Jim Stoltz--that's "Walkin' Jim" to his friends-has become a modern American legend by living large in the great out-of-doors.
A balladeer whom some have pegged as a cross between Henry David Thoreau, Edward Abbey, Johnny Appleseed, and Bob Dylan, Stoltz has traversed 24,000 miles of wildlands on foot, then written songs to commemorate the places he's been.
Leaving his home in Montana's Gallatin Canyon south of Bozeman, he's often disappeared for months at a time to gather fresh material as a solo composer. Along the path of Stoltz's 30 years of epic soul searching, nature has tested his humility, handing him opportunities to reflect upon life that is set against the backdrop of big eternal landscapes.
Stoltz's legendary trials have taken numerous forms: "Being washed away in rivers," he once told me. "Falling off a mountain and sliding to the brink of a cliff; coming upon bad guys carrying guns; being charged by grizzlies; being inundated by floods that maroon you on the wrong side of the river; encountering forest fires that burn across your route; meeting the scorpion that crawls up your arm while you're sleeping; having your water run out half way across 60 miles of desert."
The more Stoltz has wandered in greater Yellowstone and beyond, the more aware he's become of the spiritual side of the physical world. Yet, for as far away from civilization as his seeking has taken him, Stoltz was never able to evade the reality of his own family history.
You can't run from the past, even in the reclusive West, and ever truly escape it.
Stoltz grew up watching close relatives fall ill and die from polycystic kidney disease. It is a congenital malady that killed his own father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and uncles. "Knowing that I'd have to come to grips with the disease someday, I've tried to live my life as full and as meaningful as possible," he said.
Still. The truth is that there is nothing more humbly awakening than the truth.
In 2003, as the disease inside him started exacting a toll, Stoltz faced the prospect of dialysis while waiting on a national transplant list for a new kidney necessary to save him. He realized the delay could be long and there was no certainty he would survive.
When his friend, John Giacalone, stepped forward in 2004 and donated a healthy kidney, Stoltz became one of just five percent of kidney transplant recipients who don't have to go on dialysis before getting a new organ. "It was a wondrous event and a powerful lesson for me," he said. "I've always done things for myself, and handled crises on my own. But suddenly, I was put in a situation where I had no control."
Two months into his uncertain recovery last autumn, Stoltz had to cancel his East Coast singing tour to receive follow-up medical attention in a Chattanooga hospital. He managed to get through the scare, though the trail ahead of him leads up a mountain and drops toward a valley he's never explored.
"I will never flag in my appreciation of the wild Earth, but I know that having this disease and the possibility of not being able to go again is something that haunts me," he explains. "I just have to live with it and know that even if I can't always get out there, those places are still there to dream about."
What insights has he divined during his convalescence? "Human existence IS Nature," he says. "It's just that we have, in many ways, distanced ourselves from the nurturing and spiritual aspects of what it means to be part of a natural community. I see myself drawing closer to my own species as time goes on just because I feel more need for a social connection that is missing in the life of a lone wilderness wanderer."
Among the hundreds of songs Stoltz has written and performed live, there's one little ditty, "Morning in the Mountains," that serves as his personal prayer:
"So live each day like you mean it,
Grab hold of each dawn that comes your way.
And if it's blessings you're a-countin',
Try a morning in the mountains,
There ain't no better way to start the day."
Readers take note: Stoltz (www.walkinjim.com) is founder of a non-profit organization, Musicians United to Sustain the Environment. It's great roadtrip music in the car and will leave you tapping your foot on the trail.
Todd Wilkinson writes his New West column in every edition of the Yellowstone Journal.
UPDATE: Jim passed away in September 2010 at 57 years old. You can find more stories about his life at www.walkinjim.com.