Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Book Review: Chris Townsend - Rattlesnakes and Bald Eagles

Chris Townsend - Rattlesnakes and Bald Eagles: Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail - 2014 [Sandstone Press]

Hopefully reader, you are familiar with Chris Townsend - one could hardly be unaware of him if at all active on the UK walking scene, such is his longevity and credibility as a commentator on matters of long distance hiking, wild camping, equipment and techniques to name a few. Recently he has even become quite the 'luvvy' featuring centrally in two of Terry Abraham's films, and with cameos in others - I'd actually seen some gear features on Youtube before I ever read any of Chris's books, so by the time I did, they read in his voice. Happily, he remains active as a writer, blogger and columnist on the outdoors, and has written many books about his travels, and on the techniques and paraphernalia we all obsess about. 

His most recent book gives an account of his walk on the Pacific Crest Trail in 1982, a time at which "thru-hiking" was a fledgling concept and the trail attracted a few dozens of hikers compared with the hundreds and thousands who attempt it today. By that time, Townsend was an experienced walker, having completed a trip from Lands end to John O'Groats, but admits in the book that he was naive about the demands and hardships he would encounter on the PCT. One incident that presaged walking practice today was his abandonment of heavy boots almost immediately the walk began in the desert, preferring to wear his running shoes that were only taken for camp comfort. He returned to the boots in the snowy High Sierra, but finished the walk in a pair of what we would now regard as approach shoes much against supposed expert opinion at the time. If you read any account of the PCT today, you will find no-one wears big boots, especially in the desert; and it's insights like this that give the impression he was as much sculpting the way hiking would be done in the future as enduring the walk in the moment. I don't suppose he thought of it in those terms then. Most of the adjustments and compromises he made seem to have been a matter of accelerated evolution as a walker learning on the hoof what wasn't working and how he could deal with it. 

Real testament to his spirit and toughness then that he was among a relatively few completers that year. The PCT association's website records as few as 11 people finishing the walk in 1982, whereas the total for 2014 was 371 - notwithstanding that some names may be missing. 

Townsend compiled journals throughout the trip upon which he has been able to depend in recalling detail of individual days - his thoughts and actions revived after more than thirty years, lending the book a feeling of documentary that teaches us more about today's likely experience than a simple account of a walk undertaken last year would do. We already know about Goretex and meths stoves, trail magic and bear canisters - what this book does is strip away the necessary but distracting ephemera around which we plan long distance trips today (I know because I am already making gear lists for my attempt in 2016), and gives us insight into the environment, the effort involved, the reaction of people he met, and perhaps most importantly, the impression it made upon him, shaping his life and career thereafter. On his website, there is a tab detailing the major walks he's completed up to about 2002 (probably needs an update - at least the Scottish Watershed walk is missing). He makes a major trip every three to four years in the sequence, some of them astonishingly ambitious to my eye, and one wonders if he would have dreamed of doing any of those if the PCT had been a disaster. 

For those who might aspire to trying a long distance hike, on the PCT or anywhere else for that matter, you would do far worse than read this book. Its often said that state of mind and determination are the most vital bit of gear you need and weigh exactly nothing, and this above all is what comes over. I think back to one amusing passage of indignant comment he makes concerning a hiker who is roundly suspected of fibbing about how much actual walking he'd done.  He points out that its nobody's business how much or little of the walk one actually treads - indeed there are probably as many or even more 'section hikers' who do a little bit here and there than thru-hikers - but to lie about what you've done is just disrespectful to others who have put the sweat in. 

It's indicative of the simple honesty of using one's own two feet to cover long distances that is at the centre of all of Townsend's books, and this one is no different, but it has one extra quality that makes it important. It amounts to a walking manual - not a gear manual or a backpackers guide (he does those too!), but a manual on how to walk, think about walking, how to stop and not walk at times; and what you might get out of all of it. 


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