Walking Man – The Secret Life of Colin Fletcher

walking-man

Learn from the mistakes of others. You don’t have time to make them all yourself!  -from Walking Man “Fletcherisms” appendix

Walking Man: The Secret Life of Colin Fletcher is a new book by Robert Wehrman on the life of Colin Fletcher.

Colin Fletcher of course is the man who is arguably the most famous backpacker of modern times.

His Complete Walker series kickstarted the backpacking movement of the 1960s and 1970s. And his walks through California and the Grand Canyon are among the most read accounts of backpacking, too.

It is hard to picture the world of backpacking without the influence of Colin Fletcher.

As I’ve mentioned before, his writing style is one of dry wit and humor, with vivid descriptions and  some obvious deep love and passion for what he called the green world.

He was more concerned with the WHY? than the WHAT? (gear) of backpacking. Which is why I think much of his writing still holds up over thirty or even forty years later.

Colin Fletcher, despite being such a public figure, was an intensely private person.

Walking Man pulls back the curtain a bit and reveals what made Colin Fletcher, well, Colin Fletcher.

There are the usual biographical details that are important in understanding Fletcher himself: Fletcher’s time in boarding school, his father leaving at a young age, Fletcher’s mother re-marrying and other similar details.

Perhaps the most pertinent part of Fletcher’s early life was serving as a Royal Marine commando in World War II.   Fletcher developed the discipline, logistic aptitude, a feel for personal limits of endurance and curating an internal fortitude that would serve him well in his outdoor meanderings later in life.

Which brings us to Fletcher the walker.

A man ambivalent about his fame.

The impact he made on trekking into the Grand Canyon made him more circumspect about listing his favorite places in any great detail. Fletcher was also quite perturbed about the controversy of who was the first to hike the Grand Canyon National Park in its entirety [1].  

Fletcher did not enjoy gear discussion and would rather talk about generalities. He is quoted as saying

“I seek to inscribe no gospel, only to suggest guidelines”

and

“…that equipment and techniques are means to an end”.

But perhaps my favorite quote is is this nugget of

“Frankly my advice to those genuinely interested in walking has always been to forget the books and to get out and get on with it, relying on the two finest teachers in the business – trial and error”   

The man who published among the first comprehensive gear guides did not even like gear that much..or even the type of book he wrote!

These are well known public facets of his personality. The curmudgeon guru who often said these things with a twinkle in his eye and a sly grin.

But what Walking Man covers rather well is the private side not known to most.

Many of our outdoor writers had their feet of clay.   Abbey was married multiple times and, or at least the Cactus Ed portion of his persona, was perhaps a bit racist and misogynistic.  And Guy Waterman suffered from extreme bouts of depression.

A passionate person who lives an unconventional life often has these extremes in their personalities.

Fletcher was no different.

He  zealously guarded his privacy to extremes. He was cantankerous and even angry to the point that his few closed friends called that side of him the Welsh Bastard  and, as Fletcher himself stated,  lived such a structured and crafted life that any long term romantic relationships were doomed from the onset.

Fletcher was warm, giving, funny and loved to instruct and share. But woe to the person who wound up on his bad side. True for many of us, but more extreme in certain personality types such as Fletcher’s…or so it seems.

The biography almost ends on a bit of sad note. The 2002 incident where Colin Fletcher was hit by a car while walking ended his thoughtfully and deliberately crafted life.  The medical bills ate into his savings.  The Walking Man lost much of his mobility. Injuries he sustained may have caused dementia.  The man who longed for the green world and disparaged much of modern life as man-crud died in a medical institution.   

But there is hope at the end. Fletcher’s legacy lives on. Directly or indirectly, many of us who go to the wild places, or the green world as Fletcher called it, do so in the steps pioneered by Fletcher himself.

Walking for the sake of walking was greatly popularized by Fletcher and his seminal books.  His concepts are still with us years later.

As Colin Fletcher stated in some of the wonderful Fletcherisms found at the end of the book:

Listen you bastards, I’ve got something to tell you!

He does indeed. Many years after his passing.

I have not talked much about the Walking Man book itself I am realizing.

It is a testament to the material, the subject and the writing of Robert Wehrman how engrossing the reading of the book was overall. I felt I was reading a tale…not a Very Important Book that I had to slog through as is the case with much non-fiction about notable people or events.

If you have any interest in Colin Fletcher at all and the impact he has had on the passion of backpacking, I suggest you read this book.   Walking Man: The Secret Life of Colin Fletcher will be well worth your time.

  1. Using modern parlance, Fletcher would be considered the first thru-hiker.  Harvery Butchart is considered the first person for hiking the Grand Canyon National Park overall. He walked it in sections over the years. Many of his notes were used by Fletcher. Fletcher said as such, too. Our silly internet squabbles about purity and completion criteria existed even over 50 years ago it seems! Then, as now, media distorted the facts to make for better selling material.

Walking Man: The Secret Life of Colin Fletcher was purchased with my own funds.

7 thoughts on “Walking Man – The Secret Life of Colin Fletcher

    • It is wonderful how well they hold up so many years later. A type of outdoor writing that is not as common today. Much writing is either a dry engineering manual or #EPIC!

  1. I first read “The Man Who Walked through Time” back in 1974 when I was just 16 years old. I still remember the excitement, the fascination, that Colin’s writing instilled in me. You are correct…his writing is timeless!

    • The Man who Walked Through Time followed by River makes for some wonderful bookends. One book is what made Fletcher well known and is about walking through the Grand Canyon…the other jaunt was taken in his golden years and is about traveling on the Colorado River (and through the Grand Canyon).

  2. When I first read The Complete Walker (well over 30 years ago), I thought Fletcher was great. Then I read his account of hiking the Grand Canyon. The passage about his flinging an empty wine bottle into the canyon made me lose all respect for him. He had no problem carrying it full of wine and drinking that wine. He had no excuse for not carrying it empty. His excuses and rationalizations in the book was nothing but BS. After all this time, I still remember Fletcher for that one incident, more than anything else he wrote.

    • Yep, he caught a lot of heat for that. He later wrote that he regretted doing it, as he did sleeping in the Anasazi ruin and killing rattlesnakes.

      I don’t think he realized what an impact telingl the world about tossing the bottle into the river would have. I do think what he was trying to explain was as the water Catherine-wheeled out of it his sense of time shifted and stayed that way all the way to Phantom Ranch.

      Certainly by today’s ethics it was a bad thing to do. Perhaps we should remember that he was one of the people who established those ethics which back country travelers had not yet adopted.

      Everyone I interviewed who knew him, both friends and nonfriends, said he was an extremely honest person who called things as he saw them whether or not they might be detrimental to himself in some way.

      Somewhere he wrote that throwing that bottle was an ugly act and wished he’d not done it.

      It is because of these actions, and others, that I approached the writing from the perspective of his personality quirks because some actions just don’t fit the image we have of him (either way, good or bad). So I did my best to present the full man, warts and all. I do know he would have wanted that although he may have squirmed a bit. The drafts of his autobiography revealed a lot more nasty stuff. Especially if he read the book while in one of his Santa Claus moods. Had he been Captain Bligh he wouldn’t have given any thought to it at all.

      Best,

      BW

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

Subscribe without commenting