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Photo: Nick Hall
August 2014

A Ghost Among Us

One woman's journey to the brink of what's possible on the Pacific Crest Trail.
photo: Nick Hall

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She wasn’t like the rest of them. They knew that.

It was June 7, for one, much later than the others had come. Temperatures in the Sonoran Desert, the southern terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail, were spiking at 120 degrees Fahrenheit. The hundreds ahead of her had started their hikes as early as March. Now there were the stragglers and the maybe-gonna-make-its, and there was her.

Barney and Sandy Mann have seen all types in the nine years they’ve been offering their San Diego-area home as a PCT staging ground. At mile zero, most of their guests are fresh-faced and clean-clothed, their boots unscuffed, their pride and plans intact. They range from the scared and ill-equipped to the bullheaded and eager, and they carry nervous laughter about them like a weather system. “In the late season, we get two kinds of hikers,” Barney says. “They either really know what they’re doing or they don’t know what they’re doing at all. We make sure they have our phone number because they’re probably not going to make it very far.”

She didn’t say much when she arrived. How do you tell strangers that you’re hiking to free your soul? She just busied herself organizing her pack and devouring a worn copy of Yogi’s PCT Handbook. Most hikers go by their given names at this point, but she referred to herself simply as Anish (pronounced ah-NISH).

She wore a white, collared shirt, a knee-length skirt, and trail running shoes, giving her the look of a sneaker-commuting schoolteacher. Her shoulder-length brown hair bordered full, rose-colored cheeks and wild, hungry-looking eyes. She carried a small backpack, loaded with a beat-up sleeping bag, a one-person tent, a Therm-a-Rest, a wispy rain jacket and wool baselayers, a compact headlamp, 6 liters of water, and snack food pre-portioned into small meals.

The next morning, June 8, 2013, Barney, Sandy, and Anish piled into the Manns’ Prius at 5 a.m., and drove the 75 miles to the trailhead in Campo, California, near the Mexican border. Nobody spoke as they pulled up to the monument, four weathered pillars of wood at the start of the PCT. More than 2,500 trail miles—crossing desert, forest, canyons, and mountain after mountain—lie between this spot and Canada. As Anish had told the Manns, she planned to hike that distance faster than anybody ever had. She gathered her belongings while Sandy took a few photos and said goodbye. “She seemed very confident, but there was no braggadocio,” Sandy recalls.

At 6:27 a.m., Anish signed the trail register: Well, here goes. To Canada. –Anish.

In the previous two months, hundreds of hikers had signed the register. But Anish wasn’t like them, and none of them knew she was coming. In time, everyone on the trail would know her name. And they’d all be hoping to catch sight of her.

By her second day on the trail, 2-inch blisters bulged off both her ankles. The arid heat dried out her sinuses, causing her nose to drip a steady patter of blood into the dust. But she stopped only to dump sand from her sneakers. She didn’t have a moment to spare.

Anish knew from the start that every minute of the two months she planned to be out there would matter. At the time, the self-supported speed record was held by Scott Williamson, a man who’d made a career out of setting and breaking PCT records. Williamson thru-hiked the PCT in 64 days, 11 hours, and 19 minutes in 2011. That attempt bested his previous record by a single day. At the pinnacle of athleticism, endurance records are won a few steps at a time. And almost entirely, they’re held by men.

Indeed, in 2013 there wasn’t even a known speed record for women on the PCT. The simple fact that Anish would be first would have given her license to set her target comfortably slower than the men’s record, but she wanted to measure herself by the same bar: to be the fastest, no asterisk, no separate column. Yet this wasn’t a women’s empowerment thing. “I figured I’d go for the record that did exist,” she later explained. “My motivation wasn’t coming from a competitive place. I just wanted to see what I could do for myself. I wanted to see what was possible.”

What was possible? Could she set her mind free by pushing herself so hard and so long that the effort drowned the voices that had been nagging her as long as she could remember?

Anish was born Heather Anderson, the daughter of a former Navy man turned farm and factory worker and his wife, a social worker, in rural Michigan. She was sharp at academics, but struggled with her weight. By third grade, her peers labeled her “the smart, fat one” and exiled her to the margins of grade-school society.
“Heather was very shy as a kid, always in the back or apart from the main crowd,” says Darcie Schueller, a childhood friend. “She hated having her pictures taken and would scowl or frown in all of them.”

Heather turned to exploring the woods behind her house alone. The deep forest intrigued her, but she was scared, too—of wild animals, of getting lost, of never being found—so she’d bring her dog and her dad’s hammer. Out there among the cedars and oaks, she found a sense of belonging she hadn’t known before. There was no judgment out there. She was free.

Beyond a dozen or so dayhikers, Anish saw almost no one until the second week of her hike. She passed other tents, but under the veil of darkness. The most common experience others had of Anish was footsteps in the night.

At mile 454, a collection of trailers and canvas tents make up a place called Hiker Heaven, an unlikely paradise for trail-seasoned trekkers who arrive to wash laundry, drink beer, check email, and gorge on burgers and fries. Hikers gather on hay bales around the campfire, swapping stories about the trials of the first four weeks.

It was dark when Anish arrived, just 10 days and 12 hours into her hike. She dropped her gear and went to the garage to get loaner clothes so she could shower and do laundry. Another thru-hiker approached and asked her, “Are you the Ghost?”

“No,” she responded, a little confused. “I’m Anish.”

It seemed like a weird question. But thanks to word of mouth on the trail—partly from chatter on social media, partly from hiker-to-hiker gossip—many thru-hikers had heard about Anish. They knew little, just a few shadowy details. Some knew that she’d hiked the Appalachian Trail, Continental Divide Trail, and Pacific Crest Trail (the Triple Crown of hiking) once before, but without fanfare and at an unremarkable pace. Anyone who dug deep online might have discovered that she’d started running ultramarathons recently, but again, without raising any heads. Mostly, they just knew two things: She was attempting to break Scott Williamson’s hallowed speed record, and only a lucky few had seen her. One day, word on the trail was that she was en route, but by the next day she was already gone. So early on, thru-hikers took to calling her by another name: Anish the Ghost. Or simply, the Ghost.

By 6 a.m. the next morning, when Hiker Heaven’s owner went to raise the garage door and open for the regular breakfast hustle, the ghost was gone.

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    • john-kostrzewskigmail-com

      This story is about the PCT, not the AT. That’s the other article. That aside, people find their own solitude and peace on trails and in the backcountry in their own way. Who are we to say she’s wrong? Going off your statement, are trail runners wrong in what they do? It’s not the way I choose to backpack/hike, but my way may not sit well with others. I’m fine with that. I don’t do what I do to please other people, I do what I do to find peace within myself.

      Profile photo of john-kostrzewskigmail-com

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