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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.

When your dad and the man known as Mr. Beer take you to her, the first thing you notice about the deaf girl is how weathered she looks, how worn-down. She scribbles notes. She says she has been trying to catch you since she left Mexico two weeks ago, four days after you. You work that out in your head. She has been covering more than 30 miles a day. She says she has covered all of Southern California without a trail map. She says she is trying to break the women’s speed record from Mexico to Canada.

As you scribble back and forth, literally comparing notes, you look at her again. She has just walked through a section of the American West where water sources are sometimes 30 miles apart, where the best way to locate them is with a map, and the second best way by sound. She has just hiked through a region infested with rattlesnakes (she has seen 10). And here she is, to your eyes malnourished, still without a map, cheerfully outlining her plans to race to Canada.

Later, when you remember meeting Patti, and you talk to strangers about things like inner peace and karma and living in harmony with the universe, you will apologize; use words like "cheesy" and "new-agey." But here, late at night next to the Current River, you can’t ignore what you see. What you feel. It’s spooky. It shakes you a little. You have only met one other person in your life who approached absurd difficulties and daunting challenges with such unreasonable joy, such blithe good humor. Climb every mountain? Ford a gazillion streams? Now that’s living. You never thought you would run into anyone else like him. Can a man be sad and bursting with joy all at once?

The next morning, your father drives away–he’d come all the way down from Richmond just to see you for a night–and the man known as Mr. Beer, who you met on the trail and camped with for one night, takes off. Then it’s just you and the deaf girl, Patti Haskins. She has a master’s degree in biochemistry, and she works at a day-care center in Yosemite Valley. She’s fast, but you’re faster, and you move ahead. You wait an hour for her in a meadow, and then an hour and a half. Then you leave a note. Gotta go.

A man travels fastest when he travels alone. You camp alone that night, and hike the next day and it surprises you, but you’re worried. And maybe you miss her a little. And at the end of that next day, skirting a snowfield, you hear a strange sound. There she is, yelling on a rock, like she knew you would find her–or she would find you. She had lost the trail, had simply continued north, mapless. It’s funny how people can shake up your plans. This was going to be a solo trip. The rest of the summer, all the way to Canada, you hike together.

You learn to sign. You tell her that the Top Ramen and Cup-a-Soup she has been eating is wearing her down, that she should start eating organically, like you. She tells you that for someone who talks so much about organic food, you eat an awful lot of Snickers bars whenever you’re near a store, and by the way, you should start slathering on sunscreen, like her. She sticks with Top Ramen. You stick with Snickers and bare skin.

You watch out for each other. When Patti gets sick and has to go to the bathroom 20 times one day, you worry. When you bite down on a chip and a molar on your right side breaks, you spit it out. Now the nagging about the Snickers gets intense. She spends a lot of time peering in your mouth, at the half tooth, worrying about decay and infection.

But those are minor things. They’re bonding things. Life in the mountains with Patti is okay. It’s more than okay. One evening, she walks to a stream to fetch water and she disappears around a bend, and then you hear her scream. It’s a weird thought, you have no idea why it comes to you, but you’re certain she has found a body. You have never heard such screams. You sprint down the creek, around the bend, panting. And there she is, screaming and singing. Patti is a beautiful woman, all dark hair and smooth limbs and sharp angles and she is trilling with joy. She’s holding a bullfrog as big as a cantaloupe, laughing and singing. Only one other person in your life ever found such wild, outsized delight in nature.

On sunny days, you plunge into frigid alpine rivers, then scramble out and lay down in sun-soaked beds of wildflowers. On rainy nights, you huddle together underneath your tarp. And the more okay things get with Patti, the more you worry. Not about her nutrition, or her intestinal health. You are now just weeks from Canada, and you suspect that this time, you have a shot at making it all the way back. You also know how people can creep into your life and shake up your plans. You know that a man travels fastest when he travels alone. You remember the last person you loved like you love Patti. He was just a boy, and then he was a man, and it’s different, of course, Patti is beautiful and soft, all smooth limbs and sharp angles. But it’s the same, too. You never thought you would meet someone like him again and now you have and it scares you. You know what loss feels like. You know what loss can do to a man. You walk into Canada on August 8, 105 days after you left Mexico, 101 days after Patti started. She misses her record by a week, and since she has no money left, she catches a bus back to Yosemite. Hiking south, alone again, you cover 43 miles your first day. The second day, you walk 40 miles. The third day, 38 miles.

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