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Backpacker Magazine – May 2005

The Unbearable Lightness Of Being Scott Williamson

To hike from Mexico to Canada and back, a man needs strength and speed and luck. He needs something else, too. If only he knew what it was.

by: Steve Friedman

But even that's not right. No, if you want the best beginning to your story--the real beginning, the right beginning--you need to start with the kid. The first time you see him, he is crouching next to a spring at the bottom of a canyon, feral, like a wild child. It's May 3, 1993, and you have been hiking for a week, on your way to Canada on the PCT, one way, just like any other young man longing to escape life and find himself. The kid is 17 years old, skinny and overpacked and he's in trouble. That's the first thing you notice. His pack must weigh 90 pounds--it's bigger than he is. He carries a gleaming stove, and a fat down sleeping bag. Shiny pots and kettles hang from his pack. Countless straps and bungee cords. He has the newest and heaviest of everything. A kid who must have read some books, who has no idea that the secret to happiness out here is packing light and moving fast. He reminds you of yourself, when you first made the trip the year before. You made it to Oregon, and you suffered, and you learned, so this time you've come stripped down. This time, you carry only 20 pounds.

You're not very nice to him. You don't need extra baggage of any kind on your hike. That's something else you've learned. But he's delighted to be outdoors, delighted to meet you, delighted to learn from you. He's even delighted to learn how little you think of his style. He tags along, and every day he digs a hole and buries a piece of equipment, or a piece of clothing. He wants to do it like you.

You have never met such a person before. Wake at 4 a.m. for a predawn march? No problem. Log 45 miles in one day? Can do. Climb every mountain, ford a gazillion streams? Now, that's living!! You have no idea about the sadness he carries, the sadness he will bequeath to you.

It's funny--you're only 21 and already you have chosen a life of long-distance hikes and labor high up in trees and meticulous, solitary planning and you spend more time alone on the Pacific Crest Trail than probably any person on earth, but every so often a person crashes into your life and even if you're careful, even if you're not very welcoming at first, even if you're not very nice, your plans get all screwed up.

When he leaves the trail to return to his mother's house, you're surprised. Not that he's leaving--even burying so many things, the kid was still carrying too much. You're surprised that you miss him.

Then, one day in early July, at the post office in Sierra City, you see his name in a register: Kenny Gould. He's come back and he is trying to catch you. He doesn't realize he's already ahead of you. Every few days you see his name in another log. The kid is humping 40 miles a day. You cover distances like that every once in a while, but the kid is doing it day after day. No one can keep up that pace.

You didn't make this trip to baby-sit anyone, to save anyone from himself. You didn't start in Mexico in order to make friends. But something happens. It's funny how a man's plans can change, in spite of himself. You start logging monster distances, too. It takes you 2 weeks to catch him. When you find him at Crater Lake, in Oregon, he is carrying next to nothing. He has taken scissors and a knife to his pack, slicing off all the hanging straps. When the kid does something, he's all in. That summer, you're all in, too. You hike together through the rest of Oregon and all of Washington, to Canada. Over campfires and at sunrise and in meadows you talk about the misapplication of technology in the world, how it is serving powerful interests rather than people. He's just a kid and you're barely an adult. You talk about how society is going down the tubes, how neither of you will be sucked into the machine. You talk about the tricky business of living in a troubled world without becoming part of the trouble. He is impulsive, carefree--sometimes to a fault. You help him settle down, think things through. And you are meticulous, painstaking--sometimes to a fault. Hiking with Kenny, you quit planning so much and start living more. Kenny talks about how nothing is impossible. You can't help it. You believe him.

The next summer, while Kenny climbs in Yosemite, you hike the Continental Divide Trail, from Canada to Mexico. The summer after that--Kenny's still climbing, and you hear he's going through some tough times with his family--you travel the Appalachian Trail, but you tack on the Florida Trail first, then walk 450 miles of road between the two. You want to make it from Florida to Maine. Now you have achieved the Triple Crown of long-distance hiking, which is as rare as it sounds. What's next?

The kid has an idea. You run into him that fall at a meeting of long-distance hikers. His folks have split up and he's spent a little time in a psych ward where the doctors told him he's got a mental illness, and he's ashamed about that, but you tell him it's no big deal, they're just words, like "flu" or "virus," that he doesn't have anything to feel bad about. He appreciates that, it makes him feel better. Do you want to hear his idea? You do.

©Scott Williamson
Scott (left) and Kenny at the Canadian border, 1996.

What if next year, Kenny asks, you try something really ambitious? What if next year, you hike the PCT again? But this time, instead of stopping in Canada, what if you turn around and hoof it back to Mexico? And what if he tags along? You promise to think about it. And then the man in the hood walks into the convenience store and you decide life is short and a man can spend too much time thinking and you decide that you and Kenny will embark on a great adventure.

