In 2011, North Carolina's Jennifer Pharr Davis became the first woman to set the Appalachian Trail speed record, completing the 2,185-mile trek in 46 days, 11 hours and 20 minutes. Her feat helped land her a coveted spot among National Geographic's 2012 "Adventurers of the Year."
Her record has since been broken several times over (it now stands at 41 days, 7 hours and 39 minutes), though Pharr Davis still holds the record for fastest female time. Still, she says she doesn't like to claim it.
"That's not the record I went for," the 36-year-old says.
The AT taught her to think outside the confines of society; more specifically, what society told her she could accomplish as a woman.
"The trail doesn't treat anyone special. It doesn't care who you are. The trail is truly limitless," she says.
To date, Pharr Davis has covered 14,000 miles of long-distance trails on six different continents. A mother of two, she once hiked across the state of North Carolina while nursing her son, and has hiked in all 50 states with her daughter. She is the founder of Blue Ridge Hiking Company, a guiding and outfitting company, and the author of eight books, including the critically acclaimed "The Pursuit of Endurance."
Her latest, "I Come From A Place," is a collaborative coffee table book which celebrates Appalachian landscapes through prose by Pharr Davis and watercolor paintings by Chattanooga artist Alan Shuptrine.
Recently, Pharr Davis visited Chattanooga to help promote that book, and we had the chance to chat with her about her career as a professional speed hiker.
Get Out Chattanooga: How did you get into hiking?
Jennifer Pharr Davis: I didn't grow up hiking or backpacking. When I was 21, I graduated [college] and was trying to figure out my next step. I started looking for a place to process and transition and decide what I was going to do with my life. I heard about the AT and went without much experience. It was completely transformative. It was the best part of my education.
GOC: What about speed hiking speaks to you?
JPD: I do like to clarify that I can meander. I have two kids and we have dawdled the daylights out of the trail. But for me personally, the trail let me think outside of the confines of what society told me I could do as a woman. That first AT hike, I met so many different people. I realized there are so many more options in the world than I thought.
GOC: Do you have a most memorable mile among the 14,000 you've covered?
JPD: Finishing the AT [in 2011] for the overall record for men and women. It was meaningful because that last mile summarized the 10,000 that came before it. I had to draw off all the challenges and lessons I'd learned from previous experience. My husband and I got to walk the last mile together. When we got to the top of the mountain, it was the only time my whole family got to come to the trail: my mother, my father, my college roommates. That was pretty powerful.
GOC: How do you push through hard times on the trail?
JPD: The hardest challenges we face are the ones we don't choose. But I choose to be out there. This is a minor example, but I just spent the past four days backpacking an overgrown trail on the Benton MacKaye. My legs looked like someone whipped me. I had briar scratches all over my lower body. I had a moment like, "Why am I out here doing this?! You don't have to eat cobwebs all day!" But I love trails less explored. So if I want this, this is what I'm going to have to do. A lot of times we complain about things we really want — work, marriage, kids, a master's degree. Those are things we really do want. Remembering that really helps you overcome the challenges.
GOC: Why do you think some people find so much reward in suffering?
JPD: I think it makes us feel alive. Our culture is one of comfort to a fault. We have plenty of food, plenty of water. It's really good to go out and be separated from those things. The human experience needs more highs and lows.
GOC: What is the greatest epiphany you've had while hiking?
JPD: One of the biggest things hiking has helped is my self-image, especially as a 21-year-old. I got out there away from billboards and magazines. It was before the age of the selfie, so I didn't know what I looked like. I started seeing myself through the interactions I had with other hikers. I had this realization while I was up on Roan Mountain [in North Carolina]. There was a sunset and no one else was around. The birds were chirping, the wind was blowing, and it just clicked that we live our lives so removed from nature, but that I was part of this. I was part of nature and it made me feel so beautiful and powerful and connected.