Backpacking icon Fletcher dies
Peninsula: Health deteriorated after accident in 2001
By LAITH AGHA and DANIA AKKAD
Herald Staff Writers
Colin Fletcher, a backpacking guru who wrote the book on the art of a good walk, died Tuesday at Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula. He was 85.
"He is sort of a cult icon in the backpacking world," said Annette McGivney, the Southwest field editor for Backpacker Magazine. "He was like the Jerry Garcia of backpacking."
Fletcher lived in Carmel Valley for many years. He was struck by a vehicle in 2001 while walking to a town hall meeting about the proposed incorporation of Carmel Valley, but survived major injuries. He lived in Flanders Court, an assisted living facility, for about three years before being admitted to the hospital earlier this week after a period of declining health, according to his bookkeeper, Chris Cassidy.
"He was terrific until he got hit by the car, and then he just went downhill," Cassidy said. "He had so many stories."
Fletcher's early storytelling is contained in his first book, "The Thousand-Mile Summer," which was based on his hike along the length of California. A later book, "The Complete Walker," published in 1968, is more of an encyclopedia of backpacking knowledge, though each edition — it is in its fourth — is packed with backpacking wit and a strider's philosophy.
Fletcher was born in Wales on March 14, 1922, and reportedly served in the Royal Marines during World War II. He spent time in Kenya and Zimbabwe, farmed in South Africa and was a prospector in Canada before moving to the United States in 1956.
Jonathan Dorn, editor in chief of Backpacker Magazine, credited Fletcher's books for igniting the "huge boom that took place in the mid-'60s through the '70s."
"A lot of our readers, if they didn't come to backpacking through 'The Complete Walker,' have (since) read and consider it the bible of backpacking," Dorn said. "Certainly a lot of people think of him as the father of modern-day backpacking and someone who inspired thousands ... to get out on the trails."
McGivney said Fletcher "lived most of his life as a single man, a bachelor."
She said Fletcher once paddled and walked the Colorado River from Wyoming to the Sea of Cortez, a 1,200-mile trek. He packed the length of California before the creation of the Pacific Crest Trail.
His methodical approach to backpacking rang throughout his writings, McGivney said.
"He would pontificate about life in the wilderness (and) a lot of people viewed him as this person with this wisdom that everyone respected. He was like a sage. He has this crusty exterior where people would view him as unfriendly, but once you got through that exterior he was the nicest person in the world and very caring."
Mary Ann "Corky" Matthews, a Carmel Valley resident and friend of Fletcher, said he believed backpacking is "a communion between the individual and nature."
Matthews said she and Fletcher met when he came to Los Padres National Forest in 1977 to do some volunteer restoration work. They remained close over the years, she said.
Fletcher used to come to the Matthews house and watch 49ers games with her husband.
"He'd jump up and down," she said. "He was quite an enthusiast."
He had several lifetimes worth of experiences all over the world, but didn't like to talk about himself, she said.
"It took a lot of work to pry things out of him," Matthews said.
McGivney said Fletcher became somewhat reclusive after the popularity of "The Complete Walker," which sold more than 400,000 copies in its first three editions.
"When he was such a cult figure, everyone tried to seek him out to bow at his feet," she said. "He created this whole fortress around himself." Few people knew exactly where he lived, and he guarded his telephone number jealously.
Injured severely after the accident in 2001, recovery wasn't easy for Fletcher, having to adjust to a life in which other people had to help him around.
"He was a fiercely independent and physical man who had to deal with basically being an invalid," McGivney said. "He probably would have wanted to go out while physically fit and have a heart attack. Instead it was this six years of gradual physical decline."
In addition to "The Complete Walker" and "The Thousand-Mile Summer," Fletcher wrote "The Man Who Walked Through Time," "River" and "The Secret Worlds of Colin Fletcher."
In "The Complete Walker IV," which he co-wrote with Chip Rawlins, Fletcher said that walking "can in the end become an addiction, and that it is then as deadly in its fashion as heroin or television or the stock exchange. But even in this final stage it remains a delectable madness, very good for sanity, and I recommend it with passion."
Fletcher left no known survivors, and plans for memorial services are pending.
Laith Agha can be reached at 646-4358 or firstname.lastname@example.org.