Non-fiction review: Thirst, by Heather "Anish" Anderson

I seem to have missed my Monday post. It appears that schedules are becoming less and less something I understand! This post will have to do for Monday and Wednesday. Let's hope I manage the weekend photos before the weekend is over!



Title: Thirst: 2600 Miles to Home

Author: Heather "Anish" Anderson

Publisher:  Tantor Audio, 2019. 6 hours. Originally published Mountaineers Books, 2019.

Source: Library


Publisher's Blurb:
By age 25, Heather Anderson had hiked what is known as the "Triple Crown" of backpacking: the Appalachian Trail (AT), Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), and Continental Divide Trail (CDT)—a combined distance of 7,900 miles with a vertical gain of more than one million feet. A few years later, she left her job, her marriage, and a dissatisfied life and walked back into those mountains.

In her new memoir, Thirst: 2600 Miles to Home, Heather, whose trail name is "Anish," conveys not only her athleticism and wilderness adventures, but also shares her distinct message of courage--her willingness to turn away from the predictability of a more traditional life in an effort to seek out what most fulfills her. Amid the rigors of the trail--pain, fear, loneliness, and dangers--she discovers the greater rewards of community and of self, conquering her doubts and building confidence. Ultimately, she realizes that records are merely a catalyst, giving her purpose, focus, and a goal to strive toward. 


My Review:
A couple of points right up. First, I think that the publisher's blurb is lousy. Second, the "Anish" part of Anderson's name is her trail name. Trail names are largely a phenomenon of the long-distance trails, and predate screen names and avatars, because they predate the internet. I think that this adoption of a separate identity for the trail is not a coincidence, as long-distance hikers basically leave their off-trail selves behind and are someone else out there.

Now, my review. 

One reason I dislike the blurb is that it doesn't actually make it clear that Anish not only felt she had to get back to the trail, but she wanted to set a record--a Fastest Known Time, or FKT, for an unsupported hiker. That's important, because it drives a lot of what she is doing, feeling, and thinking. Let me explain.

Pretty much every time Anish put herself in danger, it was because she needed to make the miles. This is a risk for every PCT through-hiker, of course: reaching Canada before snow flies means no time to waste. But when your target is 40-50 miles a day, it becomes even harder to do things for safety--things like loading up on water early because you can't be sure there will be more (got to keep that pack light). As a result, she runs out of water and becomes dangerously dehydrated more than once. She also recounts a very ill-advised stream crossing a normal hiker would be smart to avoid--the sort that kills hikers every year. And she doesn't take time off to heal when body parts break down. 

All of that is what it takes to be an endurance athlete, of course, and I respect her and admire the hell out of her for what she can do. But it means her hike was different than most, from the risks to loneliness. You can't build a "tramily"--a trail family--when you are hiking as much as 20 miles a day farther than most of the hikers. The communal aspect of this solo activity is lost.

Nor does that pace allow for a lot of introspection. She manages a fair bit--that impressed me, as I know how walking can move from encouraging thought to turning the brain off entirely. Some of her thinking may have come after the trip. And she does enjoy the scenery--something I've always wondered about with fast hikers, though I should know better (I used to be a trail runner, and I certainly enjoyed the country I ran through). What she doesn't do is rest. Or just sit and watch the light change. I was struck that every time she does what a normal hiker does, she had to castigate herself for getting behind her schedule.

In the end, I think Anish realizes that indeed, her record attempt is mostly an excuse to do what she wants to do. I also think that her personality and maybe her physiology mean that fast-hiking is always going to be her thing (well, maybe until she gets to my age?). But the most important thing she finds out is that she needs to be out there. And that's something I can totally relate to.


My Recommendation:
This is dangerous stuff if, like me, you have a part of your brain that itches to hit the trail and not come back. I have no yen for a speed record (good thing), but I have a lot of appreciation for the was they brain works on the trail, and I enjoy seeing how it works on long trails. I'll recommend the book--if you think it's safe :) 

Extra note: At the end of the book, Anish is trying to figure out how to turn hiking into a career. I think she's managed it, with the book, speaking engagements, and the like. Now well into her 30s, she's still finding new challenges and setting records.


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