Alone on a trail deserted by fair-weather hikers, Scott Williamson is not racing other people or a clock. He is trying to beat Mother Nature again. Williamson is in the home stretch of a 8,530km hike up and down the length of the Pacific Crest Trail.
He is the only person known to have completed this yo-yo, in which a hiker travels the 4,264km trail from Mexico to Canada and then back down to Mexico in a single year.
"It's such a simple thing," he said about his long hike. "It's just walking. Anybody can do what I'm doing. You just wake up each morning and you walk until the end of the day. You do that all summer, and pretty soon you've walked thousands of miles."
But the voyage is not as simple as Williamson, 34, makes it sound. He started at the Mexican border on May 22 and, traveling up to 64km a day when conditions were good, he reached Canada on Aug. 18. The shorter days of autumn have slowed his return because he must do more hiking in the dark, so lately he has been covering closer to 48km a day.
He recently made it through one of the most daunting points on the trail, Forester Pass, which is near Mount Whitney and has an elevation of more than 3,962m. The steep inclines of the trail are impassable by foot after a heavy snow.
"I did the same hike in 2004, and I made it all the way back to Mexico," Williamson said in a telephone interview last month when he passed through Truckee, California, to gather supplies for the end of his journey. "Two hours after I made it through Forester Pass, it started to snow, and that was the storm that shut everything down."
Last weekend, he stopped in Kennedy Meadows, east of Bakersfield, California, to rest and visit with his father. Now, he is in the home stretch.
Williamson has walked the length of the trail eight times, gaining a sort of celebrity status in the hiking community. Other hikers seek him out on the trail, and a documentary titled Tell It on the Mountain will chronicle his journey and those of four other hikers walking the trail.
"He's Scott Williamson and it's unbelievable to be on the trail with him," said Shaun Carrigan, a producer and director of the film. "If you walk into a trail town with him, people mob him. I heard one hiker describe it as if they were an NBA fan and had run into Michael Jordan. He's an epic figure on the trail and knows more about it than most people I've met."
Williamson had his first taste of the trail on a backpacking trip in the Sierra Nevada when he was 16. He encountered hikers who were walking a 1,931km section of the trail, and he was hooked.
In 1996, while working at a convenience store in Richmond, California, Williamson was shot in the face during an attempted robbery.
"Being shot, coming that close to death, that made me focus more on what I felt was important in my life," he said. "If the hiking is very important to me, I'm going to pursue that, regardless of what other people may think. It made me more willing to just follow my passion."
Now he is surprised and flattered by all the attention.
"When I first started doing it, it was just something I enjoyed," Williamson said of his trips on the Pacific Crest Trail and other journeys on the Appalachian Trail, the Florida Trail and the Continental Divide Trail. "As time has gone by, I've found it gives people inspiration."