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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.

But even that’s not right. No, if you want the best beginning to your story–the real beginning, the right beginning–you need to start with the kid. The first time you see him, he is crouching next to a spring at the bottom of a canyon, feral, like a wild child. It’s May 3, 1993, and you have been hiking for a week, on your way to Canada on the PCT, one way, just like any other young man longing to escape life and find himself. The kid is 17 years old, skinny and overpacked and he’s in trouble. That’s the first thing you notice. His pack must weigh 90 pounds–it’s bigger than he is. He carries a gleaming stove, and a fat down sleeping bag. Shiny pots and kettles hang from his pack. Countless straps and bungee cords. He has the newest and heaviest of everything. A kid who must have read some books, who has no idea that the secret to happiness out here is packing light and moving fast. He reminds you of yourself, when you first made the trip the year before. You made it to Oregon, and you suffered, and you learned, so this time you’ve come stripped down. This time, you carry only 20 pounds.

You’re not very nice to him. You don’t need extra baggage of any kind on your hike. That’s something else you’ve learned. But he’s delighted to be outdoors, delighted to meet you, delighted to learn from you. He’s even delighted to learn how little you think of his style. He tags along, and every day he digs a hole and buries a piece of equipment, or a piece of clothing. He wants to do it like you.

You have never met such a person before. Wake at 4 a.m. for a predawn march? No problem. Log 45 miles in one day? Can do. Climb every mountain, ford a gazillion streams? Now, that’s living!! You have no idea about the sadness he carries, the sadness he will bequeath to you.

It’s funny–you’re only 21 and already you have chosen a life of long-distance hikes and labor high up in trees and meticulous, solitary planning and you spend more time alone on the Pacific Crest Trail than probably any person on earth, but every so often a person crashes into your life and even if you’re careful, even if you’re not very welcoming at first, even if you’re not very nice, your plans get all screwed up.

When he leaves the trail to return to his mother’s house, you’re surprised. Not that he’s leaving–even burying so many things, the kid was still carrying too much. You’re surprised that you miss him.

Then, one day in early July, at the post office in Sierra City, you see his name in a register: Kenny Gould. He’s come back and he is trying to catch you. He doesn’t realize he’s already ahead of you. Every few days you see his name in another log. The kid is humping 40 miles a day. You cover distances like that every once in a while, but the kid is doing it day after day. No one can keep up that pace.

You didn’t make this trip to baby-sit anyone, to save anyone from himself. You didn’t start in Mexico in order to make friends. But something happens. It’s funny how a man’s plans can change, in spite of himself. You start logging monster distances, too. It takes you 2 weeks to catch him. When you find him at Crater Lake, in Oregon, he is carrying next to nothing. He has taken scissors and a knife to his pack, slicing off all the hanging straps. When the kid does something, he’s all in. That summer, you’re all in, too. You hike together through the rest of Oregon and all of Washington, to Canada. Over campfires and at sunrise and in meadows you talk about the misapplication of technology in the world, how it is serving powerful interests rather than people. He’s just a kid and you’re barely an adult. You talk about how society is going down the tubes, how neither of you will be sucked into the machine. You talk about the tricky business of living in a troubled world without becoming part of the trouble. He is impulsive, carefree–sometimes to a fault. You help him settle down, think things through. And you are meticulous, painstaking–sometimes to a fault. Hiking with Kenny, you quit planning so much and start living more. Kenny talks about how nothing is impossible. You can’t help it. You believe him.

The next summer, while Kenny climbs in Yosemite, you hike the Continental Divide Trail, from Canada to Mexico. The summer after that–Kenny’s still climbing, and you hear he’s going through some tough times with his family–you travel the Appalachian Trail, but you tack on the Florida Trail first, then walk 450 miles of road between the two. You want to make it from Florida to Maine. Now you have achieved the Triple Crown of long-distance hiking, which is as rare as it sounds. What’s next?

The kid has an idea. You run into him that fall at a meeting of long-distance hikers. His folks have split up and he’s spent a little time in a psych ward where the doctors told him he’s got a mental illness, and he’s ashamed about that, but you tell him it’s no big deal, they’re just words, like "flu" or "virus," that he doesn’t have anything to feel bad about. He appreciates that, it makes him feel better. Do you want to hear his idea? You do.

©Scott Williamson
Scott (left) and Kenny at the Canadian border, 1996.

What if next year, Kenny asks, you try something really ambitious? What if next year, you hike the PCT again? But this time, instead of stopping in Canada, what if you turn around and hoof it back to Mexico? And what if he tags along? You promise to think about it. And then the man in the hood walks into the convenience store and you decide life is short and a man can spend too much time thinking and you decide that you and Kenny will embark on a great adventure.

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