Askville: Hiking with a purpose

Jennifer Pharr Davis’ epic Appalachian Trail trip this summer involved a lot of spirit—not to mention shoe leather.

Jennifer Pharr Davis

The 25-year-old Davis through-hiked the trail to honor the spirit of a woman who was killed in the north Georgia woods back in January. In the process, Davis wore out several pairs of trail-running shoes, completing her supported hike in 57 days, 8 hours and 35 minutes—a new record. Even for a woman accustomed to setting goals, achieving them and then aiming still higher, it was a remarkable accomplishment.

A tennis star at Hendersonville High School, Davis went on to play Division I tennis at Samford University. After graduation, she fed her love of the outdoors by completing her first through-hike of the A.T. over a period of four-and-a-half months. She also logged hundreds of miles on trails across Europe and Asia.

But it was a death closer to home that really affected Davis. Meredith Emerson disappeared on New Year’s Day during a hike in a state park. The 24-year-old’s beaten, decapitated body was found in the woods of a state wildlife-management area near Cumming, Ga. Police arrested Gary Michael Hilton, who pleaded guilty to Emerson’s murder and was sentenced to life in prison. He’s also suspected in the death of John and Irene Bryant, a Henderson County couple who disappeared last October while hiking in the Pisgah National Forest and were later found dead. It was Emerson’s death, in particular, that moved Davis to through-hike the 2,175-mile A.T. as a statement that the woods are safe.

“Meredith continues to impact me,” says Davis, who contacted Emerson’s father to get his blessing before announcing her hike to honor the slain woman.

Teaming up with the Arden-based Diamond Brand Outdoors, Davis got the shoes, socks, snacks and other gear she would need to complete her hike in record time: nearly 30 days faster than the previous record for a supported hike by a woman (87 days, held by Jenny Jardine). From Maine to Georgia, the 6-foot-tall Davis hiked (and sometimes ran) an average of 38 miles per day. She burned about 4,000 calories a day and lost 12 pounds on the trail.

Meanwhile, Davis is busy setting new goals, such as starting a “multifaceted hiking company,” offering workshops and talking to groups about her experiences. She’s already written a book about her first A.T. hike, and she’s thinking about tackling some new trails.

“I’ve kept coming back to the trail,” she explains, “because that’s my passion.”

Mountain Xpress: How did you get interested in long-distance hiking?
Jennifer Pharr Davis: Long-distance trail hiking got me hooked on long-distance trail hiking. It was this combination of pushing your physical, mental, emotional limits that I’d just never found in organized athletics. For the first time in my life, I was completely self-sufficient. That meant I had to provide my needs: I had to find my own food and water and make sure I was planning ahead, or else I was going to be in big trouble.

Do you feel safe when you’re hiking in the woods?
I’ve spent over a year of my life on long-distance trails, and beyond that, just outdoors as much as possible. When you get to familiarize yourself with nature and the environment, you learn it’s one of the safest places around. I feel much safer in the woods than I do even walking around downtown Asheville. The greatest danger in the woods is the same as in a city—it’s a person. Unfortunately, there’s no way to regulate who’s in the woods and who’s not. I’ve been befriended and helped and just reached out to by so many kind people on the trail that it really negates the evil that does occasionally come out there. I want people to realize that the woods are safe: It’s people that make it dangerous.

How did you handle feeling scared or threatened on your hike?
When you’re scared for your safety or your environment is frightening, then you need to remove yourself from the situation. It’s a challenge to figure out how to do that. Sometimes I slowed down to hike with other hikers to give myself accountability, or I made sure I had check-in points with folks at home. But for me, my greatest protection out in the woods when I am alone is just my instinct. You have to trust your instinct. If it says get out of a situation, then you need to do it as quickly as possible.

How do you get through difficult situations when you’re alone on the trail?
You just have to talk yourself through tough situations. There have been countless times when I’ve been hurt or lonely or scared, and mentally you just have to find a way to work through that. That challenge is probably even greater than the physical challenge.

How did you manage the physical strain?
I started running every week. I was upping my miles, but you’re somewhat getting in shape on the trail, so I tried to be very conscious of eating right and sleeping right and pushing myself to where I’m bending but not breaking.

How did you handle food on the trail?
The target for me was to consume 4,000 to 5,000 calories a day. Diamond Brand provided me with freeze-dried meals and snacks—Clif Bars, crackers, stuff like that. If I didn’t eat almost every hour, my stomach was growling. At a point, it stopped being food and just started being fuel. Even when I didn’t want to eat, I was forcing food down my throat.

How did your husband help you?
Brew did everything else but hike. He was driving from point A to point B every day, driving on Forest Service roads and back roads. He would get all of our food, do all of our laundry. He would set up our tent. He just really did all the unglorious parts. He was an equal partner in this hike, and he made it my most memorable hike. He’s my best friend, and he was there.

What have you seen during your hiking that has remained with you?
On my first through-hike of the A.T., I unfortunately came across a suicide. It wasn’t a hiker. It was someone who had just come out and performed that in the woods, and I was so upset for so long that he had done it in the woods, because it seemed like such an unnatural act. That really affected me at the beginning of my hiking and made me want to champion the woods as a place that’s safe and a place where that is unnatural and shouldn’t happen.

What was the most memorable part of this through-hike?
On the last day of the hike, we were at the base of Blood Mountain [where Emerson was hiking when she disappeared], and I had two friends with me. We hiked up to the summit in the moonlight and saw the sunrise. I really wanted to talk through how much Meredith meant to me on the trail. We all thanked Meredith. It was really a fulfilling but humbling feeling.



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