Local woman hikes Appalachian Trail
By Anna-Claire Terry
When Jessica Mills decided to hike the Appalachian Trail, it was not a sudden decision. It was something she had planned to do since she was a child. From the moment she saw the Appalachian Trail sign while on vacation with her family in North Carolina, she planned to eventually hike the entire thing. “It was always on my radar, and I always said I was going to do it someday, but someday wasn’t going to come unless I made it,” she said.
The 29-year-old Beauregard High School and Auburn University alumna started the trail on March 29 in Georgia and hiked 2,189.2 miles until she reached the end of the trail on Oct. 19 in Maine. “I didn’t want to skip a single mile,” Mills said. She kept a blog and a vlog (video blog) throughout her trip under the trail name of “Dixie.” Several passers-by would recognize her from her Youtube videos and call her by her trail name. She said it actually took longer than she had expected, and she faced many hardships. Mills was up against weather so cold that the ice and rain froze her shoes. She hiked 13 miles and lived off of Chex Mix and Skittles while suffering from food poisoning, had a bout with tendinitis, encountered a hostile bear and even camped out behind a Walmart one night. “It really humbles you when people are looking at you like you must be homeless,” she said.
She would often hitchhike into towns to wash clothes, buy food or make phone calls. She stayed at campgrounds and sometimes split hotel rooms with fellow hikers. According to Mills, hikers would often have to stray up to 10 miles away from the trail just to get into town. “When you first start out, it really kicks your butt. There is really no way to prepare yourself to walk that far with that much weight on your back,” she said. However, she added that the physical pains were not the toughest aspects of the seven-month hike. It was the isolation and mental struggles that gave her the toughest time. “If you’re not in a really good mental state, that’s what will mess with you,” she said. “You can suffer through the cold, you can suffer through being wet, and you get over physical pain. But the mental aspect is the worst. There will be several days where you won’t see anyone.”
Her goal was to be alone and find herself, but as it turns out, the relationships she formed on the trail helped her tremendously. She became friends with several other hikers and would sometimes hike a few hundred miles with them. Mills said the most uplifting part of the hike was the “trail magic.” Trail magic is food, gifts and supplies left for the hikers on the trail by locals. “That taught me a lot about humanity. People take care of each other,” she said.
Mills took the hardest hit in July when she received a call from her mother when she was in Pennsylvania. Her mother told her that her dog, Sugar, an 11-year-old Blue Tick hound, was extremely sick and was not expected to pull through. “That’s when I said, ‘OK, it’s time to rent a car and go home,’” Mills said. She was about six hours out when she got a call informing her that Sugar would have to be put down. “I was devastated. I wanted to be there with her, and she passed away when I was two hours out. I wouldn’t say that was when I wanted to give up, but I had no desire to hike anymore or be out there.” Mills blamed herself for not being there to take care of Sugar, but eventually realized that she could not have done anything to help her. After a week at home in Opelika, Mills decided to finish the rest of the trail for Sugar. She returned to the trail where she left off, and hiked the rest of the way with Sugar’s collar attached to her pack.
When she finished the trail, Mills said her first thought was “Wow, here is the sign that I have been waiting to see since I was five.” Since her hike, Mills said she still cannot believe she did it. “It feels not real, honestly. Very surreal,” she said. “I look at the pictures, and I know I was there, I know I did it, but it almost feels like I’m looking at somebody else’s pictures.”
Mills said she would love to take on the Pacific Crest and Continental Divide trails some day. To view her blog and vlog about her trip, visit www.homemadewanderlust.com.