Every summer, hundreds of nature lovers hike the Pacific Crest Trail, a very long stroll from the Mexican to Canadian border. Starting June 8th, Bellingham's Heather "Anish" Anderson was one of them.
"It's 2,660 miles long," Heather told me over tea. "It goes through a bunch of different national parks and national forests. It's very, very beautiful. It has a lot of challenges because it's very diverse. It starts in the desert, then you go through the High Sierras, so you're going up 10-13,000 feet. And then you go through Oregon, around all the big volcanoes there. Then you come through Washington and you basically go through the Cascades which is my favorite part of the whole trail."
Heather, an ultra marathon runner who has run 50 and 100 mile races, spent four and a half months trekking the PCT in 2005, but this year she introduced a big personal challenge: to beat the current unsupported speed record of 64 days. Sixty days later, she did it.
"It took me 60 days, 17 hours and 12 minutes."
To walk from Mexico to Canada in 60 days takes some serious perseverance. Heather hiked an average of 45 miles a day, eating and drinking as she walked.
"It usually took me somewhere between 15 and 18 hours a day. So I would start hiking around 5:30 in the morning and hike until at least ten, sometimes midnight or one in the morning. The longest night of sleep I got was seven hours and I think that happened once. The shortest night of sleep I got was three hours."
She did all that with a pack on her back.
"My pack ranged in weight probably from about 15 pounds to 30 pounds, depending on how much food and water I was carrying."
The PCT has recently been made famous by the bestselling book, Wild, an amazing memoir about a woman's very unprepared trek along part of the trail. Perhaps it was that book that caused the trail to attract more hikers. Heather says about 400 people took on the challenge in 2005 and this year about 1,200 attempted the hike.
Beyond the physical challenge, that included never-ending blisters for Heather.
"The feet suffered, I'd say more than any other part of my body."
The biggest challenge is mental. Heather hiked alone without any music, books on tape, or podcasts.
"A lot of people quit because they don't know what to think about. Especially in our culture, we're bombarded with outside stimulus all the time. We're always entertained. When you're out there you have to be able to just be entertained by yourself. Some people really can't handle not having anything coming at them."
There are others to talk to on the trail, if you're a hiker who isn't racing to break a record. And then there are the Trail Angels, Pacific Crest Trail enthusiasts, who live near the trail, who pass out treats like fresh fruit and soda and even offer up their homes for showers, laundry, and sleeping.
"I did have one Trail Angel that showed up at a trailhead for me, in the morning, and she brought French toast and orange juice. That was probably the best food I had along the way. It was awesome!"
Otherwise Heather mostly survived on bars, running gels, dried fruit, and tuna. She says she lost 20 pounds. Before she left for the trip, Heather packed up boxes of food and supplies that would be mailed to small town post offices along the route. Five of these boxes contained new hiking shoes.
"The cushioning and stuff would really compact after you've put 400 or 500 miles on them. I could always tell the day the shoe bit the dust. All of a sudden my feet would start aching. They were fine one minute and the next minute my feet hurt. I was like, 'Ok, shoes just died.'"
Heather says she was overweight when she graduated high school, and not particularly happy with herself. Then she discovered hiking. She says on this hike, she started out trying to beat the record, but eventually just felt happy with the confidence and strength she gained along the way.
"When I started this hike, it was not something that I thought I could actually do. This was, like, this big crazy dream of mine. I was like, I'm just going to give it my best and we'll see what happens. I just hope that people can take from that that, you know what, whatever your big crazy dream is, whatever it is, just don't be afraid to just give it everything you have. You might fail, but you're going to learn stuff in the process anyway. That's where the growth happens and that's what's important."