I first read The Complete Walker by Colin Fletcher in 1973 when I lived in Seattle and found it necessary to learn new cultural patterns. Up to that time I’d spent a lot of time in the woods, hiking and camping, hunting and fishing, but I’d never gone backpacking and knew nothing about it. The Complete Walker introduced me to the sport of backpacking and I learned many things from it. There’s nothing quite as interesting as a good technical manual for someone like me, and that’s what it was, a list of ways to put a tiny house on your back and live on the trail in relative comfort, without impacting the countryside. I found it fascinating and new.
Recently I tried to read through The Complete Walker IV by Colin Fletcher and failed. Again it’s a very thorough book about the sport of backpacking, filled with reviews of various types of equipment, all of them wonderful choices as long as you can make a decision. I’m not convinced there’s been any real improvement in gear since 1968 when Fletcher published his first book, unless you’re an ultralight hiker and interested in shaving ounces. Carbon fiber frames and 2 ounce canister stoves make minimal loads lighter, but only a certain kind of hiker wants to ultralight. With everything shaved down to minimum you do have to get from here to there in a certain amount of time. You travel light, you travel fast, and you concentrate on traveling. I was amazed some years ago to find that people do the Appalachian Trail that way, with a 35 pound maximum load and marathon daily distances scheduled so they don’t run out of food before they come to the next retail outlet. To me it seems like an odd way to travel.
I digress constantly. I never really know what I’m going to be doing on the trail, or exactly where I’m going to be. I like to carry enough supplies that I can stay an extra week, and I always hope for circumstances that force me to. Sadly, I’m usually home and back at work on time, but I always hope. I travel at a good pace until I find a place I like. Then I enjoy that place. Sometimes I know where it is beforehand, sometimes I find it along the way. I’ve been known to spend every weekend of a single summer exploring just one valley. I’ve also done the miles, setting goals like fishing every lake within a day’s drive and averaging about .133 pounds of trout per mile of trail. That was fun, too, and definitely an ultralight challenge, but as I read The Complete Walker IV I realized I don’t really agree with the philosophy any longer.
The people who taught me the first things I knew about wilderness living had an entirely different idea. A backpack would have seemed strange to them, and unnecessary. Hiking meant getting to a good fishing spot or hunting area, and camping involved knowing where you’d be and what was there. In Mid-America you soon learn not to look for grand vistas over the next hill, because over the next hill there’s another hill that looks much the same. It’s the small places you grow to appreciate, the things you can’t see from a distance and don’t know exist unless someone teaches you about them or you find them through intensive wandering. To the older fellows who took me along when I was just a kid, the essentials were simple. You took a rifle or a fishing pole, never both of them; a good knife and some matches; and a bottle of whiskey. Anything that was inconvenient or difficult to carry, you left at home. Your camp was built into the country already because you’d be using the same rock bluff shelter generations before you had used. You could travel extremely light and get by just fine. You got your food from wherever you were, or you went hungry for awhile. My Uncle Burl never traveled farther from home than forty miles in his entire life, but he knew every square foot of that territory. You can’t get lost if you’re already home, and there’s some real wisdom in living that way. Seems difficult now, though, when we’re pressured to go somewhere and do things, and most of what used to be open country has No Trespassing signs on it. Even the public land closes at 10 p.m. in most areas, and in spite of being terribly short of money the government can always find enough to pay the salary of some asshole whose only job is to bother people who stretch the rules a bit.
If you’re a backpacker I’m sure you’ll find The Complete Walker IV fascinating and full of good tips and suggestions for excellent gear. I guess I’m reverting to the ways of my ancestors now, or already have I suppose. The point I have in common with Colin Fletcher (or maybe his co-author, I won’t go back to check) is that I also carry a Svea 123 campstove, and it’s old. I don’t care if it’s a little heavy compared to the tinfoil modern alternatives. I’ve landed on the Svea from respectable heights a few times and only put a small dent in the tank. I’ve set it ablaze through stupidity and it didn’t explode and kill me. I’m not giving up the Svea. Don’t try to take it away.
Where I disagree with Fletcher, I suppose, is about everywhere else, about everything he says. I don’t mind what he says but I don’t want to do it that way any more. I don’t think backpacking is so complicated that it requires an 845 page book. A brochure that explained all the straps would be good enough. No matter how complex you make things, you can’t separate people from the natural world with gear. I simply have no interest in doing that any more. I’d rather be a part of things. I have a story one of my elder neighbors told me, not just once but many times, that illustrates the way I feel now. You might think it’s confusing or pointless. Year by year I grow to understand what he said, better and better.
Jim and Slim grew up where I grew up, but forty years ahead of me and in slightly different times. When they were boys, one Sunday afternoon they decided to attend a church picnic a few miles down the road, with the ulterior motive of meeting girls. It was rough country back then, and one fellow who showed up brought a pistol and had a grudge. There was an argument over a girl and in plain view of everyone there, this guy shot a rival dead. Jim and Slim were shocked to see it, it tore them up to see it happen. They felt so bad, Jim said, that they went fishing for three days.
To me that’s a good reason to go places, to participate in life and get well, to be a part of simpler things, basic things, long enough to tolerate regular life again for awhile. Places aren’t just names on a list of the hundred places you must see in your lifetime. Destinations aren’t where you stay for a day to say you’ve been there. Concentrate on that list of a hundred places and you’ll miss what’s really important.
I’m not interested in besting speed records or visiting strange country and never leaving a mark. If you want to do that, go ahead, some people enjoy living out of suitcases and I’ve had a good time motel camping, too. I just don’t kid myself that I’m living “naturally” when I do that. Be warned, people leave marks on the natural world. You can’t walk anywhere no one has walked before. You’re always stepping on ancient history. This is home and we’re part of it. If people realized that our presence always changes things and stopped living like human beings exist apart from everything else, we’d all be better off. We’re never just passing through.