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Star Star Star Star Star
Jul 04, 2014

Star Star Star Star Star
Jun 22, 2014

Kenny was a very good friend of mine, this was a great read. Brought back memories of hiking a small portion of the PCT with him his first time doing it. It made me sad as well. Brought on a good cry. I miss my friend.

Star Star Star Star Star
Apr 06, 2014

Star Star Star Star Star
Reinhold Metzger
Apr 06, 2014

Scott is my "HERO" and my friend.

Over the years, since Scott and I met, I must have read this article more than a dozen times and yet, it still always leaves me all mushy inside.

I finally feel compelled to add a comment to this great, tragic, heart warming and exhilarating story.

Scott is an American Hiking Legend.
With 14 PCT "thru-hikes", including 2 "YO-YO" and
3 speed records, he is the unquestionable, the undeniable, the indisputable "KING" of the PCT.

All records, sooner or later, get broken, as his
PCT speed record was broken last year.
But his accomplishments on the PCT and his legacy
will last forever.

I have been a avid backpacker since 1968 and made many backpacking friends.
But, as Scott pointed out,....every once in a while somebody comes into your life that stands out.

Scott is that somebody,...that will stand out in your life.

JMT Reinhold

Jul 11, 2013

I've read this article again for about the 10th time trying hard to convince myself of it's worthiness to Scott's outstanding accomplishment yet again feel let down by it. It reads like a cheap novel and misses connecting with the Backpacker readership in general and certainly the long distance hiking community. I feel I gained so much more by meeting Scott and having briefly spoke with him in 2008 while also thru-hiking the PCT than in the multiple pages of the article. I expected more from the article.

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Feb 01, 2012

Still the best Backpacker article I've ever read. Way to go Friedman.

Nov 29, 2011

I'm neither a hiker. nor backpacker. I came to this story byway of searching for someone.
This tale brought out much in the way of emotion in me. I feel better off for reading it. Scott is a hero. A man any person would do well to try and be like. Kenny, is a hero. Heroes too, can be haunted.
He battled and fought as hard as he possibly could to win over his demons.
Scott, Kenny, Silent Running and many of the others featured in this writing, are the true spirit and heart of what humanity is meant to be. I wish them all happiness and success in all they seek to achieve.

Aug 15, 2011

I read this every year (paper copy I tore from a Drs office mag and now have stuffed in desk drawer) and enjoy the story and mood every time.

N. Taylor
Oct 19, 2010

Shame on you, Mr. Friedman, for portraying this very decent man with such wanton speculation. If you are going to remain in the first person thoughout, how about letting Scott take the writing duties? Your willingness to distort and inflate what few facts you received probably in a phone interview illustrates your self-serving desire for a National Magazine Award without regard to how your subject will be wrongly perceived by readers. I had the fortune of meeting Scott during a 2008 PCT thruhike, and if I may set the record straight, he was easily one of the most genuine, humble, intelligent and considerate people I met that summer. Sure, everyone has their personal demons to exorcise, and people exorcise them each in different ways, but my issue is with Scott coming off as being only damaged goods rather than the world-class athlete (and exceptional person) that he is. It is painfully obvious the author did not meet him while on a PCT thruhike.

D. Saufley
Oct 12, 2010

The man Scott Williamson defies all of the odds to complete a hike of over 5,200 miles on the Pacific Crest, becoming the first ever to yo-yo the trail (Mex-Can-Mex), and all you write is about are his extremely personal and painful memories. Why? There is so much more to this story. Like, how about reward and recognition of one of the greatest athletic accomplishments in the hiking world, then or now? Somehow you chose to skip mentioning the strength, training, discipline, techniques, or fortitude required to do a PCT yo-yo. In doing this, not only did you do Scott a great disservice by putting his personal motivations under the microscope and using his friends suicide to make your article interesting, you did a disservice to hikers who would like to learn from what he accomplished. I thought this was Backpacker, not "Days of Our Lives." Perhaps the author should be writing Hollywood screen plays.

Oct 07, 2010

this is my all-time favorite backpacker article. hands-down.

Oct 06, 2010

I like how it meanders mimicing the trail and how it jumps around, mirroring one's memories. Absolutely beautiful!

Oct 06, 2010

That story was written like you must have hiked the PCT. It's driven, forceful, not sure if it will open up, finally, into a new landscape of revelation, or even if it will end. It teeters when it slows down, but this story hardly ever does that.
One driving sentence after another, stride after stride.

K. Brown
Nov 18, 2008

This story was interesting. Overall I liked it, but it jumped around alot and it took a while to get used to it. It is deep and I did learn something from the story so I definently appreciated it.

Aug 20, 2008

I had to get up and stop reading for a 5 minute break three times in reading this article, because of being on the edge of tears. When you've lost someone, the author is right, it distills down to being about the now, and sometimes remembering about then, and how they are always with you, joy and pain co-exist, side by side, in this life on earth.


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