The Beatrice Interview

Colin Fletcher

"I'm never really writing about places...I loathe guidebooks."

interviewed by Ron Hogan

The full title of Colin Fletcher's new book, River: One Man's Journey Down the Colorado, Source to Sea, seems as if it leaves little to the imagination. But Fletcher's books are always about more than the journeys he makes, combining rigorously detailed nature writing with personal recollections and ruminations. River is his longest trek since The Thousand Mile Summer, in which he walked from Mexico to Oregon. It's also the first book in years for which Fletcher, who guards his privacy intently, has agreed to make himself generally accessible to the press and public. You might even call the following interview an online exclusive.

RH: You'd actually done several portions of this journey before, especially along the lower half of the Colorado.

CF: I'd gone through Grand Canyon in '63 on foot, walking upstream, but I wasn't terribly close to the river for much of that walk. Later I did little bits and pieces from the Hoover Dam to the Mexican border. The upper thousand miles of the river was completely unknown to me, however.

RH: Once you got the idea into your head to walk from source to sea, you had to deal with some conceptual problems before you could start.

CF: Where should I start, for example? What's the source of the Colorado? The true geographical source is the source of what's known as the Green River, but what we identify as the source is what used to be called the Grand River, which is still reflected in some of the local names, like Grand Junction. In the year that I was conceived, a politician in Colorado decided that the Colorado River should start in the state of Colorado, so he got it changed. But geographers identify the master stream of a river as the longest, and the Green is 200-300 miles longer, so I chose to start there. I'm glad I did, because it's much more interesting territory.

The only bad review I've gotten so far, and I'm glad to say that it's obvious whoever wrote it hadn't read my book, was from somebody who said, "Half the time he isn't even on the Colorado, he's on some tributary," which is drivel, especially considering that I explain that in the first twenty pages.

RH: Were the rafting portions of the journey entirely new to you?

CF: I'd never been in a raft before in my life. I had thirteen days' practice on the Idaho Salmon, and that taught me quite a lot, so I at least wasn't a complete tyro when I started rafting on the main journey, though it certainly pushed me to the limits of what little competence I'd acquired.

RH: One of my favorite passages is about how you get used to being alone, and then get pissed when you see two people in the course of a week. You run into people here and there, but for the most part, this is an extremely solitudinous trip.

CF: Damn right it is. That's how I like it.

RH: Is it harder today to find that sort of solitude than it was when you were walking Grand Canyon, especially after you've written so extensively about walking?

CF: When I was born, there were 1.9 billion people in the world; now there's 6 billion. That speaks for itself as far as finding solitude is concerned. But to answer the question you're really asking, when I first walked through Grand Canyon, I didn't feel bad about writing about it, because nobody went there. I didn't think I was going to be doing any 'harm'. I was wrong.

RH: It's one of the inherent problems of being what I'm going to very loosely call a travel writer...making places seem so appealing that they attract visitors who lead to its not being the place that was so appealing.

CF: Thanks for the 'loosely.' Now, even with this book, I thought very seriously ahead of time about this problem. It's difficult to avoid specifying locations since a river is such a linear thing, but the best parts of the river are protected somewhat. In Grand Canyon, for example, you usually have to wait years before you can get a rafting permit. Still, I deliberately left out a few locations I didn't want spoiled, and drew deliberate red herrings around others to conceal their location. And I say so frankly in the book.

But I'm never really writing about places. I'm writing about my feelings. I loathe guidebooks, particularly for backpacking. I used some guidebooks on the river, so I would know where the hell the next rapids were, but for backpacking, it's better not to know things from the guidebooks.

RH: That's what I noticed about this book. Sure, its boundaries are defined by the geographical territory, but your mind and your memories are able to move far beyond the locale.

CF: I was quite conscious even before I began that one of the advantages of a river is that it's very evocative of life. The life of a river very much parallels the life of an individual, a family, and so on up to all of planetary life. The life that I know best obviously is my own, and memories play a big part towards the end of the book, especially in those locations that I'd already walked years before.

RH: There's a moment in Yuma where you look at one of your older books to compare your impressions then with your feelings and memories now.

CF: Those last two hundred miles before I got to Mexico were the first two hundred miles of The Thousand Mile Summer. When I got there, my memories slowly began to focus.

I made this journey in 1989 and an early bit of 1990. I was a kid of 67 then. After that... I never write until a year after a journey, because you need that time to gain perspective. In this case, I also had a coronary bypass that set me back a few months. Once I was out of the hospital, there was a lot of preparatory work to be done. Normally, for backpacking, I take notes and photographs, but for this journey, I had a tape recorder which I used in the raft. I had thirty- five 90 minute tapes from the journey, which as you know is an enormous amount of words. I tried to get somebody else to transcribe it, but the way I spoke about the trip was so idiosyncratic that finally I was the only one who could transcribe the tapes effectively.

RH: Do you see any more journeys of this scope in the future?

CF: I have no idea. People think that this is what my life is, but the fact is that I did The Thousand Mile Summer walk in 1958, Grand Canyon trip in 1963, and this is the third major journey I've done. I do smaller backpacking trips often, but not long journeys like this. Is there going to be another one? I don't know. If the dream comes and it's the right time...hell, I'm not as young as I was. I'm 75 now; I don't expect to live much beyond 120 -- or I might die before lunch. No, don't worry, I've already had lunch today. (smiles) There isn't an answer to your question. I don't know any answer to it.

BEATRICE Suggested further reading
Jonathan Raban | Mark Singer

All materials copyright © 1997 Ron Hogan