Accomplished hiker shares story with students

On September 17, 2015, dozens of students filed into Olin 001, filling the seats, with many more sitting in the aisles and peaking through the open door. Many students carried backpacks or wore Colby Outing Club (COC) t-shirts as they waited for the tall, slender woman at the front of the room to begin speaking.

President of the COC Sara LoTemplio ’16 came up first, introducing Jennifer Pharr Davis, Ambassador for the American Hiking Society, to the packed crowd. LoTemplio began by thanking the sponsors of the event, hosted by the COC with support from the Feminist Alliance, the Student Government Association, Outdoor Education, and Senior Associate Dean for Diversity and Inclusion Dr. Tashia Bradley. She then dived into Pharr Davis’ long list of accomplishments. As a hiker, Pharr Davis has hiked over 12,000 miles in all 50 states and many countries abroad. In 2011, Pharr Davis made national headlines when she set the record—both male and female—for completing all 2,180 miles of the Appalachian Trail in 46 days, 11 hours, and 20 minutes. Since then, she wrote five books, become an Ambassador for the American Hiking Society, named National Geographic’s Adventurer of the Year, and founded Blue Ridge Hiking Company with her husband, Brew Davis.

“All journeys start with a first step,” Pharr Davis began, though she noted, “ I didn’t take my first step until I was 21.” After Pharr Davis graduated from college, she had a nagging feeling that something was missing from her life. Despite having only spent two nights in the woods prior, she decided to take her brother’s old Boy Scout gear and hike the Appalachian Trail. She theorized, “it was technically just walking— how hard could it be?”

What came next were five “really hard” months on the trail, which Pharr Davis now refers to as the “best five months of [her] life.” During this time, she received her trail name, Odyssa—a feminized version of Odysseus— and found a community while also finding herself. During her talk, Pharr Davis commented that by the end of the trail she felt that “for the first time in life, I knew who I was, and I was okay with that.” During those five months, Pharr Davis believes that she “learned as much from that as [she] learned in four years at college.” While she had no mirror for the entirety of her time on the trail, she found a more dynamic way to look at herself. “If I was kind and funny and made someone laugh, that was my reflection.”

After getting a job, Pharr Davis became unhappy. “I thirsted for the silence,” she said, “I missed the trail.” From that moment on, she “worked to hike,” and saved up her vacation time so she could backpack around Kilimanjaro, Australia, South America, the Pacific Crest Trail, and throughout Europe. However, Pharr Davis had a problem, which a friend joked, “12 steps isn’t going to fix it.” Pharr Davis had fallen in love with a public school teacher named Brew, and worried that marriage would keep her from hiking. Fortunately, while Brew wasn’t a hiking enthusiast, he was happy to support her. 12 days after their wedding on June 8, 2008, the couple started on the Appalachian Trail. Having found that there was currently no female record for completing the Trail, Pharr Davis hiked for 57 days to set one. At the top of Springer Mountain, the southern terminus of the Trail, Jen and Brew placed their hands on the placard and Brew stated, “we are never doing that again.”

That might have been the case if Pharr Davis hadn’t started thinking as they walked down the mountain. “I knew I had something left.” She believed that she could go even further, with Brew as support.

After several more hikes in Europe and Colorado, this voice grew louder until she finally talked to Brew about her dreams. “I used every bribe that I could think of—which I won’t tell you about.” The bribes worked, and Brew agreed to serve as her support.

Pharr Davis’ record setting hike began at Mount Katahdin, as she wanted “to get through the hardest parts in the beginning.” The harsh granite terrain soon took its toll, as Pharr Davis developed shin splints hiking over Sugarloaf—three hours after she began. She described the pain as the worst she’s ever felt; “shin splints while hiking were more painful than going through labor.” She persisted, hoping that once she got to Vermont—or “Vermud” as seasoned hikers call it—the soft terrain would help her continue. However as she hiked up Mount Washington in New Hampshire, she was met by a combination of rain, wind, and fog that caused her to go a full two miles off trail, leading to a five-mile backtrack. She suffered through two days of torrential downpours, which gave way to a sleet storm. Pharr Davis got hypothermia, and was starving.

Her saving grace was Brew, who had hiked into the trail to set up a tent. Once inside, Brew wrapped her in two sleeping bags, where she shivered for 30 minutes. After getting warmed up, Pharr Davis ate 3,000 calories in 20 minutes, by which point she was ready to get back on the trail. However, she had no spare pants so in the spirit of teamwork, Brew gave Pharr Davis his pants. “I tell that story because it so illustrates that this was a team endeavor.” Pharr Davis learned that it was “more important to ask for help than feel independent.”

However Pharr Davis’ problems weren’t over. The side effects of hypothermia had not worn off and Pharr Davis became incredibly sick. “I felt the worst I’d ever felt in my entire life.” She was ready to quit. When she met up with Brew at the next road crossing, she says it was “the first time I quit a trail.” Brew disagreed. After giving her medicine and food, he left, giving her another day to decide if she really wanted to end her journey. Pharr Davis asked herself, “Is this for the record? It was never about the record.” After 46 days, Pharr Davis reached Springer Mountain and, while she wanted to do her personal best, her hike “was actually the best.”

After setting the record, Pharr Davis received both positive and negative attention. National press reporters interviewed her continuously, though she didn’t think they were asking the right questions. “Everyone wanted to focus on the numbers… no one asked what I had learned.” She also received hate mail, with people criticizing her diet and physique. “It was not easy,” she said, but “with Brew’s help I can accept it. They don’t know me and [their comments] don’t define me.” When asked recently if she ever felt guilty for her hikes and the support Brew provides, she said, “I shouldn’t have to feel bad for being a woman.”

Even though someone broke her record this past summer, Pharr Davis feels no remorse. “I mean, it’s annoying that it’s only by three hours,” she said, but “nothing has changed now that the record is broken.” To her, the point of hiking the Appalachian Trail is “getting what you can out of the experience.”