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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


When your dad and the man known as Mr. Beer take you to her, the first thing you notice about the deaf girl is how weathered she looks, how worn-down. She scribbles notes. She says she has been trying to catch you since she left Mexico two weeks ago, four days after you. You work that out in your head. She has been covering more than 30 miles a day. She says she has covered all of Southern California without a trail map. She says she is trying to break the women's speed record from Mexico to Canada.

As you scribble back and forth, literally comparing notes, you look at her again. She has just walked through a section of the American West where water sources are sometimes 30 miles apart, where the best way to locate them is with a map, and the second best way by sound. She has just hiked through a region infested with rattlesnakes (she has seen 10). And here she is, to your eyes malnourished, still without a map, cheerfully outlining her plans to race to Canada.

Later, when you remember meeting Patti, and you talk to strangers about things like inner peace and karma and living in harmony with the universe, you will apologize; use words like "cheesy" and "new-agey." But here, late at night next to the Current River, you can't ignore what you see. What you feel. It's spooky. It shakes you a little. You have only met one other person in your life who approached absurd difficulties and daunting challenges with such unreasonable joy, such blithe good humor. Climb every mountain? Ford a gazillion streams? Now that's living. You never thought you would run into anyone else like him. Can a man be sad and bursting with joy all at once?

The next morning, your father drives away--he'd come all the way down from Richmond just to see you for a night--and the man known as Mr. Beer, who you met on the trail and camped with for one night, takes off. Then it's just you and the deaf girl, Patti Haskins. She has a master's degree in biochemistry, and she works at a day-care center in Yosemite Valley. She's fast, but you're faster, and you move ahead. You wait an hour for her in a meadow, and then an hour and a half. Then you leave a note. Gotta go.

A man travels fastest when he travels alone. You camp alone that night, and hike the next day and it surprises you, but you're worried. And maybe you miss her a little. And at the end of that next day, skirting a snowfield, you hear a strange sound. There she is, yelling on a rock, like she knew you would find her--or she would find you. She had lost the trail, had simply continued north, mapless. It's funny how people can shake up your plans. This was going to be a solo trip. The rest of the summer, all the way to Canada, you hike together.

You learn to sign. You tell her that the Top Ramen and Cup-a-Soup she has been eating is wearing her down, that she should start eating organically, like you. She tells you that for someone who talks so much about organic food, you eat an awful lot of Snickers bars whenever you're near a store, and by the way, you should start slathering on sunscreen, like her. She sticks with Top Ramen. You stick with Snickers and bare skin.

You watch out for each other. When Patti gets sick and has to go to the bathroom 20 times one day, you worry. When you bite down on a chip and a molar on your right side breaks, you spit it out. Now the nagging about the Snickers gets intense. She spends a lot of time peering in your mouth, at the half tooth, worrying about decay and infection.

But those are minor things. They're bonding things. Life in the mountains with Patti is okay. It's more than okay. One evening, she walks to a stream to fetch water and she disappears around a bend, and then you hear her scream. It's a weird thought, you have no idea why it comes to you, but you're certain she has found a body. You have never heard such screams. You sprint down the creek, around the bend, panting. And there she is, screaming and singing. Patti is a beautiful woman, all dark hair and smooth limbs and sharp angles and she is trilling with joy. She's holding a bullfrog as big as a cantaloupe, laughing and singing. Only one other person in your life ever found such wild, outsized delight in nature.

On sunny days, you plunge into frigid alpine rivers, then scramble out and lay down in sun-soaked beds of wildflowers. On rainy nights, you huddle together underneath your tarp. And the more okay things get with Patti, the more you worry. Not about her nutrition, or her intestinal health. You are now just weeks from Canada, and you suspect that this time, you have a shot at making it all the way back. You also know how people can creep into your life and shake up your plans. You know that a man travels fastest when he travels alone. You remember the last person you loved like you love Patti. He was just a boy, and then he was a man, and it's different, of course, Patti is beautiful and soft, all smooth limbs and sharp angles. But it's the same, too. You never thought you would meet someone like him again and now you have and it scares you. You know what loss feels like. You know what loss can do to a man. You walk into Canada on August 8, 105 days after you left Mexico, 101 days after Patti started. She misses her record by a week, and since she has no money left, she catches a bus back to Yosemite. Hiking south, alone again, you cover 43 miles your first day. The second day, you walk 40 miles. The third day, 38 miles.



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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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