‘The Man Who Walked Through Time’
As we old readers age, we become increasingly aware of the maxim’s truth: “So many books, so little time.” As books increase and our days decrease, we are forced to make a decision: read the new titles, revisit the ones that pleased us in the past, or some combination of both. It’s not unlike the dilemma hikers face – explore new trails or return to those that nourished us in the past.
As one who gave up on bagging the 46 High Peaks and chose to hike again and again the mountains that I first loved, it’s predictable that I often opt to reread books that shaped me as a young person, and in this case as a young hiker.
Colin Fletcher’s “The Man Who Walked Through Time” is the first-person account of his 1963 solo hike through the Grand Canyon National Park. The 200-mile hike had only been completed once before, but that was done in sections by Harvey Butchart, while Fletcher did it as one long walk.
“The Man Who Walked Through Time” came out in 1968, in the same year that Fletcher’s hiking “Bible,” “The Complete Walker,” was published. The two books, along with other essays from the Welsh-born writer, made Fletcher instrumental in the growth of backpacking. “A Trailblazer of Modern Backpacking” was the 2007 New York Times headline for his obituary. The newspaper also quoted Annette McGivney, the Southwest editor of Backpacker Magazine, who said “Colin was sort of the founding father of modern backpacking, the first person to write about going out for an extended period and being self-sufficient.”
I was one of the many people whose reading of Fletcher encouraged long walks in the Catskills, the White Mountains, and the Adirondacks. Recently, I picked up his book with some trepidation, worried that his writing, which had been so insightful and almost spiritual when I was young, might now appear cliched and tedious.
Walked Through Time begins with a detour. The author and a friend were driving from New York to California on Route 66 and decided to check out the canyon. He wasn’t ready for the experience the detour provided: “Long before we came close, I saw the space. A huge, cleaving space that the photographs and paintings had done nothing to prepare me for In that first moment of shock, with my mind already exploding beyond old boundaries, I knew that something had happened to the way I looked at things.”
Before leaving, Fletcher decided he would hike down, through and out of the Grand Canyon. The rest of the book chronicles his preparations, his hike, and his observations as he tried to “come as close as we can at present to moving back and down through the smooth and apparently impenetrable face of time.”
Fletcher’s account still entertains and startles. His self-deprecating descriptions of how his mistakes undo some of his very careful planning, make any hiker who has mistakenly left a water bottle by a stream feel better. And he allows that, surrounded by the Canyon’s beauty and geology, his mind nevertheless sometimes reverts to the trivial, worrying about shoelaces and blisters.
He also brings the stone walls into focus, revealing not only what they look like but a hiker’s experience of them: “Off to the left your world is bounded by fine-grained cliffs, white and far away. Below them curves burlap talus. Then the red rock begins. First, as fine-grained as the cliffs. Then, when distance no longer hides the whole truth, coarsening And this final close-up reveals how smoothly the distant textures have lied.”
Whether writing about the walls that surround him, the physical difficulties he faces, early exploration, or the Native Americans of the Grand Canyon, Fletcher writes carefully and clearly. The hike is 200 miles long on the map, but becomes about 400 zigzagging miles of actual walking. It is Fletcher’s classroom and laboratory, and the reader his fascinated student.
The 1990 edition I read this time offers another aspect of the passage of time in an author’s note at the beginning. He mentions that in 1963 he had “killed a rattlesnake slept inside an Anasazi cliff dwelling,” and calls those acts “neither legitimate nor legal” today.
This volume also contains a sobering epilogue about the future of the Canyon. Times change, even in and for the Grand Canyon.
New or old edition, Fletcher takes the reader on a wonderful journey.
In fact, rereading “Walked Through Time” is like climbing Mount Colden one more time and realizing your 1962 memory of beauty is accurate.
This review reflects the individual view of the reviewer, not the views of the Adirondack Center for Writing or the Enterprise.