Jennifer Pharr Davis, the female record-holder for the fastest thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail, spoke to a large crowd in the auditorium of Southwestern Community College in Sylva last week, enrapturing students with tales of her trail exploits.
While Davis has hiked many of the world’s most glamorous trails, from the Inca Trail in Peru to Mount Kilimanjaro, the trail with the most stories is the one right here in the students’ backyard.
Davis’ record-setting hike in 2008 was actually her second trip along the trail. Her first was in 2005 upon graduating from college. She was a mere two weeks into the trail somewhere outside Franklin when she was struck by lightning, emerging shaken but uninjured. A week later, she was crossing one of the toughest, highest sections of the trail through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park when a blizzard struck.
“I had a couple Pop-Tarts and a little bit of peanut butter and that was it. I knew I had to make it out of the Smokies,” Davis said.
Her remaining trail miles through the park were mostly downhill, so she turned her boots into cross-country skis. Sleet was driving against one side of her face, like razor knocks in her skin. She lowered her head and closed one eye on the windward side.
“It was hard because the AT is marked with white blazes and everything that I saw was white.”
When she got into protection of the forest canopy, the eye she’d shut was frozen closed.
“The rain and snow had congealed in my eye, and I couldn’t open it,” Davis said.
The elements weren’t the only challenges Davis encountered during her 2005 expedition. The Appalachian Trail is not quite the respite from society most would assume.
“There are lots of people on the trail, lots of friendly people on the trail, lots of young males who are especially friendly on the trail,” Davis said.
Davis was usually able to shake unwanted hiking companions by virtue of her pace, except for one tag-along in the Virginia section.
“He walked anywhere he could near me for 10 days,” Davis said. Like any good Southerner, Davis deployed a litany of subtle hints, but they were lost on him.
“I would say things like ‘I really like being a solo hiker,’ and he would say ‘Yeah, me too,’” Davis said. “I didn’t know how to get rid of him. At one point I hid under a rhododendron bush hoping he wouldn’t see me.”
Davis finally had to put her good Southern manners aside and tell him bluntly. The skill of direct communication continued to serve Davis well on a trail that can sometimes be intimidating for young single women.
Davis had a troubling experience on the trail in New Jersey that brought her hike — and her life — into a new focus. She came upon a man who had committed suicide in the middle of the trail. She didn’t know the cause at the time, however, only that she had stumbled upon a dead man.
“I pulled out the cell phone my mother insisted I carry as fast as I could,” Davis said.
She called 911 as she ran down the trail away from the spot. The experience had her brooding for days, feeling alone and scared. Word traveled in the trail community of her disturbing encounter. Within a couple weeks, the mother of a fellow hiker called Davis and offered to put her up for a few days at their Connecticut home, allowing Davis to regroup mentally.
“That epitomizes the trail community,” Davis said. “Even when you go through tough things someone will come along to lift you up and care for you and love you and often times it is a complete stranger. The trail actually restored my faith in humanity.”
Davis has launched Asheville-based Blue Ridge Hiking Company, where she trains potential thru hikers for their 2,000-mile journey. She also conducts workshops, talks and programs for groups. She has a book due out in 2010.