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