Wordy Walker

The classic backpacker's reference guide has been updated and expanded a little too much.

Rule #17 in Strunk and White's The Elements of Style screams: "Omit needless words." I'm FedExing a copy of this little masterpiece (remember college English?) to Fletcher and Rawlins because their monstrous new 845-page book about backpacking is way over the top. Not that it's a bad book; it's just that it's got too many words.

I mean, my god, we're trying to learn how to backpack here, not figure out the new Mac operating system.

OK, now that I got that off my chest, I admit that Colin Fletcher is one of my heroes. He's one of those cranky, opinionated, endearing individualists who throw themselves out into the world, live life fully, and to hell with what anyone else thinks.

He's written a shelf of terrific books, including three earlier versions of the current tome.

Fletcher was the first to walk the entire length of Grand Canyon National Park below the rim, described in his classic The Man Who Walked Through Time. Less well known is his story of a cross-California hike, described in The Thousand-Mile Summer. He's also written of a solo river trip down the length of the Colorado, authored a book of essays about various outdoor journeys and crafted a sort of historic archaeology true-detective story called The Man From the Cave.

His best book is The Winds of Mara. Long out of print, it captured the essence of the Masai Mara Wildlife Refuge in Africa just before industrial tourism left its stain. I met Fletcher a few years ago at my beloved and gone but not forgotten Bookmark here in Tucson, and when asked about the book he cracked a smile and admitted that Mara was his favorite as well.

The first Complete Walker appeared in 1968, and soon became known as the "Hiker's Bible." And it really was. A generation of urban kids who grew up in cities, towns and suburbs used Fletcher's book (and subsequent editions) as a ticket to a whole new world. Anyone could read the book, buy some gear and grub, head out into the boonies, backpack in style and love the experience. Oh, and most importantly, come back alive. I was one of those kids.

Fletcher and Rawlins note that this backpacking stuff is now a $5 billion global industry, something that Fletcher's books, especially The Complete Walker, have undoubtedly played no small role in creating.

Coauthor Chip Rawlins was brought onboard for this new version of The Complete Walker. Fletcher is 80 years old and doesn't expect to "live much beyond 120." He appears to be setting the stage to give the book a life "post-Fletcher." Rawlins obviously has a vast amount of backcountry experience and has four books to his credit. He's also a gearhead to the extreme.

These two take a tag-team approach to writing, and come off like the Click and Clack of the backpacking world. They ramble about in various directions--often humorous, usually interesting, but occasionally not. One section plods from the outdoor industry to used equipment to literature to the nature of change to globalization to a striking young woman in platform sandals to outdoor magazines to women's safety. A particularly bizarre section describes how Rawlins actually uses an electric sander to grind off the callus on his feet. Oh, and then there's the part about how he began courting his wife with a game of strip-poker in her sun-ravaged JanSport dome tent. Where was the editor during all this?

Most painful though are the detailed, endless discussions of gear. We'd be better served with a little less on specific model descriptions of gear because it will all be outdated as quickly as you can say global marketplace. Better to stick with the basics and tell people what to look for. When I read that Stoned Wheat Thins are exactly 65 millimeters square, I finally hurled the book across the room in frustration, scaring the cats.

That said, the book really is packed with helpful information, and the tale is told with humor and a wink. It's a perfect read to drool over during those long days when the weather won't let you outside.

If you're a big Fletcher fan, you're condemned to buy and read Walker IV no matter what. But if you're new to his work, go out and dig up his earlier books. They'll provide an easier entry into the world of the man who walked through time.

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