Thirst: The Story of Heather "Anish" Anderson

Nuun Ambassador, Heather "Anish" Anderson is a Triple Crown thru-hiker, National Geographic Adventurer of the Year and author of the recently published memoir, ThirstHeather shared an excerpt of her new book with Nuun (below). In honor of the thousands embarking upon the start of their PCT journey this week, we're sharing a snippet of Heather's thru-hike experience.

Excerpted with permission from Thirst: 2600 Miles to Home (Mountaineers Books, March 2019) by Heather “Anish” Anderson.


DAY 8 / 44 MILES

I stood in disbelief for several moments. The creek was bone dry. After I turned on my phone and waited for it to check my location, I could feel my stomach churning and sinking. I already knew that I was in deep trouble.

A few seconds later, Halfmile’s app confirmed my fears. The scorching heat of June in Southern California had rendered the crowdsourced water report, updated by Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) thru-hikers, out-of-date in just a few weeks. The muddy ground I’d crossed a mile before was the last “flowing” water in Mission Creek for miles. Nearly out of water, all that stretched before me was exposed canyon and thousands of feet of elevation gain in the middle of the day.

I wanted to cry. Either I would have to backtrack several miles to the last creek bed with reliable water or climb onward into the afternoon sun without anything to drink. Neither option was good.

It was a gamble to walk away from sure water, but it would be a waste of precious time and strength to go backward. Only eight days into my attempt to set the Fastest Known Time (FKT) on the PCT, I already felt like I was fighting a losing battle. “Reliable” water sources were turning out to be dry, and I kept underestimating how much water I needed to carry. No matter how much I thought I’d drink, I always needed more.

Demoralized by the thought of going backward, I put my phone away and stubbornly turned up-canyon. “There must be water up ahead somewhere,” I said aloud.

After another hour of hiking in the triple-digit heat without water, my head was swimming. It was 80 at dawn. This is why no one hikes through Southern California on the PCT in June. There were supposed to be two more water sources between the dry crossing of Mission Creek and the spring at the head of the canyon, so I kept plodding onward, trying not to think about death by heatstroke or dehydration.

My throat became so dry it was difficult to swallow. I pulled out a stick of gum and chewed until saliva flowed and eased the discomfort. When that piece of gum became hard, I put another in my mouth. For the next hour I chain chewed gum, but eventually even my salivary glands dried up.

Feeling wobbly, I berated myself for not drinking more water the day before. For not carrying more from Ziggy and the Bear’s house. For not drinking more from the first Mission Creek crossing. On and on, I identified ways I could have prevented this precarious death march through a desolate canyon in the heat.

A strange plant blocked my path. It had a profusion of pinkish blossoms and an odd, skunky odor. My brain was slow trying to comprehend it, but something in the back of my mind told me to stop. I stood there numbly in front of the alien plant until my brain caught up with my instinct . . .

Poodle dog bush.

I had forgotten all about it in my desperate march toward water. In fact, I didn’t even know I might encounter it here. Poodle dog bush has a surface irritant related to poison ivy, yet far more potent. Many people have intense reactions and even need to be hospitalized after contact. Often one of the first plants to revegetate after a forest fire, poodle dog bush had covered several large, recent burns along the PCT. Its potential for aggressive reactions made it something of a boogeyman for aspiring thru-hikers, spawning dozens of online discussions. It scared me so much, I’d marked the locations on my maps. But I didn’t recall anyone mentioning it in Mission Creek.

In a daze, I found a stick and pushed the branches aside. I climbed up loose sand and skirted the bush without touching its potentially dangerous leaves. Once past, I saw that the majority of the plants grew only on the slopes above and below the trail. Thankfully . . .

Not long after, I entered a beautiful stretch of canyon lined with cottonwood trees. I’d seen their crowns from a distance and had been striving toward them. Cottonwoods always mean water. This had to be the next source.

I left the trail and walked straight up the sandy creek bed. A slick water mark staining the sand made my heart leap with joy. I followed it to a slight overhang along the bank, expecting to find a clear, cold pool.

Instead, I found a small puddle of water with an enormous pile of horse shit in it.

Devastated, I returned to the PCT and shuffled onward. I was so angry. How could the only bit of water for miles be completely contaminated by a horse? I consoled myself by thinking that even if I had wanted to scoop from it, it was too shallow. As I climbed away from the trees and into the sun again, the headache I’d had for hours grew worse until I couldn’t think at all. I could no longer fight the urge to sit. My legs folded beneath me without permission and I crumpled into the sand in the middle of the trail. Thin shade from some scraggly bushes seemed like an immense blessing.

I reached for my phone again and turned it on before sinking backward against my pack, reclining on the trail. When my location appeared, I realized I was still several miles from the spring at the head of the canyon.

I lay there in the middle of the trail for what seemed like an eternity. I pondered whether to wait for the coolness of night to continue, but decided that I would likely be in worse shape after seven hours in the heat, with moisture constantly escaping every pore of my body. I needed to get up and keep walking, yet I felt too drained and too defeated by the circumstances.

There was only one obvious answer.

I pulled out my SPOT tracking beacon and opened the cover on the SOS button. All I had to do was push it and help would come. Local emergency personnel would receive my coordinates almost instantly. They would bring me fluids. Fly me to safety. I would sleep in a cool room and eat and drink until my body recovered. I wouldn’t have to walk anymore. I could forget that I’d ever attempted this.

“I might die of thirst out here,” I said to the orange SPOT in my hand.

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