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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

You lug your sewing machine up from Richmond to Kenny's mom's house in the Sierra foothills, in Auburn, California. One night she looks in and sees you and Kenny, both longhaired and bearded and plotting, each one of you hunched over a sewing machine. You are sewing your own sleeping quilts and she shakes her head at her woolly son and his woolly friend and thinks, "Gee, this is never going to work." But she's smiling and laughing and while you might not know about it, she knows the sadness that her son carries and you seem like such a nice boy and Kenny seems so at peace when he's with you--she worries often about him but never when he's with you.

She takes you boys--to her, you are boys--to dinner at Auburn's Mongolian Barbecue for all-you-can-eat dinners and the Chinese proprietor smiles when he sees the three of you coming, and you might not know it, but Kenny's mom knows, he hates the sight of you three, because you and Kenny sit at the table for hours, plotting adventures and talking about the trail and spinning dreams, but mostly piling bowl after bowl after bowl full of rice and broccoli and spinach and bamboo shoots, mashing the food down, and eating and mashing it down some more and eating some more and it's a wonder you don't drive that restaurant out of business. Kenny's mom loves her son and she's beginning to love you but she can't help it, she feels sorry for that little Chinese man.

A young man can imagine great adventures in the foothills, in the winter, over sewing machines and bowls of rice and vegetables. And you do. You both do. But the adventure is greater than even you can imagine. It's funny. For all your great plans, the greatest times happen when the plans fall apart. It happens after a snowstorm--there are so many snowstorms in the life you have chosen--and you and Kenny are short on food, so you bushwhack 43 miles through the mountains to the nearest town and you know it's going to take at least three days to even make it back to the trail. You buy onions, and garlic and lemons and a roll of tinfoil and a 6-pound bag of rice and some fishing gear. Not what most people think of as fishing gear. No, you buy two spools and a couple of hooks and a few lures.

And now you are standing in the middle of a river in a hidden canyon, holding a stick. Standing upstream, holding another stick, is your hiking partner, who has somehow become your best friend. The stream carves through a canyon, which slices through a section of California's High Sierra that is very difficult to find, even on a map. You have tied the hook to one end of the spool and flung it into the river. It is a foolish, absurd way to fish, but in hidden valleys, life is foolish and absurd and bountiful and the word "failure" doesn't mean much. Kenny catches a fish. Then you. Golden trout. You have been a vegan for five years. But Kenny has taught you, so, just like him, you look into the golden trout's eyes and you bash its head on a rock and you feel its life slipping from its body and you have always thought of meat as something people buy in grocery stores, but you will never think this way again. Years later you will say that this is the moment you learned that death not only is part of life, but that death can sustain life. For three days and nights you and Kenny toss lines into clear water and make your way upstream and east, along the river and up a snowy path toward the Pacific Crest Trail and for breakfast and lunch and dinner you feast on golden trout over crackling fires and the days and nights are cold, but you are warm and well-fed and alone and together in a place that is difficult to find, even on a map. He tells you wild, hilarious stories about the people he met in the psych ward, which always make you laugh. And he calls you "Duckface," because you carry a rubber duck that you found in the street in a mountain town and sometimes you start quacking, which always makes Kenny laugh.

You make the turn in Canada and head south and make it all the way to Reds Meadow, near Mammoth, where it starts snowing on October 18 and doesn't stop until a week and 5 feet later. It is your first and most glorious failure.

You try again the next year, alone, because Kenny has taken up whitewater rafting, and he's busy with that. You struggle through so much snow on the way north that you stop at the Canadian border. The next year, you read the weather reports and you know it's impossible, so you start in Canada and take a leisurely stroll south with your girlfriend, a poet and student named Rebecca. You try to make it both ways in 1999 and 2000, but each time, blizzards stop you before you're even out of Southern California.

The rest of your life? Off the trail? There are the tree-felling jobs, and a winter spent logging in Maine with Rebecca, but with all the trips and hiking, a relationship is tough and you split up. Your mother has been sick with lung cancer for a few years. She's a chain-smoker, and that makes you angry, and things have never been easy between you two, with her always telling you to get a regular job, buy a house, settle down. And besides, she carries her own sadness. People scare her, and open spaces and new things, so she avoids all that. When you were a kid, and friends came over, she would hide in a room. Those friends remember fleeting glimpses of her, in a hat and dark sunglasses, peering from behind a door. "Agoraphobic," doctors said, but to you, it's just a word. She's your mother. The last summer of her life, you don't hike. She dies in October 2001 and you don't hike the next year either.

That summer, on July 6, you meet a pretty girl with sun-streaked hair outside a restaurant called Chop Stix, near Santa Cruz, where you're doing some tree work. A month later, you and the pretty girl, a climber and acupuncture student named Michelle Clark, move in together. Women have always been attracted to you, and you to them. And in January, you're on a dayhike together and you tell her that come spring, you think you're going to try yo-yoing the PCT again and she says that's nice, what exactly does that mean? Well, it means you might be gone for 7 months. She's not happy, but she's a climber and a good sport, she believes in you, so she works on your résumé and on letters trying to drum up publicity and sponsors and she helps organize a slide show and rents a hall in Santa Cruz and gets some local musicians and she helps you raise $250. Then she drives you to the border, and when you call her after your first day and tell her your knee hurts, she puts together a package of moxa and ginger–Michelle practices Chinese medicine, too–and sends it to you.

Your knee gets better, but the weather worsens. You have never seen so much snow, so early in the season. Every day it dumps more and at Cedar Grove, on June 7, 2003, you hike for 15 hours and make it exactly 15 miles. That's when you quit. It's your fifth try, your fifth failure. You don't know if you'll ever try again.


©Michael Darter

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Reader Rating: -


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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