Fumbling Toward Fulfillment: The Metamorphosis of Colin Fletcher

Colin Fletcher was the world’s most famous walker, an extremely popular author, and dubbed the first thru-hiker and father of modern backpacking. His was an outspoken voice supporting wilderness preservation: when Fletcher had something to say, people listened. Few people realize today that most of his fundamental vision for wilderness travel—and his world view—was kindled in the Pacific Northwest between 1953 and 1956.

An immigrant who opened up a part of North America we had forgotten, Colin was best known as the first person to force, in one arduous solo journey, a passage afoot through the length of Grand Canyon National Park. Prior to this he walked from Mexico to Oregon along California’s eastern deserts and mountains. This was decades before the Pacific Crest Trail came into official existence. Not many people were doing such things in 1958

Each of these exploits generated books, both of which appeared during the Vietnam War era, a time when many were looking for alternatives to the ordinary life. The Thousand-mile Summer and The Man Who Walked Through Time  are chronicles of his first two mega-treks and were quickly followed with The Complete Walker,  in which he explained to us in remarkable detail how to live comfortably in the backcountry.

 

Colin Fletcher in Chalfant Valley, 1958

 

Fletcher urged us to go out into the green world to reconnect with ourselves and the planet. He showed us that walking could be contemplative as well as functional and taught that all things natural, living and non-living alike, should be protected from rampant human development and destruction. The idea resonated with the youth who were at that time being conscripted by their own government and sent to Southeast Asia to serve as cannon fodder. And so it was that hundreds of thousands of college-age students and returning Vietnam Veterans followed Fletcher’s footprints into the wilderness to reconnect with the land.

Because of his writings, backpacking quickly became a pastime for millions of others who had not previously identified with the return to the land movement. Families began hiking on their vacations, people went further into the wilderness to camp, fish, climb, or simply commune with nature.  This was followed by an explosion of backpacking equipment production and sales beginning in the late 1960s; a boom for which he was at least partly responsible.

Two decades earlier, Colin was a lieutenant in the Royal Marines and assigned to the first wave to storm the beachhead in Normandy on D-Day. He was later promoted to captain for heroic deeds that resulted in saving an entire company of marines. Had we been with him that stormy June morning in Landing Craft 517, dreadfully seasick, vomit-filled bilge water swirling around our ankles, awaiting certain annihilation on the beach, we would have seen no hint that he would become the world’s guru of wilderness foot travel and a major voice for environmental preservation.

Against the odds, he survived the war and began a long metamorphosis. While Fletcher would argue that his metamorphosis into the Pied Piper of walking continued throughout his life, many of his significant changes occurred during his immediate post-war years.

Even so, we would not have detected the enormous transformation he was undergoing had we observed him in Kenya, where he lived from 1946—1952 and worked as the dairy manager of Spring Farm in the Rift Valley; one of Earth’s most beautiful places with its wonderland of lakes fringed in the bright pink of flamingos that line the shores. Fletcher’s personal notes mention that he did not bring a love of nature with him when he left Africa. In hindsight, Colin wrote that he simply did not yet have eyes to see the beauty and its connection to all things from the natural world, both living and non-living.

The most important thing he brought with him from Africa was his desire to become a writer. He’d certainly not seen nature’s beauty on his job as a shipment manager in charge of ferrying expensive cattle by air from Ireland to New York. Fletcher’s next employment offered little relief in this area—he worked as a driver hired to shuttle new cars from Montreal to Edmonton and Vancouver. His notes mention the splendor of the Great Lakes and Rocky Mountains, but the idea of nature’s beauty faded quickly as he sat shivering on a park bench in frozen Vancouver counting his dwindling funds. The reality of his situation was clear, so he rented a room in a sleazy motel near the docks and bought some warm winter clothing.

Next came a stop-gap job digging ditches in the frozen earth. He took time off for the 1952 year-end holidays, spending the time drinking at an old waterfront dive, but all too soon it was back to work hacking through frozen black munge with a pickaxe. “It was a very dark time in a dark place,” he wrote his stepdad.

He cooked and ate canned food in his motel room and saved every penny he could so that by summer he could afford to continue his travels.

