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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.

It is exactly ten minutes until five in the afternoon–you remember that because the man in the hooded sweatshirt asks you what time it is and you tell him, right before he shoots you in the face. It is 4:50 in the afternoon on January 20, 1996, and you aren’t scheduled to work that day but when the convenience store owner calls and asks you to come in you say yes, because you can always use extra cash. You work hard when you work–tree-feller, logger, construction–so you can take off for months at a time, and such an approach to labor and to life has made for many sublime sunrises and peaceful sunsets and occasional moments of Zen oneness with nature and…a job in a convenience store. You are reading an article in The New Yorker when the man in the hooded sweatshirt comes in and asks what time it is and you look at your watch and tell him and then you notice he seems nervous, his eyes are darting, he is rocking back and forth, and then he lifts something and points it at you and you feel heat and searing pain on your cheek.

The bullet enters the left side of your face, clips your jaw, rips through flesh and stops. You run to the back of the store and the door is locked so you hit it with your shoulder. It is a steel door with a deadbolt but you tear it from the wall. The man in the hooded sweatshirt follows and fires six more rounds and you keep running. You keep running and running until you see a man and a woman and their young child lifting groceries out of their car and you tell them you’ve been shot.

They take you inside and you call 911 and you worry because even with a towel you’re dripping blood on their floor.

The doctors give you morphine and they check for nerve damage. They tell you that the salivary gland on the left side of your mouth might never function again. They tell you it’s too risky to remove the bullet, which is lodged near your spine, and that another quarter of an inch and you would be paralyzed. You leave the hospital and you have nightmares and get spooked when you see men in hooded sweatshirts and you resolve to change your life.

Some men might bend their will toward jobs with desks and health insurance and 401Ks, away from double shifts at convenience stores. Not you. You decide that life is short, that the future is uncertain. You decide that time is precious. You have already hiked from Mexico to Canada once, a huge summer trek on the Pacific Crest Trail. It was wonderful, but now that you’ve been shot in the face and reevaluated your life, you want more than wonderful. You decide you will hike from Mexico to Canada again, but this time, rather than celebrating at the border, you will turn around and hike back to Mexico. You will need to travel lighter this time and pack smarter and move very, very fast to beat the winter storms before they make the southbound journey impossible. You will need to hike more than 25 miles a day, every day, for almost 7 months. No one has ever accomplished such a feat before. No one has even tried it. Maybe the moment you make the decision is the best place of all to start.

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