I just finished reading Heather “Anish” Anderson’s new memoir, Mud, Rocks, Blazes, about her experience setting the unsupported speed record on the Appalachian Trail. It’s a follow up to her first book, Thirst, which was about setting the overall speed record on the Pacific Crest Trail. Both are excellent additions to the adventure writing canon, and Heather’s a rare animal - one of the best athletes in the world who is also a good enough writer to communicate the experience of what that’s like to a general audience.
Thirst was a sort of superhero origin story that helped the reader understand how Heather moved from being a bit of a bookish nerd from the Midwest to one of the most impressive mountain athletes in the world, but Mud, Rocks, Blazes takes more of a deep dive into her on trail experience itself. If you’re a connoisseur of thru-hiking literature, Mud, Rocks, Blazes is more like Carrot Quinn’s Thru-Hiking WIll Break Your Heart than Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. It’s a chronicle of the experience that gives you a sense of what 2100 miles of rocky trail in 54 days is like - it captures the emotional ups and downs, as well as the beautiful, gruelling physical obstacle course that the Appalachian Trail represents.
Thru-hiking stories make for great Covid lockdown reading, but because of the nature of the task - a months’ long period where Anish pushed herself towards a goal at the edge of human ability - this book was more than just escapism. It’s a memoir about resilience in suffering. For me, there was a straightforward takeaway, as one of the consistent themes through her attempt was the repeated decision to do what she could in that given moment. She reports a frequent and ongoing sense that her best won’t be good enough, and that her suffering is unsustainable, but she continues to make the decision, and in the end the moments add up to an achievement that - at the time - no other human had bested. It’s a great lesson for 2021.
Like every high achiever, you get the sense that Heather has demons that drive her to do the things she does. There’s a lot of talk about self-doubt and insecurity, and worry that her previous record on the PCT might have been a fluke. However, the thing that comes through the strongest is her sense of mission and calling. The story is about Heather coming into her own and becoming who she’s meant to be as much as being pushed towards achievement to prove herself. Both themes are there, but the book doesn’t read as a story about navigating pathology. It’s full of beautiful images of wildlife encounters, fireflies, struggling grinds through brutal weather, and nostalgia triggered by visiting places that have been formative. The book isn’t exactly about managing trauma through achievement - though there’s some of that - it’s about growth.
In the end, Mud, Rocks, Blazes is a great adventure book. It’s a beautiful, flowing read that allows access to an experience that most of us will never have, and Heather is one of the key authors putting thru-hiking books into the adventure canon alongside more traditional mountaineering, exploration, or sea voyage narratives. She’s accomplished a lot more since the 2015 Appalachian Trail record that this book describes, and I’m looking forward to seeing what else she contributes in the future to outdoor literature.
You can order author direct autographed copies here: https://checkout.square.site/buy/RW2SD5IXKLW3DDAF7CPZKM5T
Audio, Electronic or unsigned paperbacks are available from Mountaineers Books, Amazon or your favorite bookstore: https://www.mountaineers.org/books/books/mud-rocks-blazes-letting-go-on-the-appalachian-trail
Also, subtle personal self-promotion and also full confession about my relationship with the author - Anish also features largely in my own book, The Dirtbag's Guide to Life: Eternal Truth for Hiker Trash, Ski Bums and Vagabonds.