My wife thinks I should read more fiction, and she’s right. But I don’t read enough as is, so I’ll stick with what interests me—nonfiction adventure narratives. Recently I burned through two new books, Thirst by Heather “Anish” Anderson ($25; Mountaineers Press), and Sun is a Compass by Caroline van Hemert ($27; Little, Brown), both of which I’d recommend to people who hike or backpack or anyone looking to get motivated for big summer adventures.
Review: ‘Thirst’ by Heather “Anish” Anderson
Anish was most recently in the news for being the sixth person and first woman to complete the Calendar Triple Crown, which involves thru-hiking the Appalachian, Pacific Crest, and Continental Divide National Scenic Trails within a calendar year. The 7,900-mile odyssey took her 252 days.
But Thirst is about her record-breaking thru-hike of the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail in 2013. On this 61-day effort she averaged an astounding 43 miles per day, and did so without the help of a support crew—like most other thru-hikers, she resupplied and picked up self-addressed packages along the way.
For critics of speed-hiking, Thirst will become Exhibit A in their argument that you should slow down to smell the roses. Anish is often sleep-deprived, hungry, and overwhelmed (and as a function of those things, emotionally raw). She’s obsessed with the details of her locomotion: hours moving, pack weight, remaining calories, water supply, foot health, headlamp brightness. And the glorified diary remains centered on her trip and her goal; it deviates from the main story only occasionally, to provide insight about the who and why, and to give cursory attention to the landscapes that blur by.
Thirst will not be mentioned in the same sentence as Muir or Strayed, but I think it accurately and honestly depicts a record-setting experience. Fastest known times (especially the multi-month variety) are inward journeys, and their prevailing themes—like setting goals, believing in oneself, overcoming odds, and pushing through adversity—share more in common with the bios of Olympians and survivors.
Thirst reads quickly and is well written, although its diary structure limits introspection and forces dedication of pages to uneventful and non-pivotal days. It’s personal, with open discussions of Anish’s failed marriage, unfulfilling attempt at conventional life, and her struggles as an overweight child. Finally, it’s a unique book—Anish’s experiences put her in rare company.
Review: ‘The Sun is a Compass’ by Caroline Van Hemert
If Thirst sounds too inside baseball, The Sun is a Compass will probably appeal to you more. In 2012 Caroline Van Hemert and her husband Pat rowed, skied, canoed, hiked, and rafted about 4,000 miles from Bellingham, Washington, to Kotzebue, a small Arctic city in northwest Alaska.
The journey was legitimately epic, as trips tend to be in that part of the world—big storms and surf along the Inside Passage, two-week hauls between resupplies in the Yukon, sightings of thousands of caribou in the Brooks Range, more than 50 bear encounters, and four days stuck in a tent rationing one granola bar and a tablespoon of olive oil per day (shared between them).
The Sun is a Compass is personal and frequently harrowing. It’s not a day-by-day diary. Instead, it’s almost as if Caroline answered FAQ for 150 pages—“Why did you do this? How did you and Pat meet? What did your family think of your plans? What was the scariest part? How many bears did you encounter? What was the largest caribou herd that you saw? What it like to not eat for four days? Did you ever think of quitting, or think you might be unable to finish?" Then, she added plot for another 100 pages so that the story is coherent and chronological, not disjointed.
But The Sun is a Compass is more than just an adventurous tale. Van Hemert softens the story with widely relatable themes, stories, and issues, like the migration of birds and caribou, her professional conflict as a new Ph.D. in ornithology, the development of Section 1002 on the North Slope, and of course the love and partnership with Pat. The couple now split their time between Haines and Anchorage, Alaska, and are raising two young boys. It’s another example of a mega Alaskan expedition that was the end of an era, not the beginning. Those adventures are hard to top.