As spring approached, the skies cleared, the days grew longer, and Fletcher began to see the sheer beauty of British Columbia. The wildflowers were springing up everywhere, formerly frozen rivers and lakes were now filled with hungry salmon and big trout, and the mountains beckoned, rekindling his wanderlust. So, he bought a sleeping bag, a tent, and other modest camping gear and set off for the backcountry. He hitchhiked hundreds of miles through still-frozen mountains to the Northwest Territories to fish the big icy rivers there and then spent a month living in a tent while fly-fishing along the Wigwam River, a tributary of the Elk River in eastern British Columbia known for its huge bull trout. He noted that it was this trip that opened his eyes and he began to contemplate and absorb the Northwest’s majestic beauty.

Fletcher Fishing Northwestern Waters

In spite of his austere lifestyle, funds ran short, so he returned to Vancouver and took a job bussing tables and washing dishes at Kirby’s Koffee Korner.

“It was a demeaning and boring job,” Fletcher said. “One that seemed to be preventing me from working toward fulfilling my dream of becoming a writer. But it kept me alive as I fumbled toward fulfillment.”

During this time his long-lost father, Reggie, showed up in Vancouver. Colin had not seen him—with one brief exception during the early post-war—since he was five years old. They utterly failed to reconnect. The visit reminded him that in his childhood days after losing contact with his father and grandfather, his best friends were the animals, the wind, and seashore sounds rather than people.

Under these bleak circumstances Fletcher began writing his first book, It’s the Altitude, and attempted to publish several articles about fishing in Africa. The articles were not picked up by any periodicals, so he continued working the degrading job at Kirby’s until spring when he landed a job as a prospector on nearby Vancouver Island. Although he slowly evolved throughout the war and years in Africa into the man we would know as the walking guru, this job marks a pivotal moment in his transformation.

For a two-month spell, he surveyed and staked land along the shores of a long finger of a bay using a white wooden rowboat with an outboard motor. He fished as much as he labored staking claims. It was during this time that he began to focus on the true beauty of the forest. His awareness of the unequivocal magnificence and value of nature expanded because whenever he saw the desecrated slash of a clear-cut forest, his blood began to boil. He noted the stark contrast between the rich green splendor of virgin forest and those vast swatches of the island, often miles across, on which every sizable tree had been felled and then dragged by loggers to one of the collecting points, knocking down worthless saplings, gouging the earth so violently that when the carnage was over the steep hillsides stood torn, raped, and battlefield-bare.

All summer he lived in an old boathouse situated in a meadow on the edge of Cowichan Bay. It had been converted into a rugged picturesque wooden cabin complete with a set of antlers mounted over the door and an outhouse out back. Here, the mountains shoot straight down into the water, casting their reflection across the mirrored surface. The trees stood back, permitting enough sunlight to reach the dappled green grass dotted with white avalanche flowers surrounding his cabin. Along the sides of the clearing, thickets of fat salmonberries grew in the shade of wild ferns.

Fletcher writing in the converted boat house on Cowichan Bay

 

Sometimes he’d sit on the dock out front of the cabin smoking cigarettes, staring off into the water pondering, wondering—dreaming the water they way some people dream fires—why is my life so empty? It is beautiful here, completely harmonious. I should feel fulfilled living such an idyllic life.  At times the emptiness shadowed him everywhere he went.

One warm, sunny afternoon, as he sat on the dock fishing, watching a pair of psychedelic green and pink damsel flies copulating on the wing, a stunning blond woman about his age strolled out of the woods and into the open area around the cabin. Surprised and smiling, Fletcher stood up to greet the unexpected guest.

Although at first startled to see an unexpected man alone in the woods, she introduced herself as Stella and told him she worked as a nurse for a doctor in town. He offered her a seat on a nearby boulder as they watched a pod of killer whales cruise lazily past the little wooden pier. Tall, jet-black dorsal fins jutted from the orcas’ glossy obsidian skin as they slowly undulated along the smooth surface of the water; geysers of their spray lingered in the warm afternoon air.

