Inside the Mind of Heather ‘Anish’ Anderson

What does it take to hike almost 8,000 miles in a single thru-hiking season? Anderson’s new book provides some hints.

“Well, here goes,” she wrote in the trail register at the southern terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail. She second-guessed her vagueness, and her modesty. “To Canada!” she added, in tiny print, before walking north—alone.

Sixty days, 17 hours, and 12 minutes later, on Aug. 7,  2013, Heather “Anish” Anderson would tag the marker at the northern end of the trail, setting the fastest known time, or FKT, for the long trail, and beating the previous record set by Scott Williamson by nearly four days.

When she set off from Campo, California, Anderson had the record in mind, but she didn’t tell many people what she was intending to do—part pathological reticence, part fear. She was fairly certain she could hold a 40-mile-a-day pace through the scorch of the Sonoran Desert and the elevation gain of the Sierras, even though she’d never really done many back-to-back days that long before. It seemed both pie in the sky and attainable, but all she knew for sure was that she wanted to be walking.  

In Thirst, Anderson, 37, chronologizes those days on the trail: the constant fear of running out of water, and the grind of not enough food or sleep and too many miles. But it’s less a book about the logistics of thru-hiking and more a story about grittiness and heart. It’s about how you might try to make sense of your life if the only place you feel at home is on the trail, even if the trail’s painful and doesn’t make much sense either.

You might not have heard much about Anderson unless you follow the thru-hiking world, and the book centers around the FKT she set on the PCT, which is far from the only record she’s set. In November 2018, she became the first woman to complete a calendar-year Triple Crown: She hiked the PCT, Continental Divide Trail, and Appalachian Trail in the span of nine months, logging nearly 8,000 miles in 251 days and becoming the first woman Triple  Crown hiker along the way. She also holds the women’s self-supported FKT on the Appalachian Trail which she completed in 54 days, 7 hours and 48 minutes, and the Arizona Trail, which took 19 days, 17 hours and 9 minutes. In February, National Geographic named her a 2019 Adventurer of the Year, citing her dedication and mental toughness.

A black-and-white photo of Heather "Anish" Anderson hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in Southern California

Anderson hikes the Pacific Crest Trail in Southern California. (Photo Credit: Heather Anderson)

Anderson says she doesn’t hike that fast, she just doesn’t stop much either. She hikes in a skirt so she can pee standing up, she walks late into the night, long past when other hikers (who started to call her “the ghost” on the PCT) have crawled into their sleeping bags. She allows that she’s made some stupid decisions, like hiking into the heart of thunderstorms, in the name of efficiency. It’s economy of motion, but it’s more than that, too. She soon dropped the few folks she met up with during the 2013 PCT trip and her PCT record still stands, because it’s close to impossible, mentally and physically, to keep moving like that for that long.

So how do you become that person? What drives someone to keep pounding miles and chasing a record?

In person, Anderson is self-deprecating and jokey about her time on the trail. “The TL;DR is that I just really like walking,” she says about her accomplishments. She’s wide-eyed and looks younger than she is, but her casual demeanor belies the darkness that instigated the trip and the hard-won lessons that came out of it.

“The TL;DR is that I just really like walking,” she says about her accomplishments. She’s wide-eyed and looks younger than she is, but her casual demeanor belies the darkness that instigated the trip and the hard-won lessons that came out of it.

“Nothing about my life prior makes it seem like I should attempt the record,” she says.

Anderson grew up on a small Michigan farm, where she spent a lot of time outside, though she wasn’t  particularly outdoorsy or adventurous. She says she was overweight and bookish, unable to do a pull-up, traumatized by a fifth-grade gym teacher who told her she wasn’t able to run fast because she was fat. She still carries some of that trauma and has struggled against her body, and the embedded perception, conceived around then, that she was worthless.

But sometimes that feeling of worthlessness drives her, too, and sparks of that rebellion and grit showed in a letter she wrote the following year, to her sixth-grade gym teacher, where she declared a goal of breaking some kind of athletic record. “I am stubborn and I am smart,” the letter read. “I will find a way to be good at something athletic.”

That something started to become clear during the summer after her freshman year of college when she got a job working in the Grand Canyon. Despite never having hiked before, she followed a coworker down to Indian Garden on her first day there, in 120-degree heat, and by the time she made it back to the rim she was beaten down, but also filled with the sense that long, hard walks made her feel connected and confident in a way she never had before. She’d been in a ministry program, but when she got back to school in Indiana in the fall, she told her adviser that she couldn’t follow that path anymore—the wilderness felt more illuminating than god.

