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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.

Late summer in the Cascades is a glorious time. Long days, and lush flowers and torrents of water and plenty of time to think. You think about Patti and your mother and your damaged salivary gland and the man who shot you, the man in the hood, and how you’d like to teach kids about the wilderness, about how tree-felling is a young man’s occupation and how you’re 32 and you won’t be able to do it for much longer and maybe you ought to really consider college. You think about beef and spinach and coffee, you think hard about those things. You think of the long days and nights talking with Kenny about how difficult it was to be true to yourself when you were surrounded by wage slaves and soulless corporations and creeping technology, and how you told Kenny that a man couldn’t spend his entire life on the PCT, the important thing was to find balance in your life, and Kenny did his best and his best wasn’t enough. You wonder how the man known as Mr. Beer is doing back at home in Sapporo, Japan (which is why he’s known as Mr. Beer). You think about all the hikers you have met over the years–Hobo Joe, the homeless Vietnam vet who every few years scrapes enough money together to hit the trail, and does fine until he hits a town with a liquor store, then ends up in the county jail for a few nights; and Maineiac, who lives in Maine, and Walking Carrot, who loves carrots and Real Fat, who is really fat, and The Abominable Slow Man, who is astoundingly pokey, and the Leprechaun, who stands six foot eight.

The kid? He comes to you at the oddest times. In southern Oregon, you run out of water and hike 15 miles to a stream near Mt. McGloughin to refill your bottle, but the stream is dry and it’s 15 miles until the next one and you’re thirsty and in trouble and then, there, right on the trail, is a water bottle, 16 ounces just sitting there and you know it’s cheesy, you know it’s new agey, but you can’t help it, you think about death, and life, the cosmic wheel and all that, and how even when someone leaves you, maybe he’s not gone at all. You feel Kenny’s presence then; you know he’s with you.

You think about Michelle, who really is sweet, and supportive, and beautiful and all-around great, and you wonder if the two of you might ever get together again. And you think of Rebecca, in Maine, and the poem she wrote called "The Mandible Bullet," about the convenience store shooting. Rebecca was sweet, too, and you loved that poem, you wish you still had a copy of it. And you think about other former girlfriends, and how women are great, but relationships are complicated, especially when you have a goal, and maybe you’re better off not exactly in one right now. And of course you think some more of Patti, whose trail name is Silent Running, which even by trail-name standards is weird, because she’s deaf, not mute.

Women are tricky. Relationships are tricky. The trail is simple. You wake at 5:30 and by six you’re hiking. You hike till nine o’clock and you stop for a 15-minute meal and then you hike till the early afternoon, eat another quick meal, and then you hike a few more hours, when you stop just to chop some garlic and to mix your dried beans with water, and you hike another few hours, and then you have dinner, a leisurely 30 or 40 minutes, and then you hike until it’s dark. Every day, you hike at least 35 miles, and most days, you don’t see a soul. From Crater Lake to near Tahoe–1,000 miles–you don’t see anyone on the trail. You’re alone. Days and days alone.

Why? Because you can’t survive off the trail? Because things like steady work and marriage and a house fill you with fear, because the only place you feel safe is here, strolling through fields of golden yarrow and red maids and prickly poppies and yellow and white monkey flowers, sleeping under wheeling constellations? That’s what Michelle thinks. To her, God is everywhere, but she’s pretty sure you only feel Him–or Her, or It, or The Great Whatever–on the trail. Or do you do it because you love deeply and grieve deeply and sometimes you don’t know the difference, and you’re trying to come to terms with your friend’s death? That’s what Kenny’s mom thinks. She didn’t start to feel better about Kenny until she visited the rivers he rafted and the trails he hiked–all the spots he’d been happiest. She’s sure you’re on a journey of acceptance and healing.

And you? What do you think?

"Kenny’s death played a part," you say politely but firmly. "So I suppose you could say I did it for him. But as I’ve told a lot of people, the only reason to do something like this is for yourself."

You can tell the temperature within two degrees just by the viscosity of the mucus in your nose, and you can predict snow by how the air feels on your skin. But you have never been very good at explaining yourself, at dissecting your feelings, at sharing your inner life.

Still, even a man as self-contained as you, even a man who has been shot in the face and whose mother has died and whose best friend has killed himself–even a man who has responded to injury and loss and death by walking away from others and into the woods–even a man like you must feel joy and relief and a tremendous sense of accomplishment as he closes in on the goal that has eluded him for nearly a decade.

How do you feel?

"Very neutral," you say, with profound and oddly moving blockheadedness.

