There are journeys outward and journeys inward. For Hendersonville-born author and hiker Jennifer Pharr Davis, the best of the former lead to the latter, even if that wasn’t the original intention.
As a recent college graduate in 2005, Pharr Davis (who now lives in Asheville), decided to hike the Appalachian Trail. “I knew nothing about hiking,” she says. Choosing the “traditional approach” to the hike (starting south and moving north), she soon discovered the many challenges of hiking with a pack on your back each day in the rain, cold and wind. There were the usual physical hardships such as blisters and soggy clothes and unexpected tragedies — while alone, she encountered the body of someone who had committed suicide. “It was the hardest five months in my life,” she says. And while she ended up learning a lot about hiking from the experience, the more enduring lessons she learned were about herself. She later transformed her trail journal into Becoming Odyssa: Epic Adventures on the Appalachian Trail published by Beaufort Books last November.
Unlike other trail memoirs, Pharr Davis says, Becoming Odyssa is “a coming of age story that anyone can relate to.” Off the trail, she says, girls face so many societal expectations, about their appearance and the kind of work they should aspire to. But “the woods are a very accepting place,” she says. And it was there that she learned to let go of preconceived notions of how she should look or proceed with her life.
Sharing those lessons with others and advocating for others to go out and make their own discoveries in nature has become the 27-year-old’s life work. After completing the AT, Pharr Davis went on to hike the Pacific Crest Trail (which runs through the western US from the border with Mexico all the way to Canada) and completed long-distance hikes in Africa, Australia, South America and Europe. While she’s always been an athlete — she played Division I tennis in college — bringing a competitive edge to her hiking wasn’t on her radar screen at first. “Endurance and perseverance have always appealed to me,” she says. “But I’m not a competitive, driven person.” (Then again, she has competed in the Iron Man triathlon and several ultra-marathons). A second Appalachian Trail hike in 2008 earned Pharr Davis the title of fastest woman completing the trail on a “supported” hike (meaning she wasn’t carrying a pack).
“It just happened kind of organically,” she says of her record attempt. Her husband Brew Davis, who teaches middle school and runs a hiking club, only had three months off for the summer. Since they wanted to do the hike together, they had to be quick about it. Logging in 30 to 40 miles a day and sometimes sleeping only a few hours a night, Pharr Davis was able to cover the 2,175 miles in just 57 days, 8 hours and 35 minutes. While she’s proud of her accomplishment, Pharr Davis plays it down, saying that her husband is “the real unsung hero” of the story. And each of them has goals that have nothing to do with breaking records. They want to get more people outdoors.
In addition to Becoming Odyssa, Pharr Davis has written several regional hiking guides and contributes to outdoor magazine. She holds workshops at outdoor stores and develops customizing hiking expeditions for clients. Brew Davis has an outdoor club for middle school kids (many of whom had never been in the woods before their outings) and both have worked with teachers to incorporate units on the Appalachian Trail into the curriculum.
Pharr Davis says that she’s particularly focused on getting women and girls outdoors. “The woods are a safe place where women can remove themselves from societal expectations.” One of her workshop talks is called “Six months without a mirror.” But male or female, young or old, she says she encourages everyone to get outdoors “on his or her own terms,” whether it’s for a few hours, a day, or several months on one of the long trails.
Watch Out, Boys: Jennifer Pharr Davis intends to hit the Appalachian Trail again this summer, this time in an attempt to break the men’s record: 47 1/2 days, which averages out to about 45 miles a day. Her journey will begin in Maine in June. She’d love to see you out there.