Story by Pete Gauvin • Photos by Patti Haskins
Should you ever find yourself in a bar-room dispute with Scott Williamson, do not — I repeat, DO NOT — challenge him to a walk off. Sit down and cool your heels. You know not what you’re getting into. You’ll lose. You’ll lose big. You may even lose your soles; yes, the soles of your feet.
Although a mild-mannered tree trimmer by day, Williamson is a Zen master in the art of putting one foot in front of the other, over and over again, across hill and dale and desert and glaciated mountain ranges.
In a country that tries to avoid walking whenever logistically possible, he lives to walk. He’s spent the better part of the last 15 years doing just that for months at a time. He’s good at it. More than that, he’s stubborn and resilient and determined and able to eat the same thing day after day after day. For a long-distance hiker, such qualities are as important as stout legs and tough feet.
Last year, the 33-year-old ace ambulator did something no one else has. He yo-yoed the Pacific Crest Trail. Starting at the Mexican border 40 miles east of San Diego on April 22, he hiked the length of the PCT. When he got to the Canadian border on Aug. 8, he turned around and headed back to Mexico. After 5,300 miles, 205 days, 42 re-supply boxes and a dozen pairs of running shoes, he arrived back at his starting point on Nov. 13. A small crowd gathered and a bottle of champagne was opened.
Perhaps most amazing is he didn’t lose a pound during his nearly seven-month jaunt. Some PCT hikers drop 40 or 50 pounds before they get to the Washington border. The 6-foot-1 Williamson started and finished at 190 pounds. Talk about having one’s metabolic efficiency dialed. In so doing though, Williamson cheated himself out of another potential sponsorship opportunity: He’ll never be the poster boy for the Thru-Hiker’s Diet.
Head in the Trees
As much as he’d love sponsorship, Williamson is a self-supported record breaker. Soon after yo-yoing the PCT he was back at work climbing trees and living out of the back of his Toyota truck in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Now a resident of Truckee, where he lives with what one must assume is a very patient girlfriend, Williamson is hoping to find a way out of the tree-trimming business before he gets hurt or old. So far, he’s only suffered one concussion when a large section of tree top struck him on his helmet. But he’s torn: for an itinerant thru-hiker, it’s a good way to earn money.
Certainly beats working in a convenience store. Williamson, who grew up in the rough East Bay city of Richmond, has done that to support his hiking habit, too. On the afternoon of Jan. 20, 1996, a man in a hooded sweatshirt came in and asked him what time it was. Williamson lifted his head from an article he was reading in The New Yorker and the man pulled out a gun and shot him in his left cheek. The bullet lodged near his spine, making it too risky for doctors to remove.
Looking at Williamson, no obvious visual cue to that tragic incident remains, but the salivary gland on the left side of his mouth no longer functions and the bullet remains at the back of his head. After this, tree trimming and logging, which he did during winters in frigid Maine and soggy Washington, seemed safe in comparison.
Williamson’s obsession with long distance hiking began when he was 16 and did a week-long hike near Tahoe. “I talked to some people doing the PCT and the idea that you could be out hiking for months at a time fascinated me.”
In 1992, he hiked the PCT to Oregon. In ’93, to Canada. In ’94, he did the first 1,000 miles of the PCT as training, then jumped over to the Continental Divide Trail and hiked that trail, which wasn’t much of a trail at all; perhaps 50 percent was cross country using a map and compass. In ’95, he did the Appalachian Trail Å0ç0 but he started at the tip of Florida and hiked the Florida Trail and then some 400 miles of highway just to get to the start of the AT in Georgia.
In ’96, only months after being shot in the face, he first attempted to yo-yo the PCT with his good friend, the late Kenny Gould. After more than 4,000 miles of hiking, they were snowed out in the Sierra in late October. In ’97, he hiked the PCT again solo. In ’98, he hiked it southbound with his ex-girlfriend from Canada to Mexico. In ’99, he took a break from thru-hiking and climbed all thirteen 14,000-foot peaks in California, plus Mt. Rainier. In 2000, he attempted to yo-yo the PCT again but was again snowed out in the Sierra.
Luck Finally Smiles
As noted above, Williamson had attempted to yo-yo the PCT twice before. Each time he was stopped short by snows in the Sierra. In 2004, it was almost the same story. “The only difference from past attempts came down to luck and timing,” he says.
Just two hours after crossing Forrester Pass, the highest point on the PCT, it started to snow. It snowed on him for the last three days and just got down to the desert when an unusually fierce storm hit on Oct. 18. The same storm killed two climbers on El Capitan in Yosemite and stranded several groups of backpackers in the southern Sierra. “The wind from that storm battered me for three straight days.”
Mind Over Muscle
Williamson did not train for his yo-yo attempt last year; he hiked himself into shape. “The first three weeks were really tough,” he says. “But my endurance has increased a lot as I’ve aged. I don’t hike as fast as I used to, but I can hike farther.”
“Long-distance hiking in my opinion is 5 percent physical, 95 percent mental. Many people who train to hike the PCT spend months getting in shape and getting their gear dialed, but then quickly lose their motivation due to cold, hunger, fatigue, loneliness. The hardest part of any hike is the second day. You’re sore and the reality of your goal to hike several thousand miles sets in.”
The dropout rate for people over 35 is much less than people in their 20s, he notes.
“One of the great things about long-distance hiking is that the trail doesn’t care how old or fit you are or how much you’ve trained. Virtually anybody can get out there and enjoy walking. It’s not like running or climbing which can take years of training and dedication.”
Return of the Yo-Yo?
Call him crazy, but Williamson wants to yo-yo the PCT again next summer. “It would be a great challenge to do it again . I really enjoy pushing myself that way.”
He also wants to qualify to run the Western States 100 next June, so he’s started running a lot in the mountains near Truckee. He figures if he’s doing the PCT next summer he’ll just take a little break to run one of the most grueling footraces in existence and then hop back on the PCT headed north.
He can then relax and cool down over the next 4,000 miles or so.
The Nitty-Gritty of a PCT Yo-Yoer Scott Williamson averaged 35-40 miles per day while yo-yoing the PCT. His pack weighed 8.5 pounds without food and water. It included such luxuries as a rain jacket, mittens, a homemade sleeping quilt, and a GoLite tarp for shelter. He ate about 2.5 pounds of food per day and resupplied with caches every 3-4 days on average. During some stretches he carried up to eight days of food and water, and his pack totaled 35-40 pounds.
He didn’t bring a stove. Dinner consisted of dehydrated refried beans soaked for three hours while hiking along the trail, topped with tortilla chips and olive oil. For breakfast, he had a protein shake. And for lunch, he snacked on dried fruit, nuts and organic raspberry fig bars. After leaving towns, he’d supplement his diet with fresh fruit.
“To me, a good diet on the trail is very important. I focus a lot on organic or more natural food. Other people are able to do the PCT on Top Ramen and Snickers bars. I avoid sugar on the trail because sugar highs and crashes affect my hiking rhythms. But in towns I pigged out on junk food and ate whatever I wanted: candy bars, pastries, burgers.”