When Jennifer Pharr Davis — Jennifer Pharr at the time — graduated from Samford College in 2005, she, like many college grads, didn’t have a plan for the future. So she decided to buy some time by hiking the Appalachian Trail.
“It’s hard to explain the strong calling I felt to hike the trail,” says the Hendersonville, N.C., native, who at the time had spent only three nights of her 21 years camping out. “I was assuming a traditional 30-year career, that I would get married and have a family, and that this would be the only time I would have to do something unique.”
The five months she spent hiking the 2,181-mile trail turned out to be not only unique, but life-changing.
“I thought, ‘OK, this will be a fun little mini-adventure,” she says of her escape on the AT. “I never expected it to be so challenging or to change me.”
Pharr Davis will share her story of challenge and change on a five-day, five-city book tour at Great Outdoor Provision Co. stores beginning Nov. 17.
Along the trail Pharr Davis endured the usual ups and downs, the aches and pains of a typical thru-hiker. She also got struck by lightening, had her eyes freeze shut in a snowstorm, was followed by a group of male hikers she didn’t want to be followed by and discovered the body of a hiker who had taken his life. “When I got to the end,” says Pharr Davis, “I was a different person.
“I wouldn’t say I had been overly influenced by society, or by women’s role in society,” she explains, “but being in the woods helped me become an individual. I developed a self-confidence, an inner beauty and a self-worth.” Her story, she quickly discovered, was particularly appealing to women. “Women in particular would ask, ‘How did you do that?’ And I thought, ‘I can help you with that.”
Which is what Pharr Davis has been doing ever since.
Spreading the message
She started small. After coming off the trail she took a “traditional” job in a museum, but used her time off to spread the word about the power of hiking, speaking at schools and outfitters, writing articles and by taking her friends hiking in the woods. The number of people attracted to her message grew, and she was able to add to that message by building her trail resume: setting the women’s record for the 270-mile Long Trail in Vermont (7 days, 15 hours) in 2007; hiking Australia’s 620-mile Bibbulmun Trail and setting the AT women’s supported record (57 days, 8 hours, for an average of 38 miles per day) in 2008; and, hiking the 486-mile Colorado Trail, the 77-mile Foothills Trail, Europe’s GR20, the Tour du Mont Blanc, Pembrokeshire Coastal Path and West Highland Way in 2009 and 2010.
“When I hit 25, I thought, ‘Maybe I could turn this into a career.’”
She started the Blue Ridge Hiking Co., an umbrella entity that covers her speaking engagements and books, and offers guided hikes. To date, she estimates she has spoken before at least 50,000 people and she and husband Brew Davis’s books have sold between 25,000 and 30,000.
Having established hiking as her vocation — and before she and Brew Davis decided to start a family — it seemed a good time for another unique challenge.
Why a record AT attempt?
Attempting to break the existing record of hiking the Appalachian Trail with support — enlisting someone(s) to schlep your gear, set up camp, keep you fueled — made sense to Pharr Davis on several levels. One, though she’s hiked many of the famous long trails in the U.S. and on six continents, the Appalachian Trail remains her favorite.
“I’m very drawn to the Appalachian Trail because the Appalachians are my roots, they feel like home.” She also feels indebted to the trail, “because that’s where I changed so much. I’m very grateful to the AT.” She loves the eclectic and egalitarian nature of the trail’s thru-hikers. “The hikers are accepting, they’re quirky … I love that the trail takes people from all different walks of life, all ages and beliefs, and what matters is who you are, not what you are.”
She was also looking to challenge herself in a way she hadn’t before. A challenge that would test her mentally as well as physically if she was to beat Andrew Thompson’s 2005 supported record of 47 days, 13 hours and 31 minutes. A challenge that would force her to punch through the inevitable pain and suffering inherent in hiking 47 miles a day for 47 days straight.
“I had to switch from a mindset of, ‘What happens if I get injured or sick?’ to one of ‘I will get injured and sick.”
Once she started her record attempt in early June 2011, she didn’t have to wait long to find out. On Day 5, she developed debilitating shin splints, a condition she’d never had. When she awoke the following morning at 4:45 a.m., it hurt to bend her toes.
“In twenty-eight years, I had experienced many illnesses, injuries and a broken bone,” she writes in “Called Again: A story of Love and Triumph,” her recently published account of the hike, “but I had never hurt this badly.”
By a little after 6 a.m., she was feeling better, which is to say that bending her toes no longer caused her to scream in pain. She ended up logging 31.1 miles that day, and the following day hiked 34.6, which included a climb up 6,289-foot Mount Washington.
She would forget about her shin splints a few days later when a several-day bout of diarrhea set in.
That ability to push through injuries and infirmities that would have 99.9 percent of us hitching a ride to the nearest Motel 6 is what sets the Jennifer Pharr Davises apart. Some might question her sanity. But to Pharr Davis a big part of the challenge, of the draw of such an ordeal, is the mystery of just how far you can push yourself.
“I never wanted to sustain a lifelong injury,” she says. “It wasn’t worth it to be lame for the rest of my life. I wanted to see what it was really, truly like to give 100 percent.”
That’s a big part of the message she hopes to convey.
“The trail is an awesome metaphor for life,” says Pharr Davis. “It’s about trials and tribulations, and about overcoming obstacles. The AT is very, very relational. It teaches you to get to know people really, really well. You become less judgmental and more open-minded. It’s about the importance of setting goals and working hard. … It’s about figuring out who you are, about stepping out of the group mentality.”
Speaking by phone from Wyoming in early October, she pauses, then offers her prescription for the political gridlock paralyzing Congress.
“This stuff in Washington? They all need to take a hike.”
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Meet Jennifer Pharr Davis
Jennifer will share her story during a five-city, five-store Great Outdoor Provision Co.
Sunday, November 17 – Charlotte – 2:00pm
Monday, November 18 – Winston-Salem – 6:30pm
Tuesday, November 19 – Greensboro – 6:30pm
Wednesday, November 20 – Raleigh – 6:30pm
Thursday, November 21 – Chapel Hill – 6:30pm