Ramble On

Monday, September 21, 2009

Vacation Book Review: The Man Who Walked Through Time

For vacation reading this year, I picked up this first-person adventure story about Colin Fletcher, a Welsh veteran of World War II, and his 1963 walk of the length of the Grand Canyon, below the Rim. If you have ever stood on the Rim of the Canyon, finding inspiration from looking out over that vast chasm of apparent wilderness, this tale will call to mind the fact that there are few places like that left – few places where you can go and find few traces of the impact of modern society, and even fewer for the rest and relaxation of near-solitude.

To get a sense of Fletcher’s adventure, one only has to read the “Time Note” that precedes the first chapter, added in 1990. In it, for the reader, he foreshadows the scale of his adventure while acknowledging that some of his activities on that trip could never pass as acceptable for the number of Canyon visitors there are these days:

"…A quarter of a century ago, when I made this journey, Grand Canyon was largely untraveled below its Rims. So I did certain things that at the time seemed legitimate. I lit occasional campfires, for example. I had three supply drops parachuted in from low-flying aircraft. I killed a rattlesnake. I slept inside an Anasazi cliff dwelling.

I hope you will understand that because of today’s heavy travel in the Canyon by backpackers and river-runners such acts would now be neither legitimate nor legal."

From a natural history standpoint, the discussion about the theories of the formation and age of the Canyon are enlightening. The layers of limestone, sandstone, and shale that are a mile deep in places are estimated to be 500 million years old or older. These theories are constantly debated, but Fletcher’s encounter with them underscores the statement in the jacket blurb, “It became a pilgrimage, a stunning spiritual odyssey during which one man began to understand mankind’s singular place in the vastness of the universe.“

Upon his entry to the Canyon, Fletcher sees the impact of modern life on this unique environment. Arriving after a busy holiday weekend, the foot traffic from 700 tourists in Supai leaves a pall of dust on everything in the vicinity of the trail. Nearing the end of his adventure, he finds the wreckage of two crashed airliners. And after completing the journey, he learns of a regional water management plan which proposed large-scale engineering projects within the Canyon itself, spoiling or destroying this landscape forever.

There is plenty of technical information in the book for long distance hikers. An appendix includes the details of the equipment he carried, provisions, and his management of water caches and the infamous airdrops that supplied the two-month hike. The appendix includes the estimated weights of these items (Fletcher’s pack tipped the scales at more than 66 pounds when he set out), but any backpacking reader today will find the comparison of his 1960’s era gear with what is available today to be fascinating.

Fletcher passed away in 2007, but he wrote a second epilogue to his story in 1990. His closing thoughts ring true today, almost 20 years after he added them to this fascinating story, “The price of wilderness still includes eternal vigilance.”

I spent my week of vacation hiking short routes in Shenandoah National Park, often taking in segments of the Appalachian Trail – check the “Day Hikes” labels on the right for details. Fletcher’s book was a lucky find for me, but it was perfect recreational reading during the evening after the day’s adventures. It’s one I heartily recommend to fellow “adventurers.”

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