One month solo on the Appalachian Trail
5 miles: I only need to hike 5 miles. Today, though, my feet begin to bother me almost immediately after I lace my boots.
Remember why you're here. Overcome the challenges. Cultivate flexibility. Develop resilience, I tell myself. Even so, when I see a flat, sofa-like boulder by the road after 2 miles, I rush over to tear off my boots and air out my feet for a minute. My boots are killing me, I think, sliding out of my pack. How can I make this work?
I scan the outside of my pack, where I attached several carabiners to the straps. Various odds and ends dangle there: a whistle with a compass and thermometer, my Halfapp trail angels wristband, the outer jacket I shed in the heat, and bright pink flip flops.
I unhook my flip flops, tie my boots onto the carabiner, and slip the flip flops onto my feet. I begin hiking a bit awkwardly at first, but the terrain is gentle, and my toes have enough room to expand.
Prior to leaving for the trail, I packed multiple mail drops: boxes of food and supplies to send to myself along the way. Today, I plan to stay at a hiker hostel, the 'Mountain Home Cabbin,' and pick up my first mail drop.
A few dozen yards from the trail, a gravel driveway bears the sign "Mountain Home Cabbin | Bed and Breakfast." I catch sight of two buildings as I head up the driveway. The first is small, brick, and nondescript, more the size of a shed than a house at first glance. Tibetan prayer flags line the doorway. The second, a large, white plantation house with Greek columns at the entrance, overlooks the entire estate.
Though I see several cars, no one appears to be on the property. For a moment, I hesitate. Then, a woman pops her head out the window of the plantation house.
"You must be Lilian!" she calls.
"Yes," I shout back.
"I'm Lisa. Go ahead on upstairs. I'll be there shortly." She gestures at the small brick building.
Upstairs? For a second, I wonder how such a tiny-looking building could fit two stories. Then, I shrug off my pack, leave my boots, flip flops, and poles in the entryway, and open the screen door to go inside.
I step into a small, cozy kitchen. A partition runs down the middle of the room; two beds are crammed into the other half. To my right, a staircase leads up to a small square room filled with four beds and a bathroom in one corner.
After hauling my pack upstairs and onto one of the beds, I wait all of ten minutes before the desire to shower away days of dirt and grime overcomes me.
Lisa is not yet there when I finish. I head downstairs. A book propped on the kitchen table details her husband and son's journey on the Appalachian Trail. As I flip through the pages, admiring the photos, Lisa enters.
"I took a shower. I hope you don't mind," I say.
"Oh, no, that's what you're supposed to do. Make yourself at home. Do you want some lemonade?"
"Ooh, yes, please."
"So you need to go to town for laundry and the post office," Lisa says, taking out a plastic cup.
"Yes, please. Oh, and are there any places in town to get new boots? Mine are too small."
Lisa turns out to be one of the most gracious hosts I've had the pleasure of meeting. She shuttles me to town not once, but twice: once to lunch and Walmart for new boots, and a second time for laundry and mail - I pack my old boots to mail home in between.
At Walmart, I try on at least ten pairs of shoes before I find one in the men's shoes section wide enough to accommodate my flattened toes: In the past four days, my feet have grown from a women's 7 to a men's 8.5.
Once we're back at the Mountain Home, Lisa treats me to a tour of the plantation house. "My husband, Scott, had a lot of time to think on his thru-hike," she tells me. "When we decided to open a hostel, we looked everywhere for places close to the trail. The realtor kept sending us listings for places, but they were all far away - more than a couple miles from the trail. When we told her that, she said, 'well, there's always Mountain Home.' Right now, it's just the cabin, but we're working on restoring the house."
Layers of plaster and half-finished paint line the walls of the plantation house. White cloth covers the hallways.
"I was working on painting when you showed up. I don't always dress like this." She gestures at her paint-splattered work pants. Both Lisa and Scott hold day jobs outside of the hostel; Lisa talks excitedly about her work with the EPA. I can hardly imagine how they find time to manage the hostel and renovate the Mountain Home, but part of me thinks, I want to be like that: always working on a project, always following my passions, always trying to achieve my dreams.
The history of the house and its old artifacts fascinates me. "We found a bunch of shoes in the attic," Lisa continues. "My son - he's a PhD student in archaeology and anthropology - tells me they were put there to ward off unfriendly spirits." Rounding a corner, we step out onto the balcony and watch as the sun sets over the mountainside. I look forward to a good night's sleep.
"What are some of the hardest lessons in life?"