Colin Fletcher, 85; hiking icon’s books inspired generations to journey into the wilderness

Times Staff Writer

Colin Fletcher, who was considered the father of modern backpacking for his lyrical and practical writings on hiking, including “The Complete Walker” and “The Man Who Walked Through Time,” books that inspired generations to journey into the wilderness, died Tuesday in Monterey, Calif. He was 85.

Fletcher, who was hit by a car as he crossed a rural road near his house in 2001, died at Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula of complications related to old age and injuries suffered from that accident, said Chris Cassidy, a business associate.

“He brought this idea that you didn’t have to be a nut case to take long solitary walks in the wilderness at a time when a lot of people were really looking for ways to create holistic lives and escape from the craziness of Vietnam and the stresses of the ‘60s,” said Jonathan Dorn, editor in chief of Backpacker magazine.


Bruce Hamilton, deputy executive director of the Sierra Club, said Fletcher had helped start a movement by “speaking as an adventurist who would share his own exploits, then tell you to lighten your load by cutting your toothbrush in half.”

“The Complete Walker,” first published in 1968, is an exhaustive guide to outdoors travel that is generally regarded as the backpacker’s bible. The book brims with advice on gear and frank observations, such as why someone should consider wilderness walking: It “remains a delectable madness, very good for sanity.”

“He was to backpacking what Jack Kerouac had been to road trips,” wrote Annette McGivney in Backpacker magazine in 2002.

Romantic conflict inadvertently inspired Fletcher’s walking-writing career.

In 1958, Fletcher decided to hike the length of California from Mexico to Oregon so that he could engage in “contemplative walking” and decide whether to get married.

Six months and a thousand miles later, he took his girlfriend as his wife and began work on his first book, “The Thousand-Mile Summer” (1964), which detailed his route across the Mojave Desert and up the Sierra Nevada range.

The marriage ended within weeks, but the man whom some call the J.D. Salinger of the high country had discovered an appealing way to communicate.

“He found he could touch people in a grand and far-reaching way and have friends without having them in his hair all the time,” said Chip Rawlins, who helped update “The Complete Walker IV” (2002) and considered Fletcher “one of the heroes of my youth.”

“Colin was cranky, opinionated, irascible, yet I found him quite wonderful, actually,” Rawlins said.

Outside Fletcher’s Carmel Valley, Calif., home hung a sign that said: “Beware of the Man!” Once he touched fame, Fletcher closely guarded his home’s exact location and scratched a decoy name on his mailbox.

In 1963, Fletcher, beckoned by the Grand Canyon’s beauty and reportedly looking for a way to mend his broken heart, became one of the first to walk the length of the chasm. He wrote about the two-month trek in “The Man Who Walked Through Time” (1968). The feat has rarely been repeated.

“I saw that my decision to walk through the Canyon could mean more than I knew. I saw that by going ... deep into the space and the silence and the solitude, I might come as close as we can at present to moving back and down through the smooth and apparently impenetrable face of time,” he wrote.

The “artfully worded account” of the Grand Canyon adventure “introduced an increasingly nature-hungry public to the spiritual and physical rewards of backpacking,” McGivney wrote in 2002. The book remains in print.

Fletcher exited the canyon at 41 with new purpose. He devoted himself to walking and to writing about it, and he never married again.

In all, Fletcher wrote seven books in a 35-year span, providing, as he told the Associated Press in 1989, “great, granular detail” about camping.

At 67, Fletcher hiked and paddled solo 1,750 miles down the Green and Colorado rivers. He recounted the experience in “River: One Man’s Journey Down the Colorado, Source to Sea” (1997).

He wrote of his need for the trip: “I needed something to pare the fat off my soul.... And I knew ... there is nothing like a wilderness journey for rekindling the fires of life.”

Of his works, Fletcher favored “The Man From the Cave” (1981), possibly because he related to the main character -- a gold prospector who once inhabited a cave in the Nevada desert, said Carl Brandt, Fletcher’s longtime agent.

A 1981 Washington Post review called the book “a work of art, a triumph, a monument to the unique spark of humanity Fletcher intuitively recognized in a wild desert cave.”

“He had worked out a life for himself that was very, very happy,” Brandt said. “The three things he loved the most were walking and writing, and then, oddly enough, tennis.”

Born March 14, 1922, in Cardiff, Wales, Fletcher was an only child who traced his love of walking to his mother, who enjoyed venturing out in the rain.

He first backpacked as a commando for the Royal Marines in World War II and later spent five years in Africa, mainly farming. Several odd jobs followed, including prospecting and laying out roads for a mining company in Canada and janitorial work at a San Francisco hospital.

Throughout his 70s, Fletcher continued to hike and backpack. He had begun work on an autobiography before he was hit by the car six years ago. He suffered severe brain trauma, many broken bones and other injuries.

“He came back from the accident but never again was near the person he once was,” said John Sexton, a wilderness photographer who was his neighbor. They became friends after Sexton dared to knock on his door with an errant piece of mail.

“He was a one-of-a-kind person who lived a reclusive life but was gregarious with a small handful of friends,” Sexton said.

Fletcher has no survivors, and his friends plan to spread his ashes in the coastal wilderness.

As he aged, Fletcher admitted it was harder for him to convey a sense of wonder about the backcountry.

“I’m not young anymore,” Fletcher said in the 1989 AP story, and echoed a line from “The Thousand-Mile Summer:” “I’m no longer rich with the rewards of inexperience.”