In September, Heather “Anish” Anderson set the speed record for an unsupported thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. She bested the previous women’s record by 26 days, and topped the men’s record by 4 days. No sense gendering it anymore: it’s just the Record, and for now, she’s got it: 54 days and change. The Ghost, as she’s called due to her habit of gliding swiftly down the trail at night, also holds the speed record for an unsupported thru-hike of the PCT. At her pace, she would’ve completed the John Muir Trail section of the PCT in four or five days.
This sounds– and is– grueling, but she seems very happy as described in an article at Appalachian Trials. (By the way: unsupported means she didn’t have sag wagons meeting her with pillows and fresh undies at every road crossing, toting her tent and food for her. She even had to walk to town to resupply– no hitching.)
By the end of week #2 of 3, I have completed half the miles of the JMT. An enjoyable urgency is building: one week left to do the other half. The urgency is composed of four elements. The magnetism of the goalpost: Mount Whitney’s hulk exerts an almost gravitational pull. The trail rumor that the smoke peters out near the end. The badass feeling of what you might call my Anish legs: a few weeks’ experience, acclimated to the climate, elevation, routine, and my body feels good, as if it could walk forever. Obviously impossible, but the sensation is an elated hiker’s high. I get why Anish is smiling in those photos.
And finally: it’s cold overnight. I wear everything to bed and it’s still cold. Shorts and a t-shirt are still my day uniform, but in a mountain range where summer means only July and August, fall or even winter could drop in anytime. Moreover, the trail gains overall elevation, and thereby loses temperature, the farther I go: the passes are reaching 11,000 feet above sea level. Soon they’ll be at 12, then 13.
So I decide to do four “twenties” (twenty-mile days) in a row, to put me slightly ahead of schedule– and just to see how it feels. This will give me a little wiggle room in case of bad weather. I wake before my 6 am alarm, chilly but ready to go by 7, and hike eleven hours a day, flipping through map after map with satisfaction. For love of miles, I even skip a one-mile detour to Blayney Hot Springs, a major coup in priorities.
This doesn’t mean I don’t socialize. I am unwilling to give that up; it’s part of the experiment. I stop half an hour short one afternoon to camp along a sunny stream with amiably gruff Rich and Kent, engineers as well as hiking buddies. Rich is sitting pretty, having designed himself a camp chair out of the removable stays of his backpack and a bit of spare fabric. His life advice, dispensed while I dine on Knorr’s teriyaki noodles and powdered lemonade: “Be safe… but not too safe!”
During the day, I leapfrog four French men (no pun intended). They sing and laugh and holler down the trail as we take turns passing one another. One of them, Noé, I met the very first morning at the permit office in Yosemite. He was sitting on his bear canister outside the locked door, in line hoping for a walk-in permit. He got it.
This is a perk of my two weeks of extra forays, backtracking, and double-hiked miles: running into people again and again, often surprising them from an unexpected direction. Les hommes français, Jennifer and Oliver from Mississippi, Rebecca from Missouri, three tattooed guys who also like to wander the side trails: the more we meet, the happier we are to see one another.
There’s a popular saying on long trails: Hike Your Own Hike. It means that there’s no one right way to thru-hike, so don’t judge, nor should you be judged. Carry what you want, wear what suits you, choose your own route, fast or slow, heavy or light, part or all. Speed records notwithstanding, hiking is a non-competitive sport. (Hike Your Own Hike is not, however, permission to disrespect people or the earth, a point well made in another Appalachian Trials article. At essence, it is the old Wiccan Rede: “An it harm none, do what ye will.”)
My additional mantra is “Nothing to Prove.” As a person rich in both insecurity and confidence, it reminds me not to demand of myself certain feats, the appearance of strength, or admiration from others. When I am nervous, or when I am cocky: Nothing to Prove. If I feel nervous and foolish, do something kind and take the next step– or stop and rest. If I stride badass over two passes in a day, do it for joy, not to impress another traveler, especially not if he or she might feel worse as a result of that monster, comparison. Every one of us has a unique combination of burden and privilege: emotion, experience, body, gear, budget, obligation, luck, chance. This is not a succeed/fail endeavor. There is no binary. There is only putting oneself into this particular space and time and seeing what happens.
A friend of mine from Montana spent two months last year hiking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. Her legs gave her great trouble along the way. Injured and frustrated, stuck at a convent hoping for recovery, she was changed when one of the Sisters said, “Although you walk, you are not walkers. You are pilgrims.” The journey is interior, not to be measured in numbers.
Muir Pass is iconic for JMT hikers. Mile 129.1, but we’re not measuring in numbers, right? So let’s just say that spotting the speck of Muir Pass Hut on the horizon, far above, is a psychological milestone. Everyone’s seen it in pictures beforehand. To step at last within its stone walls is stepping into history.
The early morning ascent is beautiful and clear, but quickly hazes over as the heat of the day arrives. The lakes and peaks en route are named for John Muir’s daughters, Wanda and Helen, and for titans of evolutionary science, apparently by an enthusiastic fan of both Darwin and the old Scottish-American naturalist. (Creationists might smugly reply that Hell for Sure Pass is not far off.)
The hut, built by the Sierra Club in 1930 for emergency storm shelter, has a bricked-in fireplace and a pair of antlers resting on the hearth. Its little cave smells old. I love it.
The triumph of reaching this pass lends a certain extra Nothing to Prove freedom. I’ve made it to the Hut. Even if I broke a leg right this minute, I made it this far. Six days left. Onward, pilgrims… at whatever speed ye will!