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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 pick up the phone on the 1st of October, 2002. No one has heard from Kenny in four days and Kenny's mom is scared, she asks if you know where he is. She calls back on the 5th. Searchers have found his truck, parked near the top of a rocky bluff. They had combed the area for days, with no luck, and then one of the searchers had looked down and seen a bear at the bottom of the cliff. It was feeding on Kenny's body.

When Kenny's mom is going through her son's things, she finds a note. It's addressed to you. It's a goodbye note. He didn't want to go back to the hospital. He hated his pills. He didn't see any other way out. You give the eulogy, on the banks of the American River, where Kenny loved to hike and fish and raft. You tell the 400 mourners that you have lost your best friend. Three other speakers say the same thing. Weird, how such a young man, carrying so much sadness, could have so many best friends.

After Kenny's friends speak, the preacher rises, walks to the front of the crowd. He begins to talk and at that instant a flock of ducks flies overhead, quacking, and they land behind him, on the river. He raises his voice and they quack louder. The preacher keeps trying, but the ducks quack so loud no one can hear what he's saying. You and Michelle look at each other. "It's him," she says.

It is a terrible winter, a season of grief, and Michelle is worried sick about you, she hopes spring will bring healing, but it doesn't. The next winter is terrible, too. You write to Kenny's mom. "How do you go on when you lose your best friend?" You talk to her once a week and she tells you she has lost a son and you have lost a mother, but now you have each other. You can't sleep. Mornings, you're bone-tired. The times you manage to drift off, you wake screaming. You wake Michelle. And some nights, Michelle wakes on her own and finds you staring at pictures of Kenny, holding the scrapbooks with records of your hikes together. You avoid other people, spend more and more time alone. She doesn't know what to do. Ever since she met you, she has worried about you. But she never worried when you were with Kenny. She tells you to get outside, to hike, to climb. Michelle knows the climbing community in Santa Cruz, they're her friends, so she calls them. She calls people she knows, asks them if they'll climb with you, then tells you--okay, maybe she nags a little--that they're waiting for your call, but you don't call. Sometimes, desperate, she prays. Not to God. She prays to Kenny.

You and Michelle break up in February--it just got too intense--and you don't have any work lined up, or anything else tying you down, so you try again. You leave Mexico April 22, 2004. You're not sure you're going to yo-yo. You're not sure of anything.

©Michael Darter

On the trail, you grieve for Kenny, but you don't worry about him anymore. You don't have to. And you don't have to worry about how sick your mother is, or what she wants you to do with your life, or the sadness she carries behind her dark sunglasses, in her dark little room. You don't have to worry about your next job, or packing, or whether you are going to attempt the hike again. All you have to worry about are water and food and shelter and it's liberating. Maybe no man is an island, but god the waters can be choppy, they can drown a man if he's not careful and there is something to be said for hiking alone in the Sierra in early spring, with no girlfriend, no job, no family, no skinny kid carrying unbearable sadness in his stripped-down, strapless pack. You have your beans and corn chips and tarp and sleeping quilt. You think you have everything you need. You're so wrong.



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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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