If you have never read The Complete Walker by the late Colin Fletcher, now’s the time. It has had a number of incarnations as backpacking equipment evolved, but the best part of the book is Fletcher’s cogent prose. He penned several nonfiction accounts of his backpacking experiences, the most famous of which was probably The Man Who Walked Through Time which chronicled the first ever trip on foot through the Grand Canyon.
Well into his trip, he set his camera on a tripod to capture a picture of himself overlooking the canyon. A freak gust sent the tripod and camera toppling over and left Fletcher — a self-acknowledged camera bug — with no way to take photos during the rest of his adventure. At first, he “simmered with frustration.” But when he got back into the cadence of his trip, he discovered something new: “I recognized, quite clearly, that photography is not really compatible with contemplation. Its details are too insistent. They are always buzzing around your mind and clouding the fine focus of appreciation.”
I will always remember hiking on the A.T. through Shenandoah with my thru-hiking buddy, Tortilla Tosser. We rounded a bend in the trail and saw the frozen images of a sow bear and her three adorable cubs. As they stared at us, Tosser turned his pack toward me and muttered: “Get my camera out.” I politely refused, and several seconds later the quartet of ursines went gamboling soundlessly into the foliage, totally out of our view.
Tom never commented on my refusal to get his camera, because he knew that while I was fumbling around for it, I would have missed time to emblazon the actual experience on my memory. A photo of the bears would never have been possible.
I don’t carry a camera any more. My friends shoot photos, and if I want to see them, I can ask after the trip. As it turns out, I rarely bother. The process of photography has a negative impact on the serenity and overall contemplative quality of the experience. For some, photography is a thrill unto itself, as much a work of art as a water color or a brilliant essay. I salute them, and I love to view the fruits of their labor.
For me, the simpler the experience, the more I like it. As Fletcher commented: “I found myself freed from an impediment I had not known existed. I had escaped the tyranny of film.” Fletcher gladly reimposed the “impediment” of photography” in future journeys, and I’m glad he did. He was a fine photographer, and his photos enhanced his future books. But we can all benefit from the lesson he learned in the depths of the Grand Canyon, a lesson that set him free to enjoy something akin to total solitude.
Stay vertical my friends, and keep walking.