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Saying goodbye to a speed record and welcoming a new one

As many of you know, Heather “Anish” Anderson just broke the women’s unassisted speed record on the Appalachian Trail, overcoming my 2011 record by a whopping 26 days.

Many of my friends have been asking me “if I’m ok with it” in the sort of way they’d ask me if “I’m ok” with an ex-boyfriend getting married to someone else.

And the answer is YES! Even right after my record, I asked that someone come out and close the gap between the men and women’s record. I wasn’t strong enough to do it—and frankly had/have no interest in a thru-hike that is a complete sufferfest. What Anish did is remarkable and a huge boon to womenkind, to the outdoor world, and to athletic feats.

My finish photo from the AT.
My finish photo from the AT.

That being said, I have enjoyed holding the record for the past 4 years. There’s something exhilarating, almost unworldly, with the joy I would receive contrasting the image of my 5th grade self—literally the last chubby kid to finish the mile run in PE class—and my new self, the fastest unassisted woman on the most famous long distance trail in the world. Very few people get to be “the best” at something in the world, and for four years, I was able to say that.

Yet the joy of the record, the lessons I learned from the record, and the ability to realize I am more than my 5th grade self have all become lessons that I have absorbed. They have become me. It’s like a book I read as a kid about “magic” ballet shoes that made a girl who couldn’t dance become a great dancer. One day she lost her “magic” shoes, and it turned out she could still dance.

Shortly after I beat the record, I had a friend who told me that if he ever broke a record on a long distance trail, he would be so happy that he would never be sad again. Beating a record would fill a gap, a need, a hole in his life.

But I found the great secret of the record to be quite the opposite: even with a record under the belt, I still had sadness and doubt. Bad things still happened. It didn’t make my desk job any better. It didn’t make living the winter through a place I didn’t like any better. The hole was still there and a record didn’t fill it.

For a while, I thought more records, bigger and crazier would be the answer to filling that hole.

But in the last 4 years, I’ve learned that hole isn’t filled by records. It is filled by being happy with who you are, what you can do, where you have been, and where you are going. I may no longer have the record and the exhilaration associated with that, but I am content in my own skin, and that sort of satisfaction and confidence is longer lasting than any record.

So please join me in welcoming Anish and the newest speed record holder on the AT. What she has done is incredible. May it give pause to every old man who doubts whether a woman can be as strong in the woods as a man. And more importantly, may it bring Anish the joy, peace, satisfaction, and confidence that every hiker looks for after a trip.

A Thru-Hiker’s Review of the Walk in the Woods Movie

A Walk in the Woods poster from the first public screening of the movie at <a href="http://www.eathomas.com/2015/08/11/orsummer2015gear/">Outdoor Retailer 2015</a>
A Walk in the Woods poster from the first public screening of the movie at Outdoor Retailer 2015

15 years ago, Bill Bryson’s book A Walk in the Woods became the biggest story about (ish) long distance hiking the publishing world has seen.

10 years ago, Robert Redford dreamed of turning the book into a movie.

Now, A Walk in the Woods will come out in movie theaters on September 2nd and hiking enthusiasts everywhere are wondering “Should I go see this?” As one of the lucky few who got to see the first public screening of AWITW at Outdoor Retailer, here are a few thoughts on the movie (minimal spoilers ahead):

AWITW as a movie is something like the masculine antithesis to Wild. The movie is definitely a comedy—in some cases coming across as slapstick as a Laurel and Hardy skit. It’s not often we get humor like that in movies these days and it speaks well to the sheer joy and silliness of hiking. Sure, AWITW covers some heavy topics: getting older, death, alcoholism, loneliness, place, belonging, the very meaning of life—but in a very masculine way, it never comes across as heavy handed and remains lighthearted throughout the film.

The movie doesn’t stick closely to the book, but in some cases, that’s a good thing. Before anything was even projected on the screen, hecklers (some sitting very close to me…) starting yelling “I stopped reading when Bryson stopped hiking!” The movie only shows Bryson hiking (in addition to the bit of prep work he did beforehand).

The Appalachian Trail’s Conservancy influence on the directors and the way hikers are portrayed is strongly evident throughout the film. The ATC is fully aware how the film may impact use numbers on trail—in fact ATC Executive Director and CEO Ron Tipton gave a speech beforehand imploring outdoor gear companies (representatives of which made up the audience) to donate money with largesse to combat post AWITW trail damage.

Some of the ways the ATC’s hand showed through the film included the constant and frequent sight of a potty trowel on the screen. I think it’s wonderful that the idea of responsibly taking care of solid waste can be normalized on the big screen. However, the much more impact-creating and highly illegal driving of an ATV cruising right on the AT was also in the movie. Hopefully, that won’t be normalized, too.

Certainly some events in the AWITW never occurred in the book—and one long scene in particular occurs in a place that I don’t even believe is anywhere on the AT (but what do I know? I’ve only hiked it twice). Purists who are going to be bothered this and by the fact that he doesn’t finish the trail are better spending their time elsewhere. Nonetheless, I especially enjoyed how some of Bryson’s commentary of ecology, conservation, and natural history was preserved in the movie—a difficult feat for any director.

The highlight of the movie was really the quality of the acting (the cast includes four Academy Award winner/nominees). Nick Nolte was a wonderful Katz, admittedly different than I imagined him, and yet in some ways, a stronger and more complex character because of it. I was stoked that one of my favorite actors, Emma Thompson, plays Bryson’s wife. The rest of the actors have small roles, many incredibly memorable. Nick Offerman’s short role as an REI employee (I believe the character is named “Dave” in the book) left the audience wanting more. Kristin Schaal plays an annoying thru-hiker with the convincing-ness of nails on chalkboard. I wanted to start hiking faster away from her. And Mary Steenburgen as a hotel owner was a welcome familiar face.

AWITW is a feel good movie. It’s not a movie that may attract many people outside of outdoor enthusiasts, Bryson fans, and Redford swooners, but it’s definitely worth seeing. Even my hiking friends who aren’t shy to say the AWITW book makes them angry were pleasantly surprised. I don’t think I’d ever feel comfortable watching Wild with my family, but very much look forward to taking my folks to see A Walk in the Woods. So if you’re not hiking this weekend, now you’ve got something to do.

Check out more at http://www.walkinthewoodsmovie.com/