You reach the Mexican border on Saturday, November 13, 2004 and there to greet you are your father, who has driven 12 hours from Richmond, and Patti, who has driven 8 hours from Yosemite and Kenny’s mom, who has driven 12 hours from Auburn. There is a photo crew, too, and dozens of long-distance hikers who know about you. You tell Patti you can’t believe it’s over. You tell her that finishing makes you sad. Kenny’s mom hugs you and tells you that Kenny would be proud. And that’s a sweet ending to your story, but it’s not the best one. It’s not the right one.

It leaves out what’s next. It leaves out Patti asking you to spend more time in Yosemite, and Michelle, who has moved from Santa Cruz to Truckee, asking you to visit Truckee more often and you feeling guilty and annoyed that you can’t do either–that you don’t want to do either. It leaves out the way the daily e-mail with Patti becomes weekly, then biweekly, then merely occasional.

It leaves out where you are now, living in a 1984 Toyota 4×4 in the Santa Cruz mountains, taking the occasional tree-felling job. It omits the fact that until recently, fifteen rolls of slides from your trip sat in your father’s freezer, because you couldn’t afford to have them developed. He did it for you, as a Christmas gift. It leaves out how you can’t afford to rent a room somewhere. How you can’t afford to fix your tooth.

You’ll figure it out. Or you won’t. You turn 33 in May. You have many trips in front of you. Or you don’t. The money will come. Or it won’t. The answers will present themselves, or not. You have to be patient. You have to avoid gazing too far into the future. These are the lessons that any would-be yo-yo hiker must learn. You have learned them. You have to savor each day, to love the journey. A step at a time, an hour at a time. So let’s pick a good hour to end your tale. There are so many to choose from. What about the afternoon in San Diego, where you and Patti drove after finishing in Mexico, where you swam in the ocean and floated on your back and marveled at how everything flows from the mountains and ends up in the sea, and you were no different; where you drank cup after cup of coffee and ate plate after plate of spinach salad? No? What about rush hour in the East Bay, stuck in traffic, doing your best to apply the lessons of the trail–the lessons of patience and acceptance and grace and being a part of the troubled society you and Kenny talked about? No? What about midday in Barney’s Burgers, on the Berkeley border, where you tuck into a one-pound monster patty and a half-order of curly fries and a blackberry milkshake and spin tales about Hobo Joe and Real Fat and The Wall and the folly of long-distance hikers who leave the trail and reenter society with rage and bitterness and hatred for things like traffic jams and jobs, not realizing that those things are as much a part of life as soaring hawks and fragrant sunrises?

No? You have always had difficulty with beginnings and endings. You have been through enough grief. So why don’t we pick a moment in the middle. The right ending. Let’s choose a moment of peace.

It has been raining for a week. It’s late July and you and Kenny have been on the trail since March 2, through blizzards and windstorms and hidden canyons filled with golden trout. And now, in Washington’s Glacier Peak Wilderness, headed north, at mile 2,450, high on a ridge, your food supplies are practically gone, and you’re not only cold and wet, you’re hungry. A chilly, damp twilight and you throw off your packs and set up your tarp and try to build a fire to dry out and to get warm but most of the wood is wet. Kenny scrabbles into the dirt at the base of a tree, looking for dry kindling. It’s a western hemlock. Isn’t it funny the things a man remembers?

Kenny shouts. "I found a beer!" It’s a Miller Icehouse. You remember that, too. Then he shouts some more. He has dug up six cans of food. Chili and corn and corned beef hash and okra. But only one beer. You and Kenny convene for a crucial Pacific Crest Trail yo-yo summit conference. Together you decide that half a beer simply will not do, that one of you should drink the entire thing. You flip a nickel and Kenny wins. Has a single beer ever filled anyone with such utter, outsized delight?

It’s the spring of 1996 and the left side of your face is missing a functioning salivary gland. You don’t have a steady job or health insurance. You don’t know if you’ll make it back to Mexico this year, or even if you’ll make it to the Canadian border. You have no idea about the difficulties and pain that lurk in the decade ahead, about what loss will do to you. It doesn’t matter, though. You are blessed, rich beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. You have the mountain peaks and the stars and a warm fire and corn and chili and okra and corned beef hash and your tarp and your very good friend drinking a beer, your brother who you have tried to teach about balance and who has taught you so much about joy. You have never been good at beginnings and endings, but that’s okay, because beginnings and endings don’t really matter here. Maybe there is no beginning, no ending. Maybe–yeah, it’s cheesy, it’s kind of new agey–life and death are part of the same cycle, and sometimes one death can sustain another life, the cosmic wheel and all that. So maybe the story ends in 1996. Maybe it begins here, too. Maybe all that counts is the journey and you have that. Maybe there is only now, and you have now. You have this moment, underneath the branches of the western hemlock tree, with your hiking partner, who has become your best friend, who has become your brother. You have everything you need. You have everything you will ever need.

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