Big Dreams - A Journey Along the PCT

Heather Anderson, whose trail name is "Anish," has inspired many - her journey into hiking changed her perspective of the world and her physical health. From a self-described bookworm, struggling with weight issues to the fastest person to complete the PCT, here is her story.
Suzanne Gerber Suzanne Gerber
Publications Manager
May 09, 2017
By Heather "Anish" Anderson, PCT Thru-Hiker 

June 6, 2013: As the plane swooped over brown hillsides and stucco homes with tile roofs, I realized how very far from Washington State I was. I stared east, where clouds and ridges loomed faint and low on the horizon. I remembered the last time I was here, eight years younger and vastly inexperienced. I had faced the same distance, but this time I knew the extent of the land that sprawled between me and Washington, which had become my home. I already felt the pull of the mountains I knew like friends, and the people I loved. 

All that was left to do was walk

Two days later, I would leave the southern terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) near San Diego and begin my venture north. So began my journey, whose purpose was not just covering miles, but covering them faster than anyone — man or woman — had ever done before. I had hiked the entirety of the trail once already, but there was something deep inside me that had to know: how hard could I push my body and for how long?

I had not always been this way. The first 20 years of my life were spent in sedentary fashion. Perhaps that’s why the past 13 have been so intense, as I moved from one physical challenge to the next, seeking harder and harder endeavors, making up for lost time. Along my PCT journey I wrote these words:

I imagine people may think I am a natural athlete, the girl who played sports all through school. The exact opposite is true. I was an overweight child, a bookworm who sat with her nose in an adventure book and daydreamed. I never exercised and couldn't make it around the track without walking. When I graduated high school, I weighed 200 pounds. 

I daydreamed of adventure, but the thing I daydreamed the most was that I would someday set a record. Not just any record an athletic record. I wanted so desperately to not be what I was. I hated my body and myself. I consoled myself by eating a bowls full of Oreos and milk as though they were cereal. But somewhere deep inside I knew I was capable of doing something more. 

When I was 20 I met something that would forever change my life: a trail. Though my first few hikes were miserable as I forced my body to work, I was enthralled. Trails took me on the adventures I craved and to beautiful, wondrous, wild places. I lost my heart and soul... and eventually 70 pounds... to the trails. 

Now, I am a few short days away from fulfilling my oldest daydream: setting an athletic record. I cry when I think about all the things I have overcome to get here, both on this hike and off. It makes me ever so grateful to that chubby girl who dared to dream big, audacious dreams. I am even more thankful that she grew up to be a woman courageous enough to make those dreams reality.

As a child, I spent countless hours immersed in the journals of Lewis and Clark, the adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the fantastic world of Madeline L’Engle. It was escapism from the mundane, rural flatlands that surrounded me. I dreamed that someday I’d do something exciting too. As I dealt with the depression and the self-hate of being overweight, I would fervently dream of doing something adventurous — and that my body would be capable of going these amazing places. 

I would sneak into the brushy Midwestern woods with my dog. I was drawn to them, but terrified at the same time. It was thrilling to step past the grassy border of the yard and disappear down the deer trails and out of sight. The thought of what could be in the woods had me on edge with adrenaline. I would often sneak a hammer from my dad’s toolbox and carry it for protection, even though the biggest things in those woods were docile whitetails.

Somehow I just knew I was meant to go — to explore. I would be 20 before it came to fruition, but once I stepped onto the Bright Angel Trail and began my first hike — a brutal out and back in the withering summer heat of the Grand Canyon — I knew I had found home. My passion for hiking grew as the years passed and so did my desire to test my capabilities… to find out how far my once sedentary and unhealthy body could actually go. This drive would bring me to a set of white, wooden pillars driven into sun-baked earth just steps north of the Mexico-California border in mid-June of last year.

When I set out from that border, I was terrified. I wasn’t sure I could do what I was there to do. In fact, I was fairly certain I couldn't. All I knew was that I had to try. I had to know and the only way to know was to go — to put one foot in front of the other until I could literally no longer do so. 

Every day for two months, I awoke at 5 am — no matter when I went to sleep. I would rub the grit from my dehydrated eyes and become aware of the aching and the all-encompassing fatigue permeating my body. Then I would say aloud, “The record isn’t going to break itself.” That would be enough to roll me to seated. Methodically I would pack and begin another day. I walked 40-50 miles every day without taking a day off. I walked through daily nosebleeds, 120-degree heat, pulled muscles, and blisters. I faced bears, mountain lions, sleep and calorie deprivation, and dehydration. I walked through splendor so immense that I cried at the beauty. I drew my strength from the very trail that was testing me. There was nothing I could not do when I surveyed the wilderness from the vantage point of my own two feet.

I wrote in my journal along the way:

I have been in awe of my body as it has transitioned from athlete into machine. The way it went from barely being able to do 40 miles to cranking them out before 8pm and continuing onward. Now, with only about 600 miles to go I can feel the machine beginning to break down. I sometimes get dizzy, my legs sporadically are weak, my feet have a host of problems and though the end is so close, it still seems so far away—and that makes it even harder to push through the miles… [but] nothing will stop me from reaching Canada, whether I break the record or not.

I looked back at my first hikes in the Grand Canyon and realized I made every error possible — and yet I thrived. I wanted nothing more than to be on the trail drinking in the wonder of the backcountry. Everything was fascinating. Every moment was a new adventure. I went on to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail just two years later, with nothing more than my Grand Canyon hikes and a miserable five-day trip along Lake Superior under my belt. Suffice it to say, the Appalachian Trail was also a string of mistakes and learning experiences. Yet I was in love. I don’t remember ever having a bad day the entire four months. Even the most challenging moments shone with the joy of being alive. By the time I reached Mt. Katahdin, I was destined to head West. I’d heard of the PCT and though I had never seen the Sierra or the Cascades, I could feel their call on my soul.

Acceptance of paths traveled

Thru-hiking completely re-oriented my views on life and what I wanted. Life has also been a rugged trail — winding, steep, overgrown, and rocky. I’ve fallen plenty, but I have always arisen wiser and stronger. Just as every hike has taught me something about myself or how to live in the backcountry, so too has every twist and turn in my life. But it was on the PCT in 2013 that I finally came to accept myself for who I am.

I often think about the path I have traveled. I started life a flatlander in rural Michigan: a sedentary dreamer who knew nothing of mountains and trails aside from what I’d read. Yet, somehow I found my way to the mountains. Through many miles and days and weeks of explorations I finally found the answer
I was seeking.

In 2013, Heather hiked from Mexico to Canada in just 60 days, 17 hours and 12 minutes completing her goal of thru-hiking the 2,700-mile Pacific Crest Trail, unassisted, faster than anyone before her.

This article originally appeared in our September-October 2014 issue of Mountaineer magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, click here.
Tags: ,

Add a comment

Log in to add comments.
Anita Elder
Anita Elder says:
Tue, May 9, 2017 8:20 AM

Inspiring! I've been doing a lot of daydreaming myself over the past ten years. While I don't think I'll ever hike the PCT at my age, I'm not going to rule it out. For now, I try to push myself further on every hike.

Virginia Luther
Virginia Luther says:
Sun, May 21, 2017 9:45 PM

Thank you so much for the wonderful blog and it really amazing.You are really inspiring me.I also do more large number of dreams myself from my childhood.I really like adventure trips and paragliding etc.But I can't get time to complete my dreams.But after reading your article I got inspirational for full filling my dreams.I am a writer and I wrote so many article about my dream at