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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.

Kenny? The kid who gave your story the best beginning, the right beginning? While you’re trying to yo-yo the PCT, Kenny is making himself into one of the premier extreme kayakers in North America. While you’re financing your hikes by climbing giant redwoods and little fruit trees in Santa Cruz, Kenny is scaling communications towers for pay near Auburn, hanging vinyl on tall buildings. One day in the spring of 1999, you visit him at his mom’s and while you’re on a dayhike together, he tells you he’s been having a tough time, that he has to take pills every day, just to feel normal. You hadn’t known, but you aren’t shocked. Kenny had never been what you would call normal. You find out later that different doctors called Kenny’s difficulties different things. Bipolar disorder. Schizoaffective disorder. Brief reactive psychosis related to stress. It doesn’t matter to you. They’re just words. Kenny is your partner, your best friend. Somewhere along the way, Kenny has become your brother.

In the early winter of 2002, you climb North Palisade, a 14,000-footer. It’s so cold your equipment is freezing, and you have to take your gloves off to brush the ice away and eventually your fingers freeze up and you have to turn back, just 300 vertical feet short of the summit. You don’t know it, but Kenny returns a few weeks later and completes the climb.

You talk to him again that spring. You and Michelle have driven up north and you’re going to hike to a waterfall that Kenny took you to once, down a remote canyon of the American River. You call him from a pay phone, near the river. Does Kenny remember the waterfall? Can he give you some tips on how to get there? Does he? Can he? There’s a slot canyon, and you can rappel down it, and the bottom is hidden, but unbelievably beautiful, another world! It’s incredible! It’s amazing! Kenny is so enthusiastic, shouting so loud, you have to hold the phone away from your ear, smiling. You remember that. It’s funny the things you remember. Michelle, standing next to you, can hear him, too. She has never met Kenny, but she has heard you talk about him, has seen your scrapbooks filled with pictures and writings from him. You don’t know it, but she worries about you a lot. This is the first time she hears his voice, and she loves how it makes you smile. You hear from him one more time–in early September. He calls and leaves a message–"Hey, it’s me, call me back," but you’re busy. Would things have turned out differently if you had called him?

You don’t know it, but things are bad. The sadness isn’t coming and going anymore. It’s staying. He checks himself into the hospital, but that doesn’t work. He takes medication, but that doesn’t work. Now he’s doing free solo climbs, running riskier and more dangerous falls. He talks to people about kayaking off Yosemite Falls with a parachute. He talks about skydiving in a kayak, "to see how it handles."

Kenny’s mom tries to help, but she doesn’t know what to do. She wishes Kenny had a kindred spirit in his family–someone who could understand him. But his dad and his older brother are doctors, nose-to-the-grindstone kind of men, and Kenny has never related to that life. He has a younger sister, but what can a younger sister do? What can a mother do? Kenny’s mom thinks of you. She worries about Kenny all the time, but she never worries about him when he’s with you. She tells Kenny–okay, maybe she nags him a little–why doesn’t he call you? Why doesn’t he pick up the phone so the two of you can plan another one of your epic hikes together? But he doesn’t call.

He makes eight trips to the hospital, and the doctors do their best, adjust his meds, but each trip is worse than the last. When he leaves the eighth time, he’s so desperate, so crestfallen, his mom tells him she doesn’t want him to ever have to go back and he says he doesn’t want to go back either.

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