Acclaimed Hiker Shares Lessons Learned on the Appalachian Trail

Despite a record-setting hike that brought her national acclaim, Jennifer Pharr Davis insists it was her first step on the Appalachian Trail that forever changed her life.

“I had only spent two nights in the woods my entire life and I started by myself in Georgia with my brother’s old Boy Scout gear,” she said. “And I guess in my 21-year-old brain, I realized that hiking was just walking, so how hard could it be?”

The comments came March 31 as Pharr Davis shared lessons learned during her first hike on the Appalachian Trail with community members and students at Virginia Highlands Community College. Later that evening, she highlighted a 2011 record-setting hike before a crowd at Heartwood: Southwest Virginia’s Artisan Gateway.

A North Carolina native, Pharr Davis began her first hike in 2005 soon after graduating from college. She returned in 2008, setting the women’s speed record by completing the entire 2,185-mile hike in 51 days, then set the overall record in 2011 by finishing the entire journey in just 46 days. This fastest-ever finish required her to hike an average of 47 miles per day.

Looking back, she said those first few steps on a chilly morning on Springer Mountain, Georgia, were the most important for her.

She traveled through 14 states in rain, fog and snow during that initial five-month hike. Along the way, she was struck by lightning, attracted an unwanted hiking partner, and stumbled upon a suicide victim. She walked through swarms of black flies and mosquitoes and stayed hungry for days on end. More importantly, however, she developed deep friendships and gained a sense of self-worth that has remained with her in the decade since.

“After five months, I got to the end of the trail and when I got there, I was a completely different person,” she said. “I started to see myself in a whole new way.”

Rather than let the trail quash her enthusiasm for hiking, she used each obstacle to develop a new perspective on life.

The fog of the Smokey Mountains made her realize the importance of having vision and direction, she said, while her unsuccessful attempts to shake the uninvited hiking partner taught her the value of expressing her true feelings. And although she was often dirty and smelly, she learned to appreciate her own beauty.

“I felt beautiful on the trail,” she said. “Growing up, I had always thought that nature was beautiful, but I had never seen myself as part of nature. I had never seen myself as a part of all that beauty. After walking over 2,000 miles, after coming through 14 states, you better believe that I placed my self-worth a whole lot less on how I looked and a whole lot more on what I could do.”

To date, Pharr Davis has hiked more than 12,000 miles on 6 continents, yet said the Appalachian Trail remains her favorite. She is the owner of Blue Ridge Hiking Company and the author of several hiking guides and memoirs that chronicle her time on the trail. She lives in Asheville with her husband, Brew, and their daughter, Charley.