Fletcher was never much for idle chitchat, but they sat together talking for hours while the sun slowly arched across the warm ultramarine sky. They watched as blue herons circled the end of the bay, sometimes dragging their feet in the water leaving long, thin parallel wakes behind them as they searched for food. The afternoon fish were jumping, creating circular bullseyes on the glassy water. Parachutes of white gossamer thistles floated on the warm currents of toffee-scented air, every so often dropping into the water lapping quietly against the grassy shore at the end of the dock. Squirrels chattered and birds sang from somewhere deep in the forest behind them, completing the resonant harmony of the scene.

Colin and Stella developed a relationship throughout the rest of the summer and he moved in with her in the fall after the prospecting operation closed down for the winter. She went to her part-time nursing job in Chemainus and he stayed home working on It’s the Altitude. One day Stella came back from work to find him sitting at his little typewriter, staring off into space, lost in thought. She startled him when she came in.

She smiled and said, “You must be in another world.”

“Huh? Sorry. Just working things out in my head.”

“From the look on your face I’d say you were far away; you didn’t even make the bed,” and started pulling up the blankets. He jumped up to help.

“I don’t understand what’s come over me, I can’t stand an unmade bed.”

“Don’t worry Colin,” she said as she took him in her arms and began rubbing his back. “No, it’s not like you to leave the bed unmade. But you are changing, undergoing a glorious metamorphosis.”  She took a step back to look at him. “Yes, I’m certain you will be a famous writer within the decade.”

“Definitely,” she added. “You’re breaking free. Shucking off the person you’ve been taught to be and changing into the one you truly are. You were just visiting purdah.”

“What on earth do you mean?” he asked, suddenly uncertain.

“You are Welsh, dear, but were schooled in England. I spent some time there just after the war. As a nurse,” she added brightly.

Then she darkened a little and said, “I saw the pressures they put on children to conform to the traditional English ideal. You know, stiff upper lip, no complaining, terribly proper, sorry old chap, and all that. From the start I could see this in you. But now you’re changing, Colin. You haven’t heard of purdah, have you?”

He shook his head.

“Purdah is the name for the curtain used to separate the women from the men in Indian homes. It’s also a sort of mental isolation. This is where you were when I came home just now.”

Fletcher later noted that in this one conversation he realized he was detribalizing from his formative roots in England and he learned about purdah. He came to understand that going into purdah was the secret to focusing tightly on the writing at hand and from this time on nearly always went into mental and physical isolation whenever working on a writing project.

He and Stella broke off their relationship in spring of 1956 and he returned to the old boathouse for another summer. It’s the Altitude was rejected for publication and he filed the manuscript away, never to return to it. By early fall he’d decided to head to Mexico and its warm winters. So, he purchased a purple 1950 Plymouth Woody station wagon—which he christened The Ark—and began driving south along the coast highway, camping as he went.

Photo by John Sexton. Courtesy of Appalachian Long Distance Hikers Association

He commented in his notes—which he was now taking almost habitually—about the natural beauty along the coast and was clearly growing more and more enamored with the non-human world. He’d spent much of the previous decade living alone, or with Africans who didn’t speak English, and solo in Canada; he was well on the way to becoming the reclusive environmental activist for which we remember him. He’d worked as a ditch-digger, dishwasher, prospector, fisherman, road builder, driver, cattle shipment manager, dairy farm manager, independent sales representative, combat soldier, and bicycle messenger. This is a fairly good resume for a writer in training. But he had not yet become the writer/walker for which we remember him, nor had he ever walked away from civilization carrying everything needed to live in the pack on his back. But he carried with him his new-found love of nature, writing, walking, strong ideas of self, and his knowledge of purdah.

We’ll leave Colin heading south in The Ark, driving into his destiny as a famous American iconoclast writer. His change wasn’t fully crystalized, but it was well underway. He’d land The Ark in San Francisco in October 1956 where he would meet, love, and lose the woman of his dreams, and much to our benefit, begin working more seriously at his quest to be a writer, and in the end, become the world’s most famous walker. But he was still fumbling toward fulfillment.

The Canon of Colin Fletcher

Dr. Robert Wehrman is a composer, explorer, and the author of six books. His latest, Walking Man – The Secret Life of Colin Fletcher is the biography of the famous walker and was a finalist in the Banff Mountain and Book Festival.  Learn more about Walking Man at http://colinfletcherbiography.com/.

 

 

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