Tales from the trail

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

In Heather “Anish” Anderson’s 2019 memoir, Thirst: 2,600 Miles to Home, the title refers not only to her desire to slake her longing for adventure by traversing the trails of North America, but also to the bodily reaction caused by severe dehydration—a condition that brought the author and adventurer nearly to the brink of death only eight days into a record-breaking thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail.

When Anish (Anderson’s trail name) set out from the border of Mexico in June of 2013 with a mission to make it through California, Oregon, and Washington to the trail’s terminus at the border of Canada faster than anyone ever had before, she was a seasoned hiker and ultra-marathoner in her early 30s who thought she had what it took to succeed. What she wasn’t prepared for was the way her body and mind would react to being pushed to their limits in an effort to achieve the FKT (fastest known time) on the PCT.

During a rainy-day reading of Thirst last weekend in advance of Whatcom County Library System’s second annual “Read & Share” events taking place virtually from Oct. 1-10, the harrowing yet hopeful tales from the trail transported me from a soggy Saturday in Bellingham—where Anderson lived with her then-husband in the years preceding the journey undertaken in the book—to the punishing heat of California’s Mission Creek.

It was there Anderson realized she’d vastly underestimated the amount of water she’d need to carry and consume while hiking as many as 50 miles every day, often in daytime temperatures that soared into the triple digits, and that the “reliable” hydration sources she’d counted on while planning her 2,600-mile odyssey weren’t sure things during a drought.

“Tears rolled down my face,” she wrote of the dangerous crossroads where she’d found herself after realizing the creek she’d been depending on to refill her water supply had run dry. “The moment of quitting I’d imagined on my first day hadn’t been like this. It hadn’t involved me sitting in the desert sun, dehydrated and dizzy, three miles down trail from the nearest water. I’d imagined simply being too tired or incapable of continuing. I had imagined being in control of my own destiny, even in the end.”

While Anish could’ve simply pressed the button on her tracking beacon and been rescued from the perilous predicament, she reasoned that if her body had enough fluid to produce tears, then she could find the energy to soldier forth. She did, but this wasn’t the last time she’d be forced to make decisions that would have her questioning if she was on the right track.

For perspective, Anderson weaves tales from her past to share how she transformed from an overweight, inactive and introverted youth more apt to read books than join track into an elite athlete—a description she still has a hard time accepting, even after being named the 2019 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year.

By the time she makes it to the shadow of Mt. Baker after 60 days, 17 hours and 12 minutes—breaking the previous FKT by four days—readers also discover more about why Anderson has always had a difficult time conforming to the rules of society, and the reasons she continues to push herself through physical and mental barriers that would crush the average human.

You’ll also find out that her first “drunken waltz through the desert heat” wasn’t in 2013, but was in 2001, when as a neophyte hiker she undertook a solo crossing of the Grand Canyon wearing flimsy Walmart Velcro sandals that fell apart not long into the 14-mile trip, causing Anderson to wrap her feet with an ankle brace and duct tape in order to make it to the trail’s end.

The passage predicts Anderson’s future as a person willing to take risks in order to find her own pathway—even if it’s one many people have trod before—and quench her various thirsts.

“I felt a burst of energy as the top of the climb came into view,” she writes of the earlier excursion. “When I reached the trailhead fountain, I dropped down beside it and let water flow into my mouth and over my face. Then I let it wash the blood and dirt from my feet. With a smile on my face, I hobbled toward the parking lot. I threw the tattered brace into a trash can at 2:45pm. Not only had I crossed the Grand Canyon, I had done so barefoot. And faster than I thought I could.”



DREAM BIG: To kick off the Read & Share program focusing on Thirst, Heather “Anish” Anderson will lead a “Dream Big. Be Courageous” presentation at 4pm Thurs., Oct. 1. Expect an hour of inspiration through the lens of thru-hiking, and find out how and why Anderson has continued to pursue her dreams despite setbacks, failures and societal pressures. Registration is required for the free Zoom event.

THRU-HIKING 101: Tune in from 10am-11am Sat., Oct. 3 to hear Anderson talk about the realities of thru-hiking and gain tips to help you prepare at a “Thru-Hiking 101” primer. There will be ample time for a Q&A, so think about what you’d like to ask her before Zooming.

BACKPACKING FOR WOMEN: Even though women are well-suited to backpacking, many have concerns about hygiene, safety and physical challenges. At a “Backpacking for Women” presentation at 4pm Tues., Oct. 6, find out answers to common issues you might encounter, then get to planning your next adventure.

BOOK TALK: At 7pm Thurs., Oct. 8, register to hear stories and readings from Thirst: 2,600 Miles to Home that tell the backstory of Anderson’s first Fastest Known Time and life lessons she’s learned along the way.

ADVENTURE STORIES: At the Read & Share series finale at 10am Sat., Oct. 10, “Adventure Stories” will see Anderson weaving stories and experiences from the trail into a compelling storyline sure to both inspire and entertain. Like the rest of the virtual events, participation is free and registration is required.

For more details about WCLS’s Read & Share program, go to http://www.wcls.org/readandshare/

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