The need for speed AT record-setter enjoys simplicity of fast, solo hiking

Jennifer Pharr Davis says she never set out be a speed hiker.

When she first hiked the entire Appalachian Trail in 2005 at the age of 21, she was mostly looking for an excuse not to get a job right after graduating from college.

But she soon found she had a natural proclivity for hiking fast.

“I have this inner thing where I just love going all day on the trail as hard as I can,” Davis said. “I just really, really like the hiking part.”

Some people write journals on the trail, others linger at trail shelters over a game of cards with fellow hikers. But for Davis, an Asheville resident, it was all about the hiking: the physical act of moving through the woods and covering ground.

Three years later and with several other long-distance trails under her belt, Davis returned to the AT to hike it once more, this time at a record-setting pace for women.

Davis, who lives in Asheville and was born and raised in Hendersonville, completed the 2,175-mile trail in 58 days — just five days behind the men’s record and 30 days faster than any other woman. Only five men have done the trail faster.

To make that kind of speed, Davis had help, of course. Her husband shuttled her gear between trailheads, meeting her each night at points where the trail intersected with roads with food, water and tent and clean clothes. Her devoted one-man support crew allowed Davis to drastically lighten her load compared to the average AT hiker. She carried a small daypack or some days just a hip pack packed with the barest essentials. She was also freed from housekeeping details like setting up and striking camp, restocking groceries or doing laundry.

“Trust me, I am paying him back, probably for the rest of my life,” Davis joked.

Plotting meet-up points often meant relying on backwoods forest service roads, which sometimes led to confusion. Occasionally, she would arrive at the designated spot only to find he wasn’t there. Perhaps she had arrived early, making better time than expected. Or maybe she arrived late, and her husband had gone ahead to the next meet-up point looking for her.

On one occasion, the road was washed out and Davis’ husband had to load gear into a pack and run in to find her. Another time, the road they pinpointed on a map didn’t actually exist.

Expecting these missed connections, both Davis and her husband carried surveyor’s tape and a Sharpie to leave messages.

The thought of her husband waiting at the trailhead, often playing the guitar while he waited for Davis to show up, was one of the strongest motivators pulling her along the trail each day. The two had been married just days before embarking on the trip.

“I was crazy in love with my husband. I wanted to get to him as quickly as possible,” Davis said.

Of course, Davis also looked forward to the food he had waiting. At Davis’ record-breaking pace, she burned 4,000 calories a day, which meant she had a lot of consuming to do.

“If you are eating that much every day it becomes a job,” she said. “Honestly, I got sick of chewing.”

Davis defends her fast hiking to critics who question how much communing with nature one can honestly do at that pace.

“People say you didn’t appreciate it, you didn’t stop to smell the roses, you didn’t see the same things that people see when they hike slowly,” Davis said. “That’s not true.”

Davis ran some, but mostly just walked fast. She averaged 3 miles an hour, still a brisk pace considering the terrain and the inevitable bathroom breaks.

But by striking out at dawn and hiking through dusk, and moving quietly without companions, she saw more wildlife on her speed hike than three years earlier when she hiked at a standard pace — including 30 bears, compared to none on her 2005 hike.

Her final days on the trail became a whirlwind, however. Her husband, Brew, is a middle school teacher in Asheville and had to return home for the start of the school year. So two veteran AT hikers pitched in as a support crew in the final days. One of the trail greats enlisted was David Horton, the men’s record holder on the AT who completed the journey in 52 days after four tries. The other was Warren Doyle, who has thru-hiked the AT 15 times, more than anyone else.

She covered 205 miles her last four days, largely due to a perhaps overly encouraging support crew.

“What I remember is getting to the meet-up point just to see them drive off and say see you at the next road,” Davis said. She got in the car after finishing the trail and promptly fell asleep.

Davis doesn’t discount the possibility of another record hike, perhaps even going after the men’s record. Once the AT is in your blood, it’s hard to shake, she said. Not that she didn’t try after her first hike back in 2005. When she’d reached the summit of Mount Katahdin, which marks the end of the Appalachian Trail in Maine, she vowed never to repeat it.

