On Friday, September 3, the natural world lost a true friend and advocate.
Just a few weeks earlier, I had received an e-mail from singer/songwriter Walkin’ Jim Stoltz saying that the cancer he thought he had beaten a few years ago had returned and that he was to undergo chemotherapy. I met Jim in the early 80s when he gave his first concert (of many subsequent ones) for the Appalachian Long Distance Hikers Association’s Gathering. We sat up to the wee hours of the morning talking about the portion of his coast-to-coast walk that had coincided with the route of the Pacific Northwest Trail that Laurie and I had hiked the previous year. Although we only saw each other once or twice a year (we did manage to get together for a couple of memorable day hikes), I considered him a close friend—and I hope he felt the same about me.
Jim received his nickname from the more than 27,000 miles of hiking he did exploring the backcountry areas of North America. Like it has for many, the Appalachian Trail introduced him to long distance hiking and opened his eyes to the ways of the natural world. From the A.T., he went on to walk across America and hike the Continental Divide and Pacific Crest Trails. More often, he would make his own route, walking through the wilds of the western states and even trekking from Yellowstone National Park to the Yukon in Canada.
He returned from his journeys with stunning photographs and moving songs about his experiences, the beautiful wilderness areas he had visited, and the creatures he came to admire and love. Each fall, he would tour the east coast (the west in the spring) with his Forever Wild show (I called him the “master of the slide dissolve” for his ability to have one image slowly meld with another to create a surprising third image). Never one to preach, he let his words, music, and photographs teach of the fragility of, and the need to preserve, the wild places. Laurie and I traveled to Williamsburg to see one of his kid’s programs last year, and within seconds of stepping up to the microphone, he had a roomful of squirming youngsters howling like wolves and squealing like pikas.
Jim’s passion for the earth went far beyond singing about it. He was the co-founder of Musicians United to Sustain the Environment (MUSE) and the Last, Best Place Wildlands Campaign. He co-authored the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act that, when ratified, will protect 24 million acres of roadless wildlands in the northwest U.S. The Wall Street Journal, certainly not a known champion of environmental causes, stated Jim had “more to say in one song than Frank Sinatra ever said in an entire concert.”
If you never knew this powerful, but gentle man, his website and music are still available at www.walkinjim.com. Since his passing, I keep thinking of a phrase from one of his songs:
Though life goes on, I’m glad for the thought,
Of the gift you gave, and the peace you brought.
Celebrate Jim’s life, celebrate your life, celebrate the earth. Go take a walk in the woods. Today.