Jim Stoltz and Joyce Rouse (a fellow MUSE artist), March 2009. Grayson Co., Va.
The wayfarer passes on; Goodbye Walkin’ Jim
The wayfarer passes on; Goodbye Walkin’ Jim
By Todd Wilkinson
Jim Stoltz was headed for a gig in Bozeman, Montana and a new tune apparently had been rattling around in his brain. At a turnout along the Gallatin River where we happened to be stopped, watching kayakers slalom through a rock course during high water, he pulled over in his pick-up truck, opened the door, said hello and reached for his guitar. He wanted to commit the memory of a chord variation to his fingers. Ideas for his folksy wildland ballads visited him this way, though more often, he was dozens of miles away from a road—and alone— when the inspiration for new melodies found him.
On foot, doing that Aristotelian thing he did, the crooner and photographer from Big Sky, who was given the handle, “Walkin’ Jim,” racked up 28,000 miles, more than the distance reaching around the world at the equator. Stoltz was no stranger to hundreds of valleys across the country, though he related to most the same way he did to other places in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem—by backcountry trails, animal paths, and favorite shortcuts that required a bushwhack.
Before long-distance trekking became the rage of extreme ultra-light athletes, before some people did it to earn fame for themselves or win a book contract, Stoltz took up mega-wandering for modest reasons—to see places where the masses never go and to have a conversation within. This was the stuff that fueled Walkin’, Jim the altruistic performing artist whose songlist, more or less, reflects most of the major conservation battles that have been fought in Greater Yellowstone and America since the Carter Administration. More than a generation ago, the Michigan native set out with a full backpack as a 24 year old from West Quoddy Head, Maine and didn’t stop until his soles squished in the sea sand on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington. A singular heroic accomplishment for anyone, but it came the year after he hiked the entire length of the Appalachian Trail and before he subsequently completed the Pacific Crest Trail, the Continental Divide Trail, and major stretches of the Rocky Mountain spine encompassed by the Yellowstone to Yukon corridor.
After every visit to the Back of Beyond, Stoltz had an expanded repertoire, carried forth by a more generous spirit based on the belief that he was the luckiest person on Earth. His wife, Leslie, indulged his forays and knew that they served as ground-truthing research for what he brought to the stage, trying out his songs on her first. It’s debatable whether Stoltz was more a firebrand conservationist who would carry a tune, or a musician cut from the cloth of St. Francis who often said he sang for the animals.
To pay the bills during the winter months when snow impeded him, he provided the main entertainment at dinners set in an old cabin near Big Sky reachable only by horse-drawn sleigh. He almost never turned down an invitation to perform for conservation organizations, large or small, be it on behalf of creating more wilderness, protecting grizzlies and wolves, or halting the old logging practice known as clearcutting. In 2006, he barnstormed across 46 states as a founding member of Musicians United to Save the Environment (MUSE). Earlier this winter, he delivered a performance in Missoula in support of The Last Best Place Campaign to finally bring passage of a comprehensive statewide wilderness bill in Montana.
In spite of all the time he made for protecting the environment, Stoltz never let on to his audiences that he knew his own time was short, his own end drawing near. He had been battling cancer for years, rallying again after each new flare up, but never complaining. This past summer, he succumbed at age 57 in Helena, Mont. On his Webpage at www.walkinjim.com, he posted a quote from Rachel Carson, who also died from cancer not long after she published her book, Silent Spring. Carson had said, “Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find resources of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.” A better epitaph comes from Walkin’ Jim himself and a song he composed called Morning in the Mountains:
“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.”
It says something that he was loved, most of all, by kids.
Todd Wilkinson, an environmental writer and longtime admirer of Jim Stoltz, lives in Bozeman. He is author of a forthcoming book in 2011 about the evolution of American media mogul turned bison rancher and eco-philanthropist Ted Turner.