A Happy Beginning for “THE TOE”

Greetings from Paducah, Kentucky! It’s been just over two weeks since I completed the Appalachian Trail on August 27th. I’ve begun several new long journeys since, including physically recovering, mentally unpacking my time on the AT (or at least trying to), and a solo road trip back home to Oregon.

You’ve likely heard by now of the devastating wildfires in Oregon, Washington, and California. My heart is with the people and communities being affected; there have been lives lost and entire neighborhoods destroyed. In Portland, all the parks and trails have been closed, the air quality is at a hazardous level, and nearby towns are being evacuated. I’m not really sure what to anticipate as I get closer to home over the next week, but it makes for a strange and somber homecoming.

What I am looking forward to is being reunited with my husband André after being apart for the longest period of time since we’ve known each other, and curling up and cuddling with my two (unwilling, non-cuddly) cats, Bo & Juno. I miss our little family!

I’ve gotten a lot of inquiries on how “THE TOE” (Aka Sausage Toe) has been since completing the trail, so I thought that merited a little update. You may recollect that in the day 47 recap, Jupiter (Warren Doyle) noted that one of my big toes began to swell. It continued to worsen every day. At one point, Jupiter looked at my toe and commented, “Well, it’s either infected or broken.” When I relayed that to David Horton on a phone call, he told me I’d better hope it’s broken! I took a photo of it at the end of the 51st day, the night before I’d hike the remaining 32.5 miles to Katahdin (and the additional 4.4 miles down to Abol Campground). While I was in a lot of pain, and my toe looked pretty bad, I was so close to completing the entire trail. I don’t think there’s anything heroic about continuing on with a potentially serious injury, but it was my choice and judgment call, and I chose to keep going. I hiked with my sausage toe all the way to the summit of Katahdin and northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, experienced one of the most surreal moments in my life, achieved what I consider my most meaningful accomplishment, and completed the long journey.


I spent about a week almost entirely off my feet (to keep weight off of my toe), in the care of my wonderful parents in Pennsylvania. It did turn out my toe was infected, but after a round of antibiotics, it is much less swollen now, and nearly back to normal. My poor feet have healed externally, though they’re still covered in rough, thick calluses. I began getting more comfortable walking after about a week, though none of my shoes fit because my feet were so swollen. I purchased a large pair of slides to accommodate my still-large toe, and rocked the socks-and-sandals look for several days. My parents drove me to Virginia, where I’d stay with David Horton and his wife, Nancy, for a night. Dr. Horton gave me a mostly-driving tour of the Liberty University campus where he teaches, and pointed out the local trails, many of which he built and now maintains. Back at his home, I played piano and sang Disney songs for his granddaughter, who asked, “Are you the voice of Ariel?” While driving the next morning, we pulled over on the Blue Ridge Parkway at an Appalachian Trail crossing and stepped out to take some photos. Now, that was pretty cool! It felt really special to revisit the trail after hiking through that section just several weeks before. The long drive from Maine, to Pennsylvania, then to Virginia, gave perspective to just how far I had gone.

Back on the AT with David Horton

That morning, he introduced me to Jonathan Basham, a legend in the ultrarunning community. Jonathan holds the overall record for the Long Trail, which he set in 2009, and he’s one of only 15 runners in history (Horton included) to have completed the Barkley Marathons. He shared about all the time he’s been spending with his sons on outdoor adventures. The three of us met up with Jupiter, who would then take me to his Appalachian Folk School in Tennessee, where I had left my car prior to hiking the trail.

In good company with Jonathan Basham, David Horton, and Warren Doyle (Jupiter)

I rested at the Appalachian Folk School for a few more days. During that time, Jupiter and I did a day-by-day debrief of the entire hike. While I’m glad we were able to take the time to review the hike in depth, it was surprisingly difficult to relive it so soon after finishing. While I have countless wonderful memories from the hike that I’ll cherish forever, there were painful and disappointing moments intertwined throughout that are still fresh in my memory. Jupiter’s notes from day 45 even read, Putting too much pressure on herself!

THIS woman! Jennifer Pharr Davis, an all-around wonderful person.

Another special moment that came out of my remaining time on the east coast was taking a day trip to Asheville, NC to have lunch and catch up with the AT women’s record holder, Jennifer Pharr Davis. Not only is she known for her accomplishments as a hiker, but she is a business owner, entrepreneur, author, speaker, and mother of two children. We met at Blue Ridge Hiking Company, her outdoor shop and company that offers guided day and overnight hikes. We swapped stories about our time on the trail and found common ground through some similar experiences. I told her I felt so grateful that she had written about her experiences, particularly the story of her successful record attempts in Called Again, because it helped to give me a some kind of understanding, particularly from a woman’s perspective, of what I was getting into as I was preparing for a record attempt of my own. My mom had also recently read her books Becoming Odyssa and The Pursuit of Endurance, which helped give her some context for the Appalachian Trail and endurance hiking. Jennifer said that it felt validating, in a way, to hear about my experiences on the trail in attempting to set a record, because it’s like, “Yeah, that WAS really hard!” As I wrote in my post-hike musings, I respect and admire Jennifer so much. She’s a trail blazer in multiple aspects, and I wouldn’t have felt compelled to set the big goals I did without her example. I also found that I could relate to something she wrote about her goal of breaking Andrew Thompson’s overall AT record (which she did, by a full day). It was something along the lines of how her hike wasn’t about beating Andrew, but about doing her best. Every day that I was on the trail felt like a 100% effort, despite having varied–or should I say, mercurial?– results throughout. Often times while meeting Jupiter at road crossings and before setting off into the green tunnel yet again, my parting words would often be, “I’ll do my best.” Even though I was talking to Jupiter, I think I had to say it out loud more for myself. And I meant it! Jennifer’s best was finishing the trail in an extraordinary 46 days, setting an overall record. My best wouldn’t result in an overall or women’s record, and while that realization around 18 days in felt disappointing, I couldn’t have felt happier or more proud of myself upon reaching Katahdin. I did my best.

Lucky me, catching up with JPD and meeting Derick Lugo!

Continuing in the tour of meeting hiking all-stars, none other than author Derick Lugo popped by Jennifer’s shop to sign a bunch of copies of his memoir, The Unlikely Thru-Hiker (which you can purchase, signed, here). He recently moved to Asheville from New York City. I enjoyed reading his book detailing his AT thru-hike as a novice hiker just before beginning my own journey. His quick-witted personality shone through in person, just as in his writing. When I mentioned that I was interested in writing about my experience on the trail, he advised me to start writing as soon as possible. He told me that he finished hiking the Appalachian Trail in September and was writing by October. Noted!

Roll Credits

In wanting to end on a really uplifting note–a completed hike, a successful team effort, a healed toe–Jupiter and I celebrated by doing something I couldn’t at the base of Katahdin or after completing the “roughest, toughest, 227 miles”, because of my sad sausage toe. I present to you, Mercury and Jupiter dance the Salty Dog Rag! My parting words to Jupiter before I set off on my drive out west, “Hey- WE DID IT!!!” Jupiter responded, “Yes, we did!”

Who is Mercury?

Liz Derstine, trail name “Mercury”, is a distance runner, endurance hiker, writer, and musician residing in Boston, MA. She holds fastest known times for women on the Appalachian Trail (supported, northbound), Long Trail (self-supported), and Pinhoti Trail (self-supported).

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