Thoughts on Colin Fletcher



I also realized that I’d grown soft, Things had been going too well lately. Too easily. I needed something to pare the fat off my soul, to scare the shit out of me, to make me grateful, again, for being alive. All I knew, deep and safe, beyond mere intellect, that there is nothing like a wilderness journey for re-kindling the fires of life. Simplicity is part of it. Cutting the cackle. Transportation reduced to leg- or arm-power, eating irons to one spoon. Such simplicity, together with sweat and silence, amplify the rhythms of any long journey, especially through unknown, untattered territory. And in the end such a journey can restore an understanding of how insignificant you are – thereby set you free.                                                                              –Colin Fletcher, RIVER

Words to ponder by Colin Fletcher.

No mention of gear, or pack weight or even technique.

But the “Why?” of the outdoor experience sings as loudly now as it did when he wrote that sentence over twenty years ago.

As a person actively struggling to balance the long-term goal of a sustainable career, a marriage, and a sense of wanderlust, those words speak to me. More so than any latest blog post on a titanium widget or cuben fiber whatchamacallit.

In the modern era (post-World War II), perhaps only Ed Abbey is any rival to Colin Fletcher regarding the sheer joy of being outdoors and influencing people’s perspective of such.

On a recent recording of a silly little podcast, I help host; we discussed the enjoyable documentary Remains of a River.

A documentary that encompasses a trip down the Colorado River.  Full of excellent scenery,  thought-provoking themes, and possessing a joy of the journey.

It was delightful to watch, and a documentary is one I suggest quite a bit.

Watching this documentary, I became reminded of an earlier book that described the same journey: River.  The account of this journey took place over twenty-five years ago and is a classic by Colin Fletcher. One I enjoy reading every few years.

Much as with Travels with Charley, it is a book I find myself re-reading as I seem to glean something new in every reading.

I first read River when I had moved to Colorado. That book, along with Cadillac Desert, gave me an appreciation of how vital water and the politics behind it shape and influence not only the politics but the overall culture, history, and dynamics of the American West.

A few years later, I re-read River in between my PCT and CDT thru-hikes. I was getting itchy feet, and the quote above, along with the interest of where I’d be hiking, help confirm the wanderlust I was feeling just had to act upon.

So here it is, May of 2014.  I turned 40 a week or so ago. Famously called the old age of youth, forty is an age where many people start to question their path in life.

Myself included.

I’ve worked in IT in one form-or-another for fifteen years now. What started as the way to get jobs in-between hikes somehow turned into a career.

I am trying to fashion a career that has more flexibility so that I may hike more, but this middle stage does make me question what I am doing. Are the sacrifices in the present going to pay off in the future? Am I wasting my current years in the pursuit of a mirage?

So what does all this navel-gazing have to do with a twenty-year-old book?

The lines above from Colin Fletcher remind me of something that is a longing in me that never entirely goes away. It resurfaces strongly at times when the current job is not going well, or I get reminded of past journeys or even something as simple as an argument with someone.

Frankly, I am tempted to chuck it all at times. Go back to the boom-bust cycle of saving money, go on a long hike,  repeat.  To again hoist my pack, walk a long path, and see places revealing themselves one step at a time.

Or get a WFR certification and start a guiding company…

Or something…

But when I examine it, I simply want to go on a long journey again.

Perhaps not the 4-6 months of my recent past. But something in the six weeks or so range.

Enough time to truly get back into the rhythms of the natural world. To be out walking from sunrise to sunset all day. To again think of the natural world as not a place I am visiting, but truly my home.

My weekend or so jaunts are fun. And satisfying. And often memorable.

But there is nothing like a long journey in the wilderness.

It satisfies the soul and the hunger for both wild places and new experiences.

As I look back at my life (another trademark of this milestone birthday?), I realize that it is no so many specific events but overall experiences that I seem to remember the most: Summer cookouts where my many cousins and I would play late into the night.  The Sunday dinners at my grandparents’ house and having food that I have not have had in years but still seared into memory. And, of course, my outdoor experiences.

I could not tell you the exact dates many times, but camping by a lake in Maine, hiking through the snow-covered Sierra, seeing an old family cemetery in some holler in the Appalachians or walking along the backbone of the continent stand out as memories as sharp and poignant as the day they happened.

All I knew, deep and safe, beyond mere intellect, that there is nothing like a wilderness journey for re-kindling the fires of life.”

I need to get out again.

Perhaps I am selfish; I am out a lot by most standards.

But not by my standards.

When will I get out again for another long walk?

I don’t know.

I do know I miss it terribly.


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9 years ago

Fabulous essay!

9 years ago

Enjoyed your essay and I understand that longing to be outside backpacking for days, weeks. Everything is so simple out there. And you relearn to appreciate the simple things in life, like putting on dry clothes after a rainy, snowy day. Or the joys of sipping a hot beverage in camp, while watching the sunset. But the dreaming and planning of future adventures also makes it easier to get through the humdrum of working for a living. So it’s back to working, and dreaming of my next adventure. Summer is almost here, I’m going to make the most of it!!… Read more »

Dr. Bob Wehrman
8 years ago

A very interesting aspect of Colin Fletcher’s writing is the difference between what he was saying and what was actually going on in his personal life. He’s said many times that he undertook the river adventure because things were going too well and he needed to pare the fat off his soul and have the shit scared out of him. In fact, in the three years leading up to his river journey he dropped a long-planned project, toyed with moving away from his home of 30 years, had a failed romantic relationship, two book rejections, poor sales of his recent… Read more »