National Geographic Adventurer of the Year Jennifer Pharr Davis on Valuing the Journey
In California we are blessed with soaring Sierra peaks, ocean vistas and towering redwoods. The East Coast is connected by the famed Appalachian Trail, covering 14 states and 2,185 miles, stretching from Georgia to Maine. The natural beauty of our wilderness is a draw for hikers around the world, but the call into the wild goes beyond postcard moments.
I recently had the privilege to speak with 2012 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year Jennifer Pharr Davis about her experiences as a long distance hiker. Ms. Davis is known for setting the fastest through hike record on the Appalachian Trail, averaging a staggering 47 miles per day to complete the trail in 46 days (with the support of her husband and an army of volunteers). For most hikers, completing the “A.T.” is measured in months, not days.
What I learned is that hiking is not about accolades and records, but about the journey and connecting with our natural environment. Ms. Davis is currently touring the United States to promote her latest book, Called Again, which chronicles her record-setting Appalachian Trail journey.
James Morehead: What makes hiking so compelling that hikers are willing to endure pain, fatigue, weather and discomfort on the trail?
Jennifer Pharr Davis: “You are willing to endure a lot as a hiker because it’s real. In some ways I think the romantics did a disservice to our concept of the wilderness because they painted beautiful lovely days with roses and butterflies, and made everyone think that going outside was always going to be fun and relaxing. The truth is that nature is harsh. Nature can be calm and beautiful but it can also be windy, cold, buggy, and scorching hot. But it’s always real.
“In our society we have a tendency to flatline our existence through creature comforts and sometimes through medication. We’re always supposed to feel a certain way, or be entitled to a certain level of comfort. As humans I feel like our spirit is more in tune with nature and that at times we need to endure highs and lows, get through the valleys to appreciate the mountain tops even more. I think hikers go to nature not always to have the beautiful, romantic vision of how nature’s portrayed, but instead to experience something real.”
Morehead: You have had the opportunity to visit many schools. What advice do you have for students?
Davis: “The past two days I’ve been speaking at schools and I end up getting feedback on what is important to them. When talking about the Appalachian Trail record with middle and high school students I have three takeaways.
“The first point is don’t quit when you are having a bad day. So many times it feels like everything is overwhelming, and nothing’s going your way. When I was going for the record I sincerely, 100% quit, and when my husband forced me to go a little bit longer it was only a few hours later when I realized I did want to keep going. When it is tough on the trail, or in sports, or in the classroom, don’t quit when you feel too bad to make a good decision.
“The second point is that hard can be better than fun. At one point during the Appalachian Trail hike another hiker asked me if I was even having fun. I was tired, it was at the end of the day, and all I said was ‘no, I’m not having fun, but I think this is better than fun’. I wasn’t trying to be profound, but looking back I think that was perfect. So many times in life the things that mean the most to us are not necessarily the things that are fun. Fun comes easily and I love to have fun, but the things that are purposeful and transformative are going to be hard.
“And the third point is to value the journey, not just the end result. When I reached the end of the Appalachian Trail everyone wanted to talk about the numbers, rather than the journey, fixating on the end result. It drove me crazy because people were missing the point. I feel school today is all about the numbers – the GPA, the quantity of extracurriculars – a 4-year college application. You need to value the journey, the lessons learned along they way and the memories you are creating.
“Being in middle and high school is hard and I think it’s important for students to take a students to take a step back and enjoy the journey.”
Morehead: You’ve spoken about discovering hiking as a young adult. Was there a moment when you had an epiphany, where your love for hiking clicked?
Davis: “For me that happened off the trail. When I reached the end of my first Appalachian Trail experience, after five months of hiking, at first I felt that’s that. I’d accomplished something that was hard and felt better as a person. I was ready for a shower and a real job.
“It was when I returned to society that I realized the wilderness was a more natural world and I missed it. I had a great job and was working with great people, yet I was discontent with my life. What I had experienced in nature was more appealing and more organic than what I could find in an office day job.”
Morehead: What advice do you have for people, young and old, who are curious about hiking but aren’t sure how to take that first step into the wilderness?
Davis: “One reason I love hiking is that it is so accessible, it’s not an elitist sport especially if you are taking a day hike. All you really need is a comfortable pair of shoes, water and access to a trailhead. My husband, who is a teacher and who taught in an inner city school, was able to start a hiking club with very little resources. People sometimes like to over-complicate hiking. While I’m a huge proponent of being prepared when you head into the woods, at a basic level hiking is just taking a walk in a natural setting.
“I do recommend taking that first hike with someone who has experience and knows what they are doing. There is also a lot of free information available online and books for beginning hikers. Taking that first step also means not biting off more than you can chew, not carrying too much weight, and going for short, easy day hikes.”
Morehead: For the beginning hiker concerned about safety what are the real risks?
Davis: “When I started backpacking I was terrified of bears and snakes, but at this point, having spent over two years of my life in the woods, the two animals that pose the greatest risk are dogs off leash and insects (bees and tics). It’s not at all what you would think, and the factors that are most dangerous in nature are the same things that are most dangerous in your neighborhood. Statistically you are in more danger driving to the trailhead in a car than walking down the trail.
“I think the fear of heading into nature has more to do with a lack of understanding. There also isn’t immediate accessibility on the trail which can terrify people. We live in a culture where everyone has a cell phone connected to the Internet. We expect immediate access and you don’t have that in the wilderness. There can be a feeling of withdrawal that can seem scary. But just because you can’t get in touch with someone doesn’t mean you aren’t safe.”
Morehead: What was so compelling about the Appalachian Trail that drew you back three times, and inspired you to set the world record for completing the trail?
Davis: “The Appalachian Trail has an aura, and is the most popular long distance trail in the country. There is a spirit on the trail, a lot of dreams have been launched or fulfilled on the trail. Some people have held out that journey for thirty years, waiting until they retire, others are young people who launch into adulthood by hiking the trail and having a transformative experience.
“I love the ocean, spectacular views and all the great outdoor activities of the West Coast, but when I’m out here I miss the biodiversity of the East Coast. I miss the forests and different types of trees. One thing the Appalachian Trail forces you to do is look at the details because you don’t have the grandiose views all the time. You’re looking for small animals like salamanders, or you’re appreciating the different shades of green, or this time of year Fall is spectacular with its reds, yellows, oranges and purples.”
Morehead: You’ve spoken about all the support you required to break the Appalachian Trail record. Talk about some of the planning that was required.
Davis: “One thing I love about the Appalachian Trail record is that it was more of a chess game than a sprint. It was a challenge that involved a lot of mental maneuvers, planning and strategy. People ask if it’s more mental or more physical and it’s so much of both. I was really fortunate not only to have my husband, who knows me better than anyone else and could interpret what I was going to do on the trail even when we couldn’t be in contact. He also knew what I needed emotionally. There is no way I could have broken the record without his support.
“On top of that a lot of folks came out for a few hours or a few days. Out of all the volunteers who helped us we counted up 30 Appalachian Trail completions in our support group. That’s over 75,000 miles of Appalachian Trail wisdom, passion and knowledge! So many times I’d be on empty and someone would come out and be so happy to be on the trail, talking about their good memories, and it made a difference. The day to day effort of preparing food at road crossings fell entirely on my husband’s shoulders and he’ll tell you it wasn’t a fun or easy job, but he did it with grace, love and efficiency. I’m really proud of what we accomplished.”
Morehead: How has your passion for hiking changed now that you have a young daughter and what advice do you have for parents that hope to bring their kids on the trail?
Davis: “We encourage people to get their kids out on the trail but we’re so extreme I’m going to have to figure out ways to not always force my daughter into a hike! We’ve been on this book tour for 18 months and one of our goals, knowing we’d travel the country, was to hike in all fifty states with our daughter. We’re up to 49 with just Nevada left to go. It’s been really fun and hasn’t been a hardship on our daughter, who is just shy of two years old. Sometimes she’ll walk a little bit but we’ve carried her the majority of the way.
“We wanted to demonstrate that you can get out on the trail at any phase of parenthood, even with a newborn, infant or toddler. Going forward, hiking is always going to be a part of our family culture, it’s what we do, we even have a hiking company. My ultimate goal is for my daughter to feel safe in the woods, and beyond that I hope she finds something she loves as much as we love to hike.”
Morehead: Of the California hikes you’ve completed, what would you call out as personal favorites?
Davis: “I think Mt. Whitney is very special because it’s the tallest mountain in the continental United States, but it’s non-technical, meaning you don’t have to be a mountaineer to reach the summit. It’s such a beautiful mountain and to be able to say you’ve been up that high, to the top of the U.S., is special. Mt. Whitney is also right in the middle of California and has a great access point.
“I also enjoy the beautiful sunrises and sunsets you see during hikes in the Mohave desert. That’s the beauty of California, getting to experience the high snow in the Sierras or sunrises in the desert or oceans vistas. And Yosemite of course, but I recommend trails off the beaten path so that you have more of a wilderness experience, because the reality is that most National Parks visitors never step foot on a trail.
“There is so much variety in California it’s hard to pick one place.”
Jennifer Pharr Davis is the owner and founder of the Blue Ridge Hiking Company which offers guided hikes in the Blue Ridge Mountains.