Heather 'Anish' Anderson walks on an exposed trail toward jagged peaks and white, fluffy clouds in the distance

Anderson on the Pacific Crest Trail in Washington state. (Photo Credit: Heather Anderson)

Right after she graduated from college, in 2003, Anderson hiked the PCT for the first time, and when she set out north from Springer Mountain, Georgia, she found an internal gear. “Every time I spend a long period of time out there, that’s what makes me feel fulfilled,” she says. The stubbornness and drive necessary to keep walking and the single-minded focus that came with it felt like it was an embedded part of her personality and so she kept walking, completing the Triple Crown for the first time in 2007.

She met a guy, another thru-hiker, along the way, and then, pushed by her baked-in Midwestern upbringing, and the idea of doing the right thing, she started to settle down. She found a job at a software company, moved to Bellingham, Washington, and got married, but the stability and sameness didn’t feel right. She started running ultramarathons to try to get the same feeling of confidence and calm she’d had on the trail, but even pounding out hundred-milers didn’t give her the same sense of purpose. She was depressed, chafing against the rigidity of the life she created. She and her husband divorced, she quit her job, and everything felt unpredictable and bleak. She’d failed. And in the burndown of her former, stable life she decided she needed to hike the PCT again.

Thirst is the story of that record-setting 2013 trip: Her desire to get back on trail, the quiet quest for the record and what it proved, and the day-by-day mental gymnastics it takes to keep hiking when there’s no one holding you accountable besides yourself.

It’s full of daily details, too. She catalogs the dust and the blisters and the burning thirst, the constant calculation of miles to hours to calories to water sources. She digs in to the physical and mental darkness and exhaustion, as well as the joy of a well-timed trail angel, and the beauty of coming over a big pass alone.

She says she has a memory for that kind of thing, each day of the hike is burned into her brain, but the book is more than just a journal. Over the course of 200-plus pages, a bigger picture starts to emerge about the  demons she was fighting, and how giving in to the fear and struggle helped her work through the depression, isolation and lack of a sense of self. “Initially I wrote it for myself, because the PCT holds so many important lessons about perception,” she says.

Heather "Anish" Anderson on Cutthroat Pass on the Pacific Crest Trail in Washington state

Anderson on Cutthroat Pass on the Pacific Crest Trail in Washington state. (Photo Credit: Heather Anderson)

Anderson has been called a lot of things—a ghost, a former couch potato, a super hiker, a role model—and her records have drawn attention to the remarkableness of her stamina and her ability to suffer, but they’ve also boxed her in. She doesn’t necessarily like having other people’s eyes on her, and she says Thirst gives her a chance to tell her own story.

The book peels back the layers of accomplishment to uncover the hard, real parts, and to show the emotional ups and downs that come over the course of the 2,650 miles, especially when you have a record in mind, and you’re running from the disappointment of your former life.

She fought crippling heat in the first section, and then had to power through the steepest parts of the Sierra with her heaviest pack of the trip. She says she felt invincible in Northern California, but she crashed again in Oregon, lonely, frustrated, and sure her body was breaking down on her.

During the hike, the book gets into the greater significance of the record, why she decided she could do it, and why she decided to stay quiet about it while she was heading north—all the while fighting self-doubt and trying to let her confidence and her capability grow. By the time she hit Washington she felt like a machine, but she was ready for human contact, even an encounter with her ex-husband on the trail dredged up bittersweet loneliness. But by then she had learned the biggest lesson of the trail: to accept what comes at you, and work through it, and to try to do the things that make you feel the most like yourself, even if they’re not standard.

Anderson says hiking can be what you need it to be, in any venue: It can be a push and a comfort and a confirmation of your ability to do hard things. It teaches you self-reliance and to trust yourself, even if you’re chasing a big lofty goal.

Not everyone is going to hike 40 or more miles a day for months, and not everyone feels the same sense of solace and purpose that she does when they’re hiking.

Off the trail, on book tour, she says she’s not thinking about the next hike or accomplishment, for the first time in a long time. She’s trying to let those lessons seep in, to be relaxed and let things come to her as they may, but to keep chasing what feels right, too. “Everything about my life is structured around the need to be outside,” she says. “I don’t spend a lot of money, I live really minimally, and I try to be more like I am on trail. That, for me, is the key to being happy. It’s easier to be on trail.”

Not everyone is going to hike 40 or more miles a day for months, and not everyone feels the same sense of solace and purpose that she does when they’re hiking, but she says she hopes the takeaways apply to more than just thru-hikes.

Anderson wasn’t sure when she set out from Campo, California, that she could break the record, but she listened to the voice inside her that said she had a chance, that she knew she was capable and tough, even if she might not look like it from the outside.

That was the greatest lesson of the trip—it’s come through in all her hikes—and she hopes it’s the biggest takeaway of the book, too: to trust yourself, that you’re stronger than you think, and that only you know what’s right for you. “The main goal with the book is to show people that you can find within yourself the strength and the courage to do anything whether it seems rational or not,” she says.

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