HikingWild Spirit

Forever Wild: Unsung Heroes

I walk the long trails—I came of age on a long trail. —Jim Stoltz

Heroes surround us—people we’ve never met or known, those who live in the small spaces we never look at. If you’re a lover of open space, wild country and animals, peaks and valleys and all the beauty of the natural world, and have never heard of Walkin Jim Stoltz, here’s a hero with whom you should make your acquaintance.

Walkin Jim hiked over 27,000 miles across North America during his life. Along with all that walkin’, he managed to pen 7 CDs, including one to bring environmental awareness to children. On the off-season, when the high peaks and passes were snowed in, Walkin Jim would take his music on the road in a van fueled by vegetable oil. His performances were backlit by photographs taken during his many journeys, which would play on a screen behind him while he sang.

I was lucky enough to see him perform twice. Both times the shows were brilliant. As a proud Nevadan, I was happy to see my state’s wilder places paid homage by him in “Nevada Walking Song,” my personal favorite. Walkin Jim had a passion and genuine concern for the land and craft of music that resonated with audiences. His humor was contagious, not only in his stories in between songs—such as saving himself from a long slide off a snowy mountain by driving his guitar’s neck into the snowpack to stop himself—but tunes like “The Food Chain” and “Big Fat Man on an ATV.” At every show he would pull people from the audience and have them read inspirational quotes from environmental heroes such as Thoreau and Carson and Berry, and others, as his guitar gently wept before shots of scenic beauty. One of the highlights of any show was the song “The Appalachian Trail,” with stunning photos of the singular hike, which he did for the first time in 1973. The experience led him to dedicate his life to music and environmental activism until his untimely death at age 57.

His 2003 book Walking with the Wild Wind: A Montana Journey, chronicles his life and work in his own words. One of the best parts of the book is getting into his head as he explains his songwriting process: how he’s inspired, walking and putting the words together—then later, after a long day’s walking, the music. Walkin Jim’s descriptions of landforms and the life around them can only be attained by someone who has actually been there, among them.

In 2004 Walkin Jim underwent a kidney transplant. Word went around the environmental community that he was in need of funds and among many others I sent him a check to help cover the costs. Several months later, much to my surprise, I got a handwritten thank-you note from him. That note sits in my copy of Walking with the Wild Wind. Two years later I got the extra honor of running the CD booth for him during the show’s break and was asked to be onstage to read quotes while he played. He slept in my spare bedroom and the following morning he let me take him to breakfast. I watched him drive away in the vegetable-fuel van. I hoped to see him perform one more time but he passed away before I got the chance. He was as gentle a soul as you would ever want to meet—quiet and respectful in person, yet a lion on the stage.

You can catch his music on YouTube if you do a simple search—and you should. His memory should not only be preserved but passed on so it grows. In these days of environmental degradation, we need a Walkin Jim more than ever. We must always treasure those who have the courage to sing what so many of us feel.

Author William Huggins

William Huggins is an avid hiker, reader, husband, father, and dedicated rescue-dog maniac--though not necessarily in that order. Educated in a series of remote places because of his father's work for the United States Air Force, he was born an advocate of wild places and grew into that green skin. Bill writes for Texas Books in Review, wrote six essays for Protect Basin and Range at protectbasinandrange.org and has an upcoming story in the May 2016 issue of Third Flatiron at thirdflatiron.com.

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