Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Colin Fletcher's "A Thousand Mile Summer": Book Review

What I remember about this compelling narrative, read thirty years ago one hot Southern California summer, is a simple scene. Hiking towards Death Valley across the Mojave desert, Fletcher's hat blows off. You can imagine the terror he felt from this loss. I'll leave it to you to find out more. It's an example, one of many, of the intriguing vignettes scattered through this account, from a time when backpacking (the journey takes place in the early 1960s) lacked so much of the hi-tech GPS, lightweight fibers and metals, and the advantages that allow many today, even if they do not dare to follow so far in his footsteps, to take more of our life into the empty places. The same places where Fletcher sought to escape the full places where most of us live.

This book reminded me of John Muir, a century earlier, when it entered into the Sierras; Fletcher's northbound journey, of course, takes him from Mexican to Canadian borders. The sylvan settings, however, became for me more muted in memory as compared to the evocative, harsh, and unforgiving sandy stretches that captured more of my imagination in recalling the power of this engaging narrative. It might not have gained the amount of acclaim (compare the number of Amazon reviews) that worthy books that came later, like Edward Abbey's "Desert Solitaire," earned, but the late Fletcher preferred to stay away from the spotlight, one senses from this early account of the walks that later made him a pioneer among those today who seek solitude in deserts and mountains across America.

Fletcher may have prefigured a bit the countercultural movement. Perhaps he missed out on the big-name recognition, but he gained respect among those who also preferred retreat rather than spotlights. But if you read of his own wish to escape the routine and do what back then far fewer would have even known how to do, you see his prescience. Like Abbey and Muir and Thoreau, Fletcher reminds us how much of America waits beyond the sodium-strip mall and the big-box chain store and the red-tiled roofs of the subdivisions-- even as these continue into what once were quieter forests and chaparral where Fletcher once walked alone.

(Posted to Amazon US today)

No comments: