The Williams Outing Club (WOC) hosted Jennifer Pharr Davis, who used to hold the overall speed record for the Appalachian Trail, on Thursday night in the Brooks Rogers Recital Hall.
Davis has hiked the Appalachian Trail three times, and on her third trip became the first woman to beat a man’s record for the trail by completing it in 46 days. She has hiked long distance trails on six different continents, but says that “the trail that means the most to me and has changed my life the most is the Appalachian Trail.”
She first stepped into the wilderness at the age of 21. After graduating from Samford University in Alabama, Davis felt unprepared to enter the world of employment. She said, “a part of me felt like I didn’t know myself.”
When she embarked on her first journey into the woods, her only wilderness experience was a two-night school trip with her brother’s old boy scout gear. Davis recounts this first hike as “the hardest five months I had ever known, but the best five months of my entire life because the trail completely changed me.” Davis explained that the trail responded to unanswered questions she had about herself.
After hiking the trail for the first time, she found a job. However, all she could think of was her summer on the Appalachian Trail. Her life changed when she met Brew Davis, her husband, to whom she credits her success on all the hikes she has taken. On June 8, 2008 they got married in a mountain-top ceremony and 12 days later they departed for Davis’ second Appalachian Trail adventure.
The second time Davis completed the trail as a supported hike. In a supported hike, hikers turn their trips into a series of day hikes and has someone deliver their gear to them at each road crossing. On this trip, Davis established the first woman’s record on the trail, completing it in 57 days, with an average of 38 miles per day.
“I was so proud of what we had accomplished,” she said.
After completing the hike for the second time, Davis continued to think that she had the potential to set the overall record for the fastest hike.
“If I didn’t go,” she said, “I would always look back and wonder what might have been. And I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to wonder.”
In the summer of 2011, Davis embarked on the trek for the third time, with the goal of setting the record for fastest hike.
She started in the north and hiked south in order to finish the hardest states, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, first. After only a couple of days hiking, she developed shin splints.
“It was the most excruciating thing I have endured,” she said. At times she was scrambling backwards down the hill to reduce the pain. A couple days later, after encountering horrific New Hampshire weather, she started to exhibit symptoms of mild hypothermia. After sensing something was wrong, her husband hiked two miles from the nearest road crossing to check in on her. Davis then did her best to continue on but struggled with illness. When she neared the next road crossing, she told her husband for the first time in her life that she wanted to quit.
“For the first time, on any trail, I wanted to quit,” she said. Still, she persevered. “It’s due to his support and his unselfishness more than anything else,” Davis said of her decision to continue walking. She described her 46-day hike as a mental battle. “I asked myself, was I out there for the record? And right away I knew that was not what the summer was about. I wanted to find out what it felt like to give my best, to leave it all on the trail and look back and not have any unanswered questions.” In the end it turned out that her best was good enough for the record.
At the end of the trail, Davis and her husband were faced with praise, criticism and questions, yet Davis felt like no one asked the right questions.
“It’s not about the numbers,” she said. “It was about the lessons learned, the memories made and a closer bond with my husband.”
Davis, now a mother, has chosen to share her experiences with the world and to encourage people to adventure into the woods to discover themselves. She was awarded National Geographic Adventurer of the Year for her 2011 record-setting trip on the Appalachian Trail. Davis founded the Blue Ridge Hiking Company and has devoted her life to sharing her experiences through lectures and to leading hikes. She says that her life has changed and even though she’s no longer hiking thousands of miles each summer, it is still great to return outside and experience the power of nature.