Jennifer Pharr Davis holds the overall record for the fastest hike of the Appalachian National Scenic Trial.
She—and she’d be quick to add, her team—set the record in 2011 with a finish of 46 days, 11 hours, and 20 minutes. Her feat earned her accolades such as the Blue Ridge Outdoors Person of the Year and a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year. The trail record is truly extraordinary, but it’s also but one puzzle piece in the life of this outdoors woman, wife, mother, author, motivational speaker, and founder of the Blue Ridge Hiking Company. In October 2014, she, her husband, Brew, and daughter completed hikes in all 50 states during a book tour to support of Called Again: A Story of Love and Triumph, her latest trail memoir.
The trail record had been held—and many in the community assumed it would continue to be held—by elite, trail runners. Why was it important to you to hike the trail in your way?
The record was established in the 1970s, when it started being officially recorded. For the past 40-plus years, it had always been held by men. For the past 30-plus years, it has been held by elite trail runners. That’s who everyone assumed would hold the mark. I’m not someone who wants to get into the minutia of “Are you a runner or a hiker?” It’s all about moving. [Going into the record,] I had done all this backpacking. I knew: Going across 2,000 miles is not about speed. It’s all about endurance and stamina.
In Called Again, you wrote, “I wasn’t worried about not succeeding; I was worried about not trying.” Why was that your bigger fear?
I knew that I wanted to have kids and wanted to be a mom. I needed an answer of what my best was on the trail in that season of my life, what it felt like to give 100 percent. Even if I failed, I would have had my answer. It was not about being the best; it was about finding my best.
[bctt tweet=”Jennifer Pharr Davis - “I wasn’t worried about not succeeding; I was worried about not trying.””]
According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, in 2014 women made up 28 percent of the thru hikers on the AT. What do you see as the root causes of women making up only a quarter of the hikers?
I know more and more women are getting outdoors in groups or solo. Women need other women role models. There are so many women who have done incredible things on the trail, and that in no way refers to speed. One of the first examples is [Emma Rowena Gatewood aka] Grandma Gatewood, who thru hiked the trail in the 1950s in Keds carrying a rucksack. Women are doing exactly what men are doing out there. There’s a lot of false information about it not being safe for women. Experience, knowledge, and proper preparation help everyone—men or women—be safe. Ideas of what’s actually dangerous are definitely skewed and influenced by popular media in a way that’s not entirely accurate.
How did the trail record attempt, and ultimately success, shape your relationship with your husband, Brew?
The record was so good for our marriage. When we got married, Brew didn’t hike the way that I hiked. He was supportive of my outdoor pursuits, yes. But there had to be this weighing that if I had to choose between those pursuits and him, I would always choose him. I loved him more than the trail, and he knew he was my first priority. Because of that, it made it a lot easier for him to help and support me. The way that he loved and supported me during the record was transcendent, miraculous. We don’t operate like that on a day-to-day basis! Because we have that experience—that we had all these real life experiences and made it through successfully—it turned out to be this great foundation for our marriage. It encouraged us to take risks as a couple. You don’t know what you’re capable of if you don’t try. Now we work together [on Blue Ridge Hiking Company]. It’s scary and sometimes contentious, and we love it.
You had to rely on a team of people—not just Brew—to make this endeavor successful. Did placing your success in their hands feel vulnerable or powerful, or perhaps something else entirely?
The AT reminds me that I always need other people. I’m always going to be better off in a strong team than in doing something as an individual. I was drawn to the supported record because it’s very relational.
At different points on the trail, you needed different types of people on your support crew. Do you have any advice about how to decide who you want to support you on a big endeavor?
The trail record taught me that best friends are not always the best people to work with. In some ways, when I was going for the record, when I was joined by strangers who loved to hike or loved to run, it was easier for them to adapt to the trail. Friends are used to a 50:50 relationship. When there was a boss, and they didn’t have equal say, that made it really difficult. Regardless of whom you’re working with, it taught me that communication is key, as is expressing expectations ahead of time, and keeping tabs on how people feel.
Previously you’ve been called to the trail for records—how are you called to the trail now?
It’s evolved a lot. I’ve loved getting outside with my daughter. In the beginning it was so easy. She was just a bundle I wore on my chest. Now, she’s a toddler, and she’ll be in the middle of the trail having a tantrum. But one thing I love about the wilderness is there’s always new challenges! I love seeing her pick up acorns and calling them treasures. It’s such a blessing to rediscover nature through new eyes.
What are your feelings toward people who will attempt to, and perhaps successfully, break your record in the future?
I’m not attached to the record per say. I do wish I could handpick the person who will break the record. Most of all, the record needs to be a platform to encourage people to get outdoors in their own ways.
How did your goal to hike in all 50 states with your family emerge?
It appealed to us because I had gone fast trying for the record. We wanted to do something slower. And also because of my love of the long trail, there are so many places, so many networks of trails that I hadn’t visited. This goal was all about showing that it doesn’t matter where you live, there are great places to hike. So, the theory we had that everyone can get outside—that it’s accessible, fun, and you can do it with a family—that’s what we tell everyone. And we got to prove it.
How are you working toward your goal of getting other people outside?
I think that’s another way my relationship with the trail has evolved. I’m really blessed to have gotten to hike the AT, and it changed my life for the better. I knew that being on the trail four months out of the year wasn’t sustainable because I wanted to have a fulfilling career and be a mom. I wanted to combine my passion for hiking with family and career three main ways: 1) writing about the outdoors, 2) talks and workshops, and 3) guided trips. I hope people aren’t intimidated hiking with a record holder! We work with people starting with four-hour, half-day hikes. You may think, “That’s nothing. Why do you need a guide?” But there are people who come back [from those hikes] crying [in a good way] because they’ve never spent that much time outside and its been a transformative experience.
Ashley M. Biggers is a writer and editor who makes her home in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She has contributed to Outside and New Mexico Magazine, among others. Learn more at ashleymbiggers.com.