Scott Williamson–Undisputed Star of the Pacific Crest Trail
He is a bit of a mythical figure in the long-distance hiking community. Here, finally, is the real story of Scott Williamson.
WatchdogOutdoors » Hiker sets speed record on Pacific Crest Trail
With former John Muir Trail speed record holder Reinhold Metzger looking on, long-distance hiker Scott Williamson, 39, of Truckee, signs in at the southern terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail to record his record unassisted time for the 2,627-mile hike. — Pacific Crest Trail News
Ed Zieralski5:54 p.m., Oct. 14, 2011
Updated 6:12 p.m. Also see »
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On Wednesday afternoon, Scott Williamson was less than a day removed from hiking the 2,627-mile Pacific Crest Trail in a speed-record time of 64 days, 11 hours and 19 minutes.
Tired from fighting sleep deprivation, his feet blistered from walking parts of the last stretch in nearly 100-degree heat, his body marked with scrapes, rashes and sores from hiking through new, thorny growth on the final 700-mile stretch of fire-scarred Southern California, Williamson was sitting and recharging his incredible and legendary inner battery. He sat on the patio of former John Muir Trail speed-hiking record-holder Reinhold Metzger’s spacious Point Loma home and reflected on his amazing more than two-month, three-state journey, his unsurpassed 13th trek of the trail that stretches from the Canadian border to the Mexican border.
By averaging just over 41 miles per day, Williamson broke the PCT hiking speed record that he and Adam Bradley set together in 2009 after he and Bradley broke the one Williamson and Joe Kisner set in 2008. Williamson said this was by far his toughest hike of all 13, including the two times he yo-yo-‘d (up and back) the trail alone in one year.
“The main factor was being solo, and the other factor was going southbound,” said Williamson, 39, a tree climber and trimmer from Truckee who has become a cult figure in the long-distance hiking world. “But being solo made this undertaking much more challenging.”
Williamson had gotten used to hiking company. Bradley and Kisner joined him on setting the speed records, and even his wife, Michelle Turley, hiked with him on half of the trail when the two spent their honeymoon hiking the PCT. This time, Michelle stayed in Truckee, where she’s an acupuncturist. She managed Williamson’s supply deliveries to 12 stops.
“I’m extremely lucky I have a wife who understands my addiction to long-distance hiking,” Williamson said.
Williamson also is lucky to have friends like Kisner, 45, of Huntington Beach. The two hiking buddies talked often via cell phone on this record trek. Kisner, who was the first to lower the speed record to less than 80 days in 2007, said he helped Williamson get through some psychological barriers.
“I was jealous that he was out and able to spend the time, but I felt like I was right there with him,” Kisner said. “He had a schedule, and when he got through Washington and said he was on schedule, I knew he was going to break the speed record.”
Metzger, once the King of the John Muir Trail, said Williamson is the “unquestioned King of the PCT.”
“He did this totally unsupported, walking into and out of supply towns to re-supply, adding 20 or more miles to his route,” Metzger said. “He’s a true backpacker. He’s my hero.”
Williamson’s 13th PCT hike started with a long trudge through deep snow in Washington.
“I started on Aug. 8, and I walked on snow every single day in Washington, except the last day,” he said. “The snow was up to the power lines in my hometown of Truckee. It definitely was the heaviest winter I’ve seen since I’ve been hiking on the PCT in the last 19 years.”
Williamson was asked about the other changes to the trail in the last two decades.
“There is more trash, more impact on the water sources and fires have really adversely affected the trail in the 19 years I’ve been on it, particularly in the last 10 years,” Williamson said. “The trail, especially this first 700 miles through Southern California, is radically different due to fire and tree disease. There are stretches that used to be pine forest that now are just chaparral because the trees died due to different diseases or fire. The first 700 miles of the trail are now shadeless.
“The positive changes are that, since there now are about 500 plus people thru-hiking it each year, the preservation and maintenance of the trail is exponentially greater than when I first started hiking this trail,” he added.
“I think the positives in the last 20 years vastly outweigh the negative changes. The maintenance level that is occurring now is much greater than 20 years ago, and I feel there is an effort to preserve the trail from the various threats, the development, things of that nature.”
As with any thru-trek of the PCT, Williamson’s journey did not happen without incidents.
The worst, though, was when he crossed from Oregon into California and turned the corner into a meadow. That’s when happened upon Bill Roberts, a Forest Service employee who has dedicated the last 40 years of his life maintaining the PCT in the 100-mile section of northern California. Roberts had been thrown off his horse and he had severe, life-threatening injuries.
“By the time I got there, his (wife Peggy) and a section hiker, who happened to be a doctor, were with him in the meadow,” Williamson said. “The doctor diagnosed him with a broken pelvis. He was in severe shock, and we didn’t know it at the time, but in addition to the broken pelvis, he had three broken ribs, a broken left leg and a ruptured spleen. He was bleeding internally and could have died.”
They were in such a remote area that they couldn’t airlift Roberts out, so Williamson devised a way to get Roberts out. The speed record was put on hold so the most famous hiker on the PCT could assist a man who dedicated most of his life to caring for it.
