If you know anything at all about Heather “Anish” Anderson, you likely know how her two books about hiking end. Thirst (2019) finishes at the Canadian border, where she successfully completed the fastest-known self-supported time of the Pacific Crest Trail in 2013. Her new Mud Rocks Blazes, published in March, culminates on Georgia’s Springer Mountain, where she obliterated the previous record for a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. They end, in essence, with success.
What’s most compelling about Anderson’s on-trail tales, though, actually happens long before she reaches the end, through exacting details about the temperature of the California desert or her threshold for pain. She often writes as if she were narrating each trail in real time, telling you about her emotional and physical peaks and valleys through a live feed. The best moments have the clarity of an immersive reality television production, where you smell what she smells or hurt where she hurts.
But remembering much of anything during an extended adventure can be a challenge, as draining days blur together in a mental morass of exhaustion and endurance. I often notice that friends who hike long trails in sections remember more about each part than I do after a thru-hike. Their bite-sized portions allow them to decompress and internalize what they’ve seen, rather than pushing ever ahead into the unknown. So how does Anderson do it?
“If you ask my husband, Adam, he would tell you I have an annoyingly good memory,” Anderson says, laughing. There’s more to it than that, of course. So before I began my own much slower hike of the PCT, I called Anderson to ask for her best advice about how to journal—and what journaling even means.
People Are Essential to Your Journals
During Anderson’s first thru-hike, a northbound trek of the AT in 2003, she wrote almost everything down in the same bulky diary housed in a plastic-bound notebook she’d used since she was a teenager. (Yes, weight weenies, she mailed all her finished pages home halfway through to save ounces.) In her daily recaps, she chronicled nearly everything, from animal encounters to all the people she’d met.
But during a subsequent PCT hike, her hometown newspaper planned to publish some of her journals, so she kept that inquisitive audience in mind, avoiding minutiae that wouldn’t matter. How many people named Blazer or Bumblebee did her mom’s friends really need to know about? In the nearly two decades since that hike, though, she’s noticed that she remembers many more people from the AT than the PCT, because she processed their identities through writing.
“I wish I had written more about those people, because it’s such a big part of a journey that’s fun to reminisce about. They were part of the natural environment I was living in,” Anderson says. “I see people now who say, ‘Oh yeah, I met you on the PCT in 2005.’ OK, I don’t [remember]. But I remember those people I met just in passing in 2003.”
Use Your Phone
Yes, Anderson lugged around notebooks on several thru-hikes and shorter adventures, writing in them at lunch or at day’s end. And there is something endlessly romantic about perching on a stump in the daytime or around a campfire at dusk to jot down your perseverance-birthed profundity. But actual hiking is rarely as blissful as a hypothetical scenario: it rains. You get tired. You have nothing to say. “If you’re forcing yourself to recount every detail of the day, it’s just another chore,” says Anderson. “It’s just something else on the checklist before you go to bed.”
But you’re likely already hiking with your cellphone, the Swiss Army knife of modern journaling. During her record-breaking second hike of the PCT, Anderson wrote in her phone two-dozen times, though she was so wiped during her record-setting AT hike that the number dropped to three. But when she had a thought, she would often record herself speaking, so she could decode her exhausted gibberish back home. She often snapped photos to remind herself of moments she feared she would forget, too, especially the hardest times. “When things are truly terrible,” she says, “I take a photo because I want to remember I survived this.”
It’s Totally OK to Bail on Your Plan
When Anderson began her southbound sprint from Mount Katahdin in 2015, she intended to track her milage—and how she was charting against her best-plotted plans—in a spreadsheet. But as the steep, slick inclines of Maine and New Hampshire stymied her progress, she found that this quantitative journal was grinding her down. The point of the hike, after all, was to discover what she could do, not remind her of what she wasn’t doing. “I dutifully added the day’s mileage to my spreadsheet every night, aware that I was falling further and further behind my projected pace,” she writes in Mud Rocks Blazes. “It all amounted to a great heap of failure.”
So she stopped, and the trail slowly began to open up before her, allowing her to wallop the previous AT record. “Letting that go was everything, really, because it was a hindrance,” she says. “My whole mantra became ‘Just do your best’ when it had been ‘Just meet your goal.’ I committed myself to doing the absolute best I could do every day, so it wasn’t worth comparing myself to a spreadsheet.”
When she set the record for the fastest finish of the 7,900-mile Triple Crown in about eight months, she even took a tiny keyboard to make journaling by phone more efficient. The seven-ounce keyboard felt like a daily burden, and it lasted only a few weeks. “When I gave myself permission to not do it,” she says, “I suddenly felt more creative.”
When Your Adventure Ends, Dump Your Brain
Anderson’s FKT attempts on both the PCT and the AT stemmed, in part, from self-doubt. She’d never done anything quite so arduous when she left Southern California with the record on her mind; when she finished, she wondered if it had been a fluke, which spurred her back to the first long trail she’d finished. Obviously, there was a lot to unpack. “I started writing right away after the PCT, day one, completely for processing reasons,” she says. “It was this humongous thing that had happened in my life, the biggest thing that had ever happened to me. The only way I knew to process was to journal.”
And as she started, it was all there, every minute of every day, lurking in the recesses of her memory. Thirst, her debut, didn’t emerge for six more years, but those post-hike chronicles provided the details that make it such a compelling read. You can practically feel the heat of the desert or smell the forest of the Sierra Nevada, sensory clues that might have dulled had Anderson sat with the experience too long.
Remember, Everything Can Be a Journal
You know those maps or apps you use to help keep you on course? Even if you write nothing on them, they are archives of your memories, too. When Anderson sat down to prepare Mud Rocks Blazes, she diligently scrolled across the spine of the AT in the Guthook app, waiting for the names of towns or gaps or peaks to trigger some sequence of events.
It worked, as does simply talking about the trail to anyone willing to listen to you discuss the nitty-gritty of, say, blood in your urine (which Anderson struggled with early on the AT) or the feeling of intense desert dehydration (vividly captured in the aptly named Thirst). The videos, the pictures, the on-trail conversations, the scars that remain on your body, even hiking itself: for Anderson, it’s all a form of chronicling your life.
“When you’re younger, everything is black-and-white; journaling was putting a pen to paper and writing everything down, being very literal,” says Anderson. “But giving a presentation and talking to friends, those are forms of journaling, too. Even hiking along and ruminating about what happened yesterday or what’s going on at that very moment is journaling. You’re writing it down in your brain.”