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Travel Books - The Compleat Walker

Colin Fletcher's The Complete Walker, first published in 1968, went through four editions and became the go-to guide for several generations of serious backpackers. When I was in high school, I must have signed it out of the public library at least a dozen times. Before the mid-twentieth century, long distance walking meant carrying a lot of weight--heavy canvas tents, wool blankets, tins of beans and sacks of rice. It's no wonder that when Robert Louis Stevenson decided to go on a twelve-day hike in the Cevennes in 1878, he decided to buy a donkey to carry all of his gear. But by the early 60s, as Fletcher explained, with down-filled mummy bags, lightweight stoves that burned white gas, freeze-dried food, and nylon tents, it was possible to carry everything you needed on your back for lengthy expeditions on foot, provided you were willing to be ruthless and discard the unnecessary. And Fletcher went into great, and somewhat idiosyncratic, detail about what was unnecessary. His guide became the bible for long distance backpackers.

Before he wrote The Complete Walker, however, Fletcher published two books about his own expeditions that are worth rediscovering: The Thousand-Mile Summer (1964) and The Man Who Walked Through Time (1968). We tend to think of Fletcher as an American, but he was actually born in Wales, served in the British navy as a commando in WWII, farmed in Kenya, did survey work in Zimbabwe, and prospected in Canada, before finally settling in California. He was part of a post-war generation that was finding it hard to settle down. He found his release in walking, and he expresses this philosophy in his writing.

The Thousand-Mile Summer describes a six-month journey he made on foot along the eastern edge of California, from the Mexican border to Oregon. When asked why he was making the trip, he told people that he wanted to discover America, but really he was trying to figure out what he was going to do with the rest of his life. He traverses deserts and mountain ranges, and wanders through the ghost towns of the American frontier, all the while marvelling at the landscape and the effect that man has had upon it. He completes the walk convinced that walking is beneficial and that wild places should be preserved, but also ready to return to civilization and re-engage with his fellow human beings.

His most famous book though is probably The Man Who Walked Through Time, an account of his journey walking the length of the Grand Canyon National Park below the rim. He became the first person to do it in one go, and part of the fascination of his account is his description of the logistics involved in planning a solitary expedition in such a harsh but beautiful environment. The big challenge was that there was very little water along the route and he had to arrange for two caches and three air drops to re-supply himself. He sees very few people on his two-month walk and spends much of the time contemplating man's place in the universe. The Grand Canyon, because it is so deep and exposes so much of the earth's history, proves a good place for putting things in perspective. If he wasn't already, his solitary walk convinces him of the need to preserve wild spaces from human encroachment.

Both books are worth re-encountering and will probably inspire you to don hiking boots and set off on your own journey of discovery.


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