“It was a five-hour process,” Williamson said. “(Peggy Roberts) ran three miles out to go get the truck and trailer. I figured out a way for her to snake the truck down the PCT, driving on the trail with a big Forest Service truck pulling a horse trailer. She got it into the meadow and got him in the truck.”
The last Williamson heard, Roberts is expected make a full recovery.
A more than two-month hike on the PCT isn’t done without seeing some beautiful sights and lots of critters. Incredibly, Williamson has seen only four mountain lions in his 13 thru-hikes of the PCT. He didn’t see any this time. But he did see bears, lots of bears in northern California, and actually, in all three states (Washington, Oregon and California).
“One day in Northern California I saw 10 separate bears on the trail in about 14 hours of hiking,” Williamson said. “I got so used to seeing them that I started standing still to see how long I could stand there and let them get close to me before they detected me. Several times they got pretty close. One got to within 10 feet of me. I don’t think he noticed me, but he just went off the trail on what seemed like his natural course that took him off the trail.”
His most unusual wildlife sightings came in northern Washington where he saw a fisher and a pine martin. He saw another pine martin in northern Yosemite.
“Prior to this trip, I only saw a pine martin two times, and then I saw two this summer,” he said. “I was pretty excited about that. They’re usually pretty curious. They’ll sort of circle around you and run up trees and look and sort of duck behind it and are almost playful in their nature.”
Williamson said for the first time on the trail he began to feel his age. He said his recovery time was longer, and he often didn’t have the energy to walk fast. He noticed his breaks lasted longer than he wanted them to. So he walked for longer periods and often hiked after dark with a big headlamp.
“About a month into this hike I reached the point where I didn’t have any extra energy, and I could only do my slow pace,” he said. “I get my miles with time as opposed to speed. Most of the hike I was waking up, my alarm would go off at 4:30 a.m. I would be walking by 4:50 no later than 5, and I’d walk to 8:30 p.m., sometimes 9 p.m., or sometimes later.”
Williamson literally fell asleep walking a few times. Sometimes he would just drop down to his knees. Other times he would veer off into bushes or trees.
“Sleep deprivation was a real problem,” he added. “When I hiked with other people, the sleep deprivation isn’t as noticeable. When you hike by yourself, you’re falling asleep while walking, trying to stay awake.”
Williamson said he also had issues with hallucinations.
“The most vivid this trip was one day in northern California I saw what appeared to be some kind of military vehicle, which appeared to be a Humvee, covered with camouflage netting with branches piled up against it,” Williamson said. “My first thought was why did someone put that military vehicle there? I went over to investigate it and then realized it was a large boulder with twigs on it.”
Williamson said he worked through the psychological barriers, but it was much tougher this time.
“The hike is mostly a mental undertaking if you ask me,” he said. “It’s more difficult because when you’re by yourself you don’t have someone else going through the same experience, and if you’re having a down day or slow day, if you’re with someone else, they sort of pull you through it, or vice versa that day. But being solo this time was completely different than any other time.”
As incredible as his solo record is, Williamson said he knows it will be broken and hears of a woman from the East Coast who already is saying she’s going to come out next summer and do it. But she likely will be supported, not a true backpacker like Williamson, Kisner and Bradley.
“My association with the PCT record is a very temporary thing,” Williamson said. “I don’t attach myself to it because I know there’s going to be someone younger, faster and stronger than me come along and break it. There always is someone faster and stronger. That’s how it is in this sport. The way I look at it, every person who sets a record is standing on the shoulders of the previous record holders.”
Williamson shared the name of a hiker who actually has thru-hiked the PCT an estimated seven times. Williamson knows him only as “Eric D,” but he knows the mystery hiker has yo-yo’d (up and back) the PCT two days faster than Williamson did it. Eric D’s trademark is that he always hikes in long pants, the ones with zippered shorts, but he never unzips the long pants to shorts.
“I’ve hiked with him and met him on the trail, but I’m not really nosey,” Williams said. “He holds the yo-yo speed record, but no one knows about him because he keeps such a low profile when he’s on the trail. He’s not on the Internet. He keeps to himself. He’s about my age, but really a bit of a mystery man. The speculation is he’s from the East Coast and maybe from an East Coast old money family or a famous celebrity family. He has no problem with cash flow. Nice guy, just keeps a really low profile.”
Williamson said the funniest thing that happened on his journey was when he ran into a group of beer-drinking guys in a Jeep near the trail in Northern California. They stopped and saw him 100 yards above them on the PCT. One of them yelled up to Williamson and asked him if he had any beer.
“I told them I didn’t have any, and then the guy asked me if I was sure,” Williamson said. “I told him I was sure. Like I might have forgotten that I had a 30-pack of beer in my backpack or something. I told him I was sure, and that was it. It wasn’t a menacing thing, but these guys must have run out of beer and were trying to get more out in the middle of nowhere.”
What makes Williamson’s incredible hiking record that much more amazing is that he lives and hikes with a .22-caliber bullet lodged against his first vertebrae at the base of his skull. He pointed to what looks like a burn mark on his left cheek that marks where the bullet entered. He was working in a convenience store in Richmond on Jan. 20, 1996 when he was shot in the face, point-blank, by a gunman.
