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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


Kenny? The kid who gave your story the best beginning, the right beginning? While you're trying to yo-yo the PCT, Kenny is making himself into one of the premier extreme kayakers in North America. While you're financing your hikes by climbing giant redwoods and little fruit trees in Santa Cruz, Kenny is scaling communications towers for pay near Auburn, hanging vinyl on tall buildings. One day in the spring of 1999, you visit him at his mom's and while you're on a dayhike together, he tells you he's been having a tough time, that he has to take pills every day, just to feel normal. You hadn't known, but you aren't shocked. Kenny had never been what you would call normal. You find out later that different doctors called Kenny's difficulties different things. Bipolar disorder. Schizoaffective disorder. Brief reactive psychosis related to stress. It doesn't matter to you. They're just words. Kenny is your partner, your best friend. Somewhere along the way, Kenny has become your brother.

In the early winter of 2002, you climb North Palisade, a 14,000-footer. It's so cold your equipment is freezing, and you have to take your gloves off to brush the ice away and eventually your fingers freeze up and you have to turn back, just 300 vertical feet short of the summit. You don't know it, but Kenny returns a few weeks later and completes the climb.

You talk to him again that spring. You and Michelle have driven up north and you're going to hike to a waterfall that Kenny took you to once, down a remote canyon of the American River. You call him from a pay phone, near the river. Does Kenny remember the waterfall? Can he give you some tips on how to get there? Does he? Can he? There's a slot canyon, and you can rappel down it, and the bottom is hidden, but unbelievably beautiful, another world! It's incredible! It's amazing! Kenny is so enthusiastic, shouting so loud, you have to hold the phone away from your ear, smiling. You remember that. It's funny the things you remember. Michelle, standing next to you, can hear him, too. She has never met Kenny, but she has heard you talk about him, has seen your scrapbooks filled with pictures and writings from him. You don't know it, but she worries about you a lot. This is the first time she hears his voice, and she loves how it makes you smile. You hear from him one more time--in early September. He calls and leaves a message--"Hey, it's me, call me back," but you're busy. Would things have turned out differently if you had called him?

You don't know it, but things are bad. The sadness isn't coming and going anymore. It's staying. He checks himself into the hospital, but that doesn't work. He takes medication, but that doesn't work. Now he's doing free solo climbs, running riskier and more dangerous falls. He talks to people about kayaking off Yosemite Falls with a parachute. He talks about skydiving in a kayak, "to see how it handles."

Kenny's mom tries to help, but she doesn't know what to do. She wishes Kenny had a kindred spirit in his family--someone who could understand him. But his dad and his older brother are doctors, nose-to-the-grindstone kind of men, and Kenny has never related to that life. He has a younger sister, but what can a younger sister do? What can a mother do? Kenny's mom thinks of you. She worries about Kenny all the time, but she never worries about him when he's with you. She tells Kenny--okay, maybe she nags him a little--why doesn't he call you? Why doesn't he pick up the phone so the two of you can plan another one of your epic hikes together? But he doesn't call.

He makes eight trips to the hospital, and the doctors do their best, adjust his meds, but each trip is worse than the last. When he leaves the eighth time, he's so desperate, so crestfallen, his mom tells him she doesn't want him to ever have to go back and he says he doesn't want to go back either.



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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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