peeling off socks at the end of a long day, or luxuriating in a warm sleeping bag or enjoying the delights of that first mug of tea.

Colin and The Ark 1958

The difference is that Fletcher articulates these things in such a profound way that they become almost spiritual, almost religious. But Colin Fletcher, in the accepted sense, is not a religious man.

“I suppose you could say that going out into this older world is rather like going to church. I know that it is in my case, anyway. For me, praying is no good: my god, if I have one, is a kind of space-age Pan, and it is not interested in what happens to me personally. But by walking out alone into wilderness I can elude the pressures of the pounding modern world, and in the sanctity of silence and solitude – the solitude seems to be a vital part of it – I can after a while begin to see and to hear and to think and in the end to feel with a new and exciting accuracy. And that, it seems to me, is just the kind of vision you should be hoping to find when you go to church.”

Colin Fletcher was the first man to walk the length of the Grand Canyon. His book of the trip, The Man Who Walked Through Time, is in my opinion the finest expedition book ever written. I make a habit of reading it at least once a year. In his late sixties he travelled the length of the Colorado River, backpacking from its source in the Rockies until he could float a raft. He then rafted downriver, through the white waters of the Grand Canyon, and eventually out to the Sea of Cortez. That expedition produced an outstanding book called River.

I hope to raft down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon next spring with my two sons – I’ve bought them both a copy of The Man Who Walked Through Time as vital background reading!

Fletcher’s other backpacking books include The Thousand Mile Summer, the story of a long backpacking trip across California, and The Secret Worlds of Colin Fletcher, a collection of essays that articulate in a wonderfully poetic way his relationship – his connection – to wild land, what he refers to as the Green World.

In almost forty years of outdoor writing my greatest regret is that I never personally met this man. My guess is that he might not have been easy to get along with. A self-confessed curmudgeon, he actively went out of his way to avoid people on the trail but he was no misanthrope. He recognised the rich promise of humanity – he just despaired at the way we are changing, violating, the spinning planet we call home.

I few years ago I returned home from doing the kind of thing that Fletcher inspired me to do – walking for two weeks through the north-west highlands to finish at Cape Wrath. The first news I read when I turned on my computer was that Colin Fletcher had died in a care home in California, at the age of 85. My sense of loss was deep.

I long to discover more about this man who has shaped my life so profoundly. That’s why I’m so desperately keen to see this book published. If you have any interest in backpacking or hiking or wild camping then I’m convinced you’ll be thrilled by Fletcher’s books, and by this new biography of a remarkable man. All going well Walking Man, the Story of Colin Fletcher, will be published as an e-book sometime in October. It’ll be well worth looking out for.




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