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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.

©Michael Darter

Campo, CA, Nov. 18, 2004 Yesterday long-distance hiker Scott Williamson, 32, stepped off the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) at California’s border with Mexico, completing the first-ever continuous "yo-yo," or round-trip of the 2,560-mile trail that stretches from the Mexico to Canada through California, Oregon, and Washington. This was Williamson’s sixth bid to yo-yo the PCT.

Your father and the man known as Mr. Beer find the deaf girl at a store in town and they learn that she’s been chasing you for 700 miles.

When they bring her to your campsite, you don’t know it, but that’s the moment your grief finally starts to lift. That’s when you find what you need, what you have always needed. It’s a year ago, May 14, and maybe that’s where your story begins.

But starting there leaves out too much. It leaves out the crazy man with the gun and the miracle of the corned beef hash and that sad day on the river when the magic ducks honor the dead boy. It doesn’t even mention Hobo Joe and Walking Carrot and The Wall and The Abominable Slow Man and Real Fat. And what about the nightmares? What about the years of failure? What about the autumn of loss, the seasons of mourning?

To understand those things, it’s better to begin with the day searchers find a bear feeding on your best friend’s body. Or the afternoon you lose the deaf woman. Too grim? It’s your story, and it’s filled with the strangest and most unexpected gifts, so maybe it’s best to begin on the rock in the snowfield where you find her again. But that’s too happy. It’s misleading. What about in a spot you know all too well, where you have spent way too much time: under sodden skies and sneering peaks during an early winter blizzard, as you sink to your thighs and know that you are–once again–doomed to defeat?

You’ve always struggled with beginnings and endings. How can anyone expect you to say when you started, when you finished? Might as well ask when you decided to start living.

Still, an epic journey–and if your journey is anything, it’s definitely epic–must begin somewhere. The first step, the first time, out of Mexico? That’s accurate, but inadequate. The victorious stroll last November into the crowd of photographers and friends? Touching, but incomplete. No, better to begin in the midst of setback, struggling. Better to start with what you know. Better to start with isolation and pain.

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