“The bullet went in, curved, destroyed my saliva gland and curved again, and had it not been centered against the vertebrae itself, it was dead center on my spine, and I wouldn’t be using my arms and legs today,” he said. “The doctors didn’t want to operate because it was right there at the base of my brain. I never feel it, but it does set off metal detectors at the airport. I get the usual extra pat down.”
Williamson said investigators later determined that it likely wasn’t a robbery, but possibly a gang initiation.
“He came in, asked me for the time, and then reached into his pocket, pulled out the gun and shot me,” Williamson said. “It was close enough that the muzzle flash burned off my eyebrows, burned my hair, the fire from the muzzle burned my face as well as being hit by the bullet.
“I ran, and he took five more shots at me, but never hit me. The investigators came to me with a post-mortem photo and claimed it was him. They showed me mug shots, but I never really saw him that long. I couldn’t tell if it was him. After I ran off, he went back to the store, and my friend who came to pick me up also was shot trying to get the gun away from the guy. My friend has made a full recovery, too.”
Williamson already had been an accomplished thru-hiker at the time of the shooting. He’d hiked the Triple Crown, completing the PCT, the Appalachian Trail and the Continental Divide Trail by 1995. But the shooting definitely changed the course of his life.
“I never think about it,” Williamson said. “But that guy that shot me, he actually did me a favor. Because I think my life path changed. I’m much more likely follow what I want to do as opposed to what I feel like I should do. That has gotten me in trouble a few times, but that’s the way I’ve lived my life since then.
“That guy did me a favor because my life went in a different direction. Even though I’d already hiked a lot up to that point in my life, I still feel my life has gone in a direction that it may never have gone in. I look at where my life could have gone had I not been shot and I see the outcome that has happened as being much more positive.
“Prior to that I’d already done the Triple Crown — the PCT, the Appalachian Trail and the Continental Divide. But having that happen intensified my resolve to sort of follow my heart and not so much worry about my career and money and cars and homes, much to the chagrin of my father.”
Williamson caught a flight back to Truckee on Wednesday afternoon and planned on being back at work as a tree climber/trimmer on Monday. As for his future treks, he’s not sure what’s next. He said he and Kisner and Bradley have talked about a joint venture on the PCT next year.
“There’s no plan right now, but I have discussed it with Adam and Joe that in the foreseeable future, possibly next year, one or the other of us or all of us should come back out and try and break the speed record,” he said.
It was epic, to be sure, this unsurpassed 13th trek of the PCT by this incredible man whose personal story is a movie, whose life of wandering truly an inspiration to many in the hiking and adventure community.
But after sharing memories and highlights of his latest adventure, Williamson made a point that clearly was made by a man who has spent countless days alone in his thoughts and mind, looked deep into his own soul, deep into California’s natural resources and arrived at a focused decision, possibly a reason for his next journey.
Williamson said it is time to give something back to the trail, to the resources and improve the gifts nature has provided. That clearly was his message as he began to reconnect into the unnatural world off the trail.
“One thing I’d like to mention is that has changed in my thoughts,” he said as the long interview was winding down, much like a day of hiking the PCT. “I’m searching for a way to take all this hiking I’ve done and give something back. I feel all this hiking has been very selfish. My hiking has basically been all about me. I’m out there hiking. That’s it. I’m the only one benefiting from this. No one else is benefiting or enjoying my hiking. I would like to, in the future, integrate my hiking, or to take my experience and knowledge of hiking and use it to benefit the trail itself, my community or the community at large. I feel like my hiking is all about me. I’m out there on the trail and I’m not doing anything good for the trail.”
It’s mentioned to him that his “follow-your-dream” message likely motivated thousands, if not millions, to get off the couch and walk, or hike or do something. But he said that’s not enough for him. He wants to give something more back and will be discussing that with his fellow thru-hikers like Kisner and Bradley.
“We have a unique gem in the Pacific Crest Trail, over 2,500 miles of a single-track trail,” Williamson said. “Yet when I was hiking the trail in Southern California this time, I saw maybe two people walking on the trail. That’s it. Two people out of how many millions of people who live in Southern California? The only time I saw people in Southern California was when I hit roads or towns. I had nothing but solitude out there, and to think I was hiking within an hour’s drive of millions and millions of people. It’s amazing.”
Williamson’s perspective is one from a man spent putting one foot in front of another, alone, for long periods of time. It’s one that sends a resounding message to anyone living in Southern California.
“I feel like we don’t have that much natural world left in the modern world,” he said. “It’s becoming more and more modernized. And these wild places or semi-wild places like the Pacific Crest Trail, as we become more modernized and more populated, these areas will become much more valuable than they are now.
“Right now I view the Pacific Crest Trail and trails similar to it as being valuable because unlike a set-aside block of land, the PCT is a conduit into that landscape. It’s great that we have these large preserved wilderness areas, but they often don’t have easy access. The PCT is an easy access point of the entire spine of the Pacific Crest. That is a gem. That is a treasure. We need to protect that. If we don’t, it will just get paved over and built over like everything else.”
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