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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.

You lug your sewing machine up from Richmond to Kenny’s mom’s house in the Sierra foothills, in Auburn, California. One night she looks in and sees you and Kenny, both longhaired and bearded and plotting, each one of you hunched over a sewing machine. You are sewing your own sleeping quilts and she shakes her head at her woolly son and his woolly friend and thinks, "Gee, this is never going to work." But she’s smiling and laughing and while you might not know about it, she knows the sadness that her son carries and you seem like such a nice boy and Kenny seems so at peace when he’s with you–she worries often about him but never when he’s with you.

She takes you boys–to her, you are boys–to dinner at Auburn’s Mongolian Barbecue for all-you-can-eat dinners and the Chinese proprietor smiles when he sees the three of you coming, and you might not know it, but Kenny’s mom knows, he hates the sight of you three, because you and Kenny sit at the table for hours, plotting adventures and talking about the trail and spinning dreams, but mostly piling bowl after bowl after bowl full of rice and broccoli and spinach and bamboo shoots, mashing the food down, and eating and mashing it down some more and eating some more and it’s a wonder you don’t drive that restaurant out of business. Kenny’s mom loves her son and she’s beginning to love you but she can’t help it, she feels sorry for that little Chinese man.

A young man can imagine great adventures in the foothills, in the winter, over sewing machines and bowls of rice and vegetables. And you do. You both do. But the adventure is greater than even you can imagine. It’s funny. For all your great plans, the greatest times happen when the plans fall apart. It happens after a snowstorm–there are so many snowstorms in the life you have chosen–and you and Kenny are short on food, so you bushwhack 43 miles through the mountains to the nearest town and you know it’s going to take at least three days to even make it back to the trail. You buy onions, and garlic and lemons and a roll of tinfoil and a 6-pound bag of rice and some fishing gear. Not what most people think of as fishing gear. No, you buy two spools and a couple of hooks and a few lures.

And now you are standing in the middle of a river in a hidden canyon, holding a stick. Standing upstream, holding another stick, is your hiking partner, who has somehow become your best friend. The stream carves through a canyon, which slices through a section of California’s High Sierra that is very difficult to find, even on a map. You have tied the hook to one end of the spool and flung it into the river. It is a foolish, absurd way to fish, but in hidden valleys, life is foolish and absurd and bountiful and the word "failure" doesn’t mean much. Kenny catches a fish. Then you. Golden trout. You have been a vegan for five years. But Kenny has taught you, so, just like him, you look into the golden trout’s eyes and you bash its head on a rock and you feel its life slipping from its body and you have always thought of meat as something people buy in grocery stores, but you will never think this way again. Years later you will say that this is the moment you learned that death not only is part of life, but that death can sustain life. For three days and nights you and Kenny toss lines into clear water and make your way upstream and east, along the river and up a snowy path toward the Pacific Crest Trail and for breakfast and lunch and dinner you feast on golden trout over crackling fires and the days and nights are cold, but you are warm and well-fed and alone and together in a place that is difficult to find, even on a map. He tells you wild, hilarious stories about the people he met in the psych ward, which always make you laugh. And he calls you "Duckface," because you carry a rubber duck that you found in the street in a mountain town and sometimes you start quacking, which always makes Kenny laugh.

You make the turn in Canada and head south and make it all the way to Reds Meadow, near Mammoth, where it starts snowing on October 18 and doesn’t stop until a week and 5 feet later. It is your first and most glorious failure.

You try again the next year, alone, because Kenny has taken up whitewater rafting, and he’s busy with that. You struggle through so much snow on the way north that you stop at the Canadian border. The next year, you read the weather reports and you know it’s impossible, so you start in Canada and take a leisurely stroll south with your girlfriend, a poet and student named Rebecca. You try to make it both ways in 1999 and 2000, but each time, blizzards stop you before you’re even out of Southern California.

The rest of your life? Off the trail? There are the tree-felling jobs, and a winter spent logging in Maine with Rebecca, but with all the trips and hiking, a relationship is tough and you split up. Your mother has been sick with lung cancer for a few years. She’s a chain-smoker, and that makes you angry, and things have never been easy between you two, with her always telling you to get a regular job, buy a house, settle down. And besides, she carries her own sadness. People scare her, and open spaces and new things, so she avoids all that. When you were a kid, and friends came over, she would hide in a room. Those friends remember fleeting glimpses of her, in a hat and dark sunglasses, peering from behind a door. "Agoraphobic," doctors said, but to you, it’s just a word. She’s your mother. The last summer of her life, you don’t hike. She dies in October 2001 and you don’t hike the next year either.

That summer, on July 6, you meet a pretty girl with sun-streaked hair outside a restaurant called Chop Stix, near Santa Cruz, where you’re doing some tree work. A month later, you and the pretty girl, a climber and acupuncture student named Michelle Clark, move in together. Women have always been attracted to you, and you to them. And in January, you’re on a dayhike together and you tell her that come spring, you think you’re going to try yo-yoing the PCT again and she says that’s nice, what exactly does that mean? Well, it means you might be gone for 7 months. She’s not happy, but she’s a climber and a good sport, she believes in you, so she works on your résumé and on letters trying to drum up publicity and sponsors and she helps organize a slide show and rents a hall in Santa Cruz and gets some local musicians and she helps you raise $250. Then she drives you to the border, and when you call her after your first day and tell her your knee hurts, she puts together a package of moxa and ginger–Michelle practices Chinese medicine, too–and sends it to you.

Your knee gets better, but the weather worsens. You have never seen so much snow, so early in the season. Every day it dumps more and at Cedar Grove, on June 7, 2003, you hike for 15 hours and make it exactly 15 miles. That’s when you quit. It’s your fifth try, your fifth failure. You don’t know if you’ll ever try again.

 

©Michael Darter
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