“I climbed up that mountain and said ‘This has been a good experience. I am glad I did it, but I am never going to do it again — not even an overnight.’ Maybe a day hike but that was it,” Davis said.

She got a job doing marketing and special events at the Ash Lawn-Highland museum home of James Monroe, the fifth president, in Charlottesville, Va. But she soon found the trail calling.

“I was missing the simplicity of it. I was missing having everything I needed just on my back. I missed the self-reliance, looking to myself and depending on myself to make it through every day,” Davis said.

Davis, who graduated from Samford University in Birmingha, Ala., and played college tennis, also realized how much multitasking was involved in normal life.

“On the trail all I had to do was hike. It was so simple and I missed it,” Davis said.

Over the next three years, she hiked Mount Kilimanjaro, the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail, the 600-mile Bibbulmun Track in Australia, the Inca Trail in Peru, and the 272-mile Long Trail in Vermont.

She worked in between trips but always with the next hike in mind.

“I just worked to hike and worked to hike,” Davis said. “Obviously by this point it was becoming an addiction.”

Hiking the AT: A journey of mind, body, spirit

By Josh Mitchell • Staff Writer

The bad economy may be good for business along the Appalachian Trail.

The AT typically attracts recent college grads, young people taking a break from their jobs, and a growing number of retirees. This year another group is hitting the trail — laid-off workers.

Every year at this time hundreds of hikers pour through Western North Carolina as they make way their way to the end of the trail.

Last Thursday The Smoky Mountain News caught up with dozens of hikers in Hot Springs, which the trail runs directly through, and talked to them about their journeys.

Doug McPherson of Sylva said when his employer told him to take a hike he did, literally. McPherson was employed by Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, and as soon as he was laid off he seized the opportunity to take on the trail.

Andy Crow of Pennsylvania had enough of college and needed a break. He didn’t want to take the typical route of graduating high school, going to college and getting a job.

Crow, who was majoring in geology before dropping out, said his parents were “cool” with his decision to hike the Appalachian Trail and put his conformist future on hold. Other hikers agree with Crow, saying hiking the AT represents another life experience they can rack up before they die.

Hiker Kim Morley was sitting down with her friends from New Zealand and ordered up a Trail cheeseburger at the Smoky Mountain Diner after being on the trail the past few days.

Morley, an employee with an environmental consulting company in Atlanta, plans to hike the entirety of the Appalachian Trail, which begins in Georgia and ends in Maine for a total of about 2,200 miles.

Morley’s New Zealand friends had gotten six-month visas so they could hike the entire trail, but they are bowing out due to an injury.

The New Zealand couple, Merryll Burr and Ron Burr, said hiking the trail is more difficult than they thought it would be. They first became acquainted with the trail about 15 years ago when they were in the area for a conference and hiked part of it.

At that time they decided they would try and do the whole thing one day. They were on their way until Ron sustained a shoulder injury that precludes him from being able to carry his pack.

Poor weather conditions have beaten down hikers this year as they battle through snow, wind, hail and freezing temperatures in the Smokies. When Morley gets back on the trail it will be four or five days before she reaches the next town.

Two other hikers, Alan Sloe and Kyle Fiasconaro, don’t have much money, so they were earning their keep at a hostel by moving timber.

Fiasconaro, from Long Island, N.Y., was working as a chef when he left everything behind to hike the trail. Hiking the trail seemed like the right thing to do rather than get “sucked into a career,” Fiasconaro said.

Sloe, from Greenville, S.C., said he didn’t have a career and agreed that hiking the trail is a good way to meet interesting people and see the mountains. The two met the first day on the trail.

While they were working they had a small tape player emitting music as their Pabst Blue Ribbon beers rested on cinder blocks.

Fiasconaro bemoaned that he has only $1,000 to make it to the end of the trail and said earning his keep at hostels by doing odd jobs is the only way he’ll make it.

Their mantra is to stay positive despite dramatic highs and lows that the trail brings, like the 2- to 4-foot snowdrifts they ran into. Luckily, they were able to stay overnight in a friend’s condo in Gatlinburg to get through that night.

All of the hikers have a trail name that