Colin Fletcher has been on my 'must read' list for a long time (along with a hundred other writers) and at last I got around to picking up The Man Who Walked through Time. I was hooked from the very start. It's my very favourite kind of walking-in-the-wilderness book — not just full of acute observations about the natural world but also pulsing with the individual heart and soul of the writer.
In 1963 Fletcher became the first man to walk the length of the Grand Canyon below the Rim, and his account shows this journey as not only physically and mentally challenging but also spiritually enlightening. By the end of the book you feel you have accompanied him on some sort of pilgrimage or spiritual odyssey.
When Fletcher enters the Canyon for the first time he realises he has crossed over from one world to another, from a man-constructed world to a more pristine and primeval one. He knows that he Had already escaped from a world in which the days are consumed by clocks and dollars and traffic and other people. Had crossed over, at the moment I came to the sandstone platform, into a world that was governed by the sun and the wind and the lie of the land. A world in which the things that mattered were the pack on your back and sunlight on rough rock and the look of the way ahead. A world in which you relied, always, on yourself.
It takes him a while to acclimatise, to fit into this other world far from the complexities of civilisation. At first he wrestles with what he calls the trivia of the trek: blisters, an upset stomach, the slipping straps of his pack — mundane, practical matters. Then, little by little, the insights come, as he relaxes into the journey. He gradually becomes more at ease with his environment and adept at managing and interpreting the contours of its landscape. He is struck by his own personal insignificance when surrounded by such awe-inspiring, often oppressive rock walls and bluffs: But now, lying on my back at the bottom of the black Redwall gorge, I understood. I was hopelessly insignificant. Insignificant and helpless. A mere insect. And when we humans feel this way we are, inevitably, afraid.
He notices in more and more intimate detail the unique lives and adaptations of the creatures he encounters — the horses, the squirrels, the beavers, the lizards, the spiders — and achieves a kind of mystical rapport with them through close contact and patient, silent observation. Although he knows these epiphanies are transitory — he calls them a montage of moments — and although he wishes he could manacle time so that the beauty can go on and on and on, he also knows that in some way the moment would always be there. Although these climax moments cannot last, he feels that standing there on the red rock terrace, still watching the lizard, I was knife-edge alive.
He comes to understand the immense sweep of geological time and how the strata of rock represent millions of years of geological change and upheaval. This deep appreciation of the dynamic surge and rhythm of the rock, of the staggering infinitude of time and of the intricate, interlocking web of life, dawns on him not through intellectual thought but through feeling.
The walk is all about self-discovery and the discovery of what is human in all of us. Another insight he receives is this: When you ferret out something for yourself, piecing the clues together unaided, it remains for the rest of your life in some way truer than facts you are merely taught, and freer from onslaughts of doubt. Oh, how true.
An accident with his camera — it falls and breaks — makes him realise that it has become an impediment and that he is now rid of the tyranny of film. At times he even walks through the Canyon naked, freed from the restraint of clothes!
There are precious moments of stillness and doing nothing — important interludes, he believes, in which you see things you have been too busy to notice. At one point he meets up with a friend for a few days, but afterwards he is glad to resume his state of his solitude: All I knew was that after Doug had gone it was a relief to be able to move on when I wanted to move on, to stand and stare when I wanted to stand and stare, to do absolutely nothing when I wanted to do absolutely nothing. To be able to think my own thoughts in my own way at my own pace and convenience, without fear of interruption. And to exist, all the time, in silence. My relief was not, of course, very surprising. These are exactly the set of circumstances we imply when we use the word 'solitude'.
At the end of the trek Fletcher assesses what he has learned: For I had learned, deep down and surely, what I had before understood only intellectually and dimly: that everything we know about is dancing at its own tempo, to the same overriding rhythm. Mysteries remained, half seen, quarter understood. But they were necessary mysteries. There are rhythms of existence we cannot yet hope to hear.
And he concludes: There is a powerful human compulsion to leave things tied up in neat little bundles. But every journey except your last has an open end. And any journey of value is above all a chapter in a personal odyssey. Its end is not so much a goal attained as another point in a continuing process. And the important thing at the end of a journey — or of a book — is to keep moving forward, refreshed, with as little pause as possible.