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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


It is exactly ten minutes until five in the afternoon--you remember that because the man in the hooded sweatshirt asks you what time it is and you tell him, right before he shoots you in the face. It is 4:50 in the afternoon on January 20, 1996, and you aren't scheduled to work that day but when the convenience store owner calls and asks you to come in you say yes, because you can always use extra cash. You work hard when you work--tree-feller, logger, construction--so you can take off for months at a time, and such an approach to labor and to life has made for many sublime sunrises and peaceful sunsets and occasional moments of Zen oneness with nature and...a job in a convenience store. You are reading an article in The New Yorker when the man in the hooded sweatshirt comes in and asks what time it is and you look at your watch and tell him and then you notice he seems nervous, his eyes are darting, he is rocking back and forth, and then he lifts something and points it at you and you feel heat and searing pain on your cheek.

The bullet enters the left side of your face, clips your jaw, rips through flesh and stops. You run to the back of the store and the door is locked so you hit it with your shoulder. It is a steel door with a deadbolt but you tear it from the wall. The man in the hooded sweatshirt follows and fires six more rounds and you keep running. You keep running and running until you see a man and a woman and their young child lifting groceries out of their car and you tell them you've been shot.

They take you inside and you call 911 and you worry because even with a towel you're dripping blood on their floor.

The doctors give you morphine and they check for nerve damage. They tell you that the salivary gland on the left side of your mouth might never function again. They tell you it's too risky to remove the bullet, which is lodged near your spine, and that another quarter of an inch and you would be paralyzed. You leave the hospital and you have nightmares and get spooked when you see men in hooded sweatshirts and you resolve to change your life.

Some men might bend their will toward jobs with desks and health insurance and 401Ks, away from double shifts at convenience stores. Not you. You decide that life is short, that the future is uncertain. You decide that time is precious. You have already hiked from Mexico to Canada once, a huge summer trek on the Pacific Crest Trail. It was wonderful, but now that you've been shot in the face and reevaluated your life, you want more than wonderful. You decide you will hike from Mexico to Canada again, but this time, rather than celebrating at the border, you will turn around and hike back to Mexico. You will need to travel lighter this time and pack smarter and move very, very fast to beat the winter storms before they make the southbound journey impossible. You will need to hike more than 25 miles a day, every day, for almost 7 months. No one has ever accomplished such a feat before. No one has even tried it. Maybe the moment you make the decision is the best place of all to start.



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READERS COMMENTS

Star Star Star Star Star
Anonymous
Jul 04, 2014

Star Star Star Star Star
Anonymous
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
Anonymous
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

Star
Dogwood
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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Bryan
Feb 01, 2012

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

Brad
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.

Otto
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.

sj
Oct 07, 2010

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

Tricia
Oct 06, 2010

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

Micah
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.

diane
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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