Walking tall as legendary evangelist for call of the wild makes a convert, writes Roger Cox
A few years ago, while researching a story on a controversial proposal to build a giant wind farm in the unspoiled wilderness of the Monadhliath Mountains (now thankfully defeated), I had the chance to go for a walk in the area in question with the conservationist and legendary long-distance backpacker Chris Townsend.
Given his penchant for extended solo journeys through some of the most remote and inhospitable landscapes on the planet, I was expecting a man of few words with a thousand-yard stare, but during our walk (hardly even a post-breakfast stroll really, by Townsend’s continent-crossing standards) we talked almost non-stop. I was struck then by his thoughtfulness and clear-sightedness – as if all his opinions had been slowly, patiently reasoned out during endless hours of quiet contemplation while alone on the trail – and these same qualities are evident throughout this compendium of his best writing, originally published in magazines including The Great Outdoors, Adventure Travel and the John Muir Trust Journal.
This is particularly true of the section entitled “Perceptions of Wildness”, in which he muses on such thorny issues as how to define wilderness in the 21st century, how best to protect areas of wild land from development, and – in cases where re-wilding is deemed appropriate – what level of re-wilding might be achievable or even desirable. (Like Jim Crumley, author of the provocative book The Last Wolf, Townsend says he would “love” to hear the sound of wolves howling in the Scottish hills again, but he also accepts that “realistically, wolves are unlikely to be reintroduced”.)
While never preaching, Townsend is also a great evangelist for his own particular interpretation of the outdoor life: the joys of wandering off the beaten track, the advantages of making things up as you go along rather than sticking to a fixed schedule and the way “stealth camps” can increase your chances of encountering wildlife. Lovers of good adventure writing will find much to enjoy here too, from evocative accounts of ski touring expeditions in Spitsbergen and the Yukon to awe-inspiring stories from his “big walks”, notably the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail, which runs all the way from Mexico to Canada.
In one of the essays in the chapter entitled “Visionaries of the Wild”, Townsend pays tribute to Colin Fletcher, the little-known author of The Thousand-Mile Summer, which he describes as “the book that changed my life”. Who knows? This one might just change yours.