TLDR: The Patron Saint of Dirtbags wrote a book, and it's so frikkin' good!
First things first: i'm going to be upfront with you. There's no way that this is an unbiased review. The author is a friend who has appeared in our podcast, and was one of the central players in our own book, The Dirtbag's Guide to Life. I helped with beta reading and a little amateur editing on a small section of the project, and the publishers sent me a free copy with a subtle request to help promote it. I don't have any financial stake in the book, but in most other ways I have every reason to have warm feelings towards it and want it to succeed.
Having said all of that, I'm not just saying this: Ahh! I just finished this book, and I loved it so much! I'm writing this review because I want you to know about it, and I think you'll love it too.
A little backstory
If you haven't heard of Thirst, or the author - Heather "Anish" Anderson - it's a personal memoir of her successful attempt to set the Fastest Known Time on the Pacific Crest Trail in 2013, completing the 2650 miles in 60 hours, 17 days, and 12 minutes. It was a massive achievement that breaks out to hiking an average of 44 miles per days for 60 days straight. She did it in classic thru-hiker style, meaning no one met her along the way to provide support, she dealt with her own logistics and resupply, and she didn't accept any aid that wasn't accessible to every other hiker out there. She beat the previous record by 4 days, and in a time when elite athletes are attempting and knocking down long trail FKTs every year, her self-supported record still stands. She holds multiple other thru-hiking speed records, and for a time held the self-supported FKT on both the Appalachian and Pacific Crest trails. Among thru-hikers, she's spoken of reverently as potentially the greatest endurance athlete on the planet, male or female.
Thru-hiking literature is a genre unto itself - walking across a country is something you can't easily explain in a sentence or two, so it makes sense that a lot of people end up writing books about it. And because of who she is, Anish's book was destined to be a classic in that genre, regardless of content. But I really think it stands out as more than just a hiking story written by someone who's done impressive things. It's a genuinely excellent piece of writing that stands on its own as a unique contribution to the outdoor canon.
Anish the underdog.
Angel and I initially encountered Anish as a public figure in 2013 - first when she was co-directing the Chuckanut 50k in Bellingham, WA, and later when she was giving a presentation to a small group of people in Seattle's Seven Hills running store following her successful PCT FKT attempt. She makes it into our Dirtbag's Guide to Life in part because of that presentation, when she suggested that the best way to carve out time for a thru-hike is to just quit your job. For us, that message came at exactly the right time, and after thinking about it for a year, that's what we did when we hiked the PCT in 2015, and we've never really looked back.
The first time we hung out in person was after our PCT hike, when we were living in the Las Vegas area for a few months, and she crashed on our floor on the way through town on a peak bagging trip in the Southwest. While we were honestly honored to play host for her, she was incredibly courteous, and unpretentious to a fault. Since then, we've occasionally hung out socially, and I've always gotten the impression that other people are much more impressed by her than she is with herself.
The book is strong, in part, because that unpretentious character comes through clearly, and you can't help but feel excited about the quest she's describing. While she's since gained some level of notoriety in the outdoor world, her PCT hike was a real underdog story. She had grown up as a non-athlete, and a self-described bookworm, and even when she became a serious hiker and trail runner as an adult, she hadn't accomplished anything that would lead one to view her as a world-class athlete. Additionally, she was tackling the PCT attempt after several years away from serious thru-hiking, during a period when her life was essentially falling apart - she'd just gone through a divorce, and left a house and career when she decided to tackle the trail. To say that people doubted her ability is a little bit misleading because very few people even knew who she was, or what she was attempting, until midway through the hike, when people along the trail began mentioning her online as "the Ghost", and began to recognize that she was keeping a record pace on her progress north. Reading her account of the experience in hindsight, it comes off not as the crowning achievement of a notable athletic career, but as the superhero origin story of a remarkable adventurer. (Even if her superhero status is still only recognized in small circles of hikers and outdoor athletes...)
There's something particularly timely about this aspect of the story - an unpretentious woman, setting out without fanfare and accomplishing something that most people would have said was impossible - crushing a longstanding athletic record set by Scott Williamson, a man, and a thru-hiking legend who'd spent years chiseling away at the FKT. While others have now hiked the PCT faster with the aid of support crew, Anish's pure thru-hiker style speed record has still never been matched. She's since set records on the Appalachian Trail and Arizona Trail, and this year she became the first woman (and just 6th human) to hike the Triple Crown in a year - all 8000+ miles of the PCT, Appalachian Trail, and Continental Divide Trail. Approaching 6 years since she set the PCT record, it's hard to deny that the most world's most remarkable pure thru-hiker during that period has been a woman. That fact resonates beyond just the hiking community, and makes her stand out as one of the most important athletic figures of the 2000s - whether or not she's been widely recognized as such.
Anish the quintessential dirtbag.
Anish also made it into our Dirtbag's Guide to Life as the key example of a prototypical dirtbag,and the reasons come through clearly in the book. A dirtbag, at least in my definition, is someone who sacrifices normality in other aspects of life in order to prioritize the outdoors and adventure, and they're the most dedicated practitioners of outdoor culture.
Heather beautifully communicates the pull of wilderness throughout the work, in physical descriptions of the trail that are as evocative and appealing as any other book on the PCT that I'm aware of. Despite the fact that the book chronicles an experience that sounds absolutely physically unbearable, I came away energized to hike the trail again because she captures the trail's essence, and the book brought back lovely memories of the people, places and experiences that define a thru-hike.
But Anish also powerfully communicates the struggle involved for the true dirtbag who centers their existence on time in the wilderness. One of the book's core themes is her wrestling with the sacrifices she has to make in order to do what she's doing. Some of that relates to concrete, physical suffering - anecdotes about digging dead skin out of blister-holes with a pocketknife, and using sticks to separate her pack from open wounds on her back illustrate the fact that she spent two months pushing constantly against levels of pain that are genuinely mind-boggling. But the book also chronicles a series of sacrifices in her personal life, made in order to devote her life to the trail. She includes a particularly funny (and cringe-inducing) story about explaining her plans to her university adviser to forgo a career in order to become a vagabond, And that experience foreshadows a series of similar experiences, explaining herself to her family, leaving a marriage, jobs, and stability, in order to devote her life to the trail.
While some element of competitiveness comes through in Heather's push to set a speed record, the dominant message I took away from the book was about the inescapable emotional pull of the wilderness. She presents her PCT record hike as an athletic achievement, sure, but more personally important as a pilgrimage where she made peace with devoting her life to the wilderness, and the sacrifices that would require in other areas of her life.
And I don't think it's a spoiler to say that she concludes the book with a summary of her emotional experience on trail, as an experience where she finally came to terms with who she was.
My despair was interlaced with wild grandeur and strength - rebirth carved along a mountain path. My life was now woven from the experience, a cloth created from beauty as well as struggle.
I loved this book, and I would entirely recommend it. It's an incredible adventure story that stands on its own, but it's also a lovely memoir of an emotional experience of wilderness that gets right to the heart of the appeal of thru-hiking and a life outdoors more generally.
If you want to buy it, Heather is selling autographed copies here.
And the Mountaineers are selling non-autographed copies here.
Our own book, The Dirtbag's Guide to Life, in which Anish figures largely, is also now live and on sale at this link.
Tim and Angel
The goat in the picture lives in Silverton, CO, and tried to kill us. We survived to bring you this dirtbag wisdom for the ages.