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Gear Is Only the Beginning

REBECCA SOLNITTHE COMPLETE WALKER IV, By Colin Fletcher and Chip Rawlins, Alfred A. Knopf: 848 pp., $22.95 paper

June 23, 2002|REBECCA SOLNIT | Rebecca Solnit is the author of "Wanderlust: A History of Walking" and "Savage Dreams: A Journey Into the Landscape Wars of the American West."

As you are reading this review, a stooped woman is going step by step down Fairfax Avenue, clutching a bag containing three bagels--her breakfast for the next six days--and in her imagination, she is walking down a darker street in Prague or Krakow 60 years ago.

Elsewhere a young couple are strolling up Cesar Chavez Avenue, but this time the slowness is voluptuous, matching their strides to vague recollections of the rhythm of the night before, saying hello to the familiar faces they pass, binding the community a little more tightly together.

"The Complete Walker" is by no means complete because it takes no interest in these kinds of walking, culturally resonant though they may be. It is not, in fact, a book about walking in all its forms and permutations. It is, instead, a massive compendium of useful stuff to know and to tote when you engage in a very specific subset of walking: backpacking. And it has, since its first printing in 1968, become known as the hiker's bible.

A man clearly in love with walking, co-author and legendary ambulator Colin Fletcher writes fondly in the opening pages of a place "ten minutes' drive from the apartment where I used to live ... a long, grassy ridge from which you could look out over parkland and sprawling metropolis, over bay and ocean and distant mountains. I often walked along this ridge in order to think uncluttered thoughts or to feel with accuracy or to sweat away a hangover .... "

Hiking purists will no doubt be amused that Fletcher--the great long-distance walker who was the first man to walk the length of Grand Canyon National Park, a feat he accomplished in two months in 1967--would drive to this nearby locale. But walking is clearly an eccentric and individual pleasure: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, for instance, used to cover vast distances in the English countryside together with no other special equipment than money to spend at pubs where they quenched their thirst every half-dozen or dozen miles. Such walking, unlike climbing, bicycling, skiing, hunting and backpacking, will never be an industry.

That said, in the 34 years since the first edition of "The Complete Walker," a dizzying array of specialized, improved, lightened high-tech gear has turned backpacking into a huge industry that gives the authors enough to make a substantial tome. The book's premise is that you are creating a "house on your back," and it is organized around this unpoetic conceit: Shoes are the foundation; packs are your walls. A section on "Furniture and Appliances" deals with flashlights, compasses and so forth. Fletcher and Chip Rawlins certainly like stuff, and they like detail. Long-winded to the point of being comical, they miss no opportunity, for example, to digress on the pros and cons of hiking in sandals or to calculate caloric burn rates. The latter subject begets a four-page digression on scientific measurement tables and rules that are, by the fifth page, rejected for trial-and-error methods of figuring out how many calories you need to carry and consume.

If there were a micronuclear rotator-cufflink zilchifying mosquito habitat-detector that wicks away moisture and comes with a hatchet attachment, these authors would have tested it and devoted a few pages to their conclusions. In more than 800 pages, "The Complete Walker" becomes a wildly comprehensive pep talk on preparedness and a shopping list too heavy to pack.

Fortunately, Fletcher and Rawlins are, with their strong opinions, chatty style and amusing anecdotes, easy to read, and they know whereof they speak. Fletcher is the author of two books on his long-distance walks as well as all the previous editions of "The Complete Walker," while Rawlins is an environmental writer and professional outdoorsman (mostly doing fieldwork and pursuing his own pleasure at high altitudes, in extreme weather conditions and in remote places around Wyoming).

However windy, their book is worthwhile. For lack of the right equipment and preparation, people die, get sick, get miserable and burden search-and-rescue teams, by often using nowadays the piece of equipment they did pack: a cell phone. (For those nonemergency calls, Rawlins offers a splendidly cranky diatribe about obnoxious technology that interferes with what wilderness is supposed to be.)

But the best parts of "The Complete Walker IV" make it clear that gear is only the beginning and that no amount of informed shopping can substitute for experience. For example, in a footnote, Rawlins offers up, "A general principle: animal trails blunder through endless petty irritations and undertake seemingly aimless detours in order to skirt major problems, like V-cut stream gorges and bottomless talus fields. That is, they tend to piss you off while keeping you out of real trouble."

It's gems like this that make the book valuable.


From `The Complete Walker IV'

One of the joys of being alive today is the complexity of our human world. We have at our fingertips more riches than anyone has ever had: books by the zillion; CDs and movies and TV by the ton; the Internet; also the opportunity to move around almost as we please. But in time the sheer richness of this complexity can sandbag you. You long for simplicity, for the yin to that yang. You yearn--though you may not openly know it--to take a respite from your eternal wrestling with the abstract and instead to grapple, tight and long and sweaty, with the tangible. So once you've started walking down the right road, you begin, sooner or later, to dream of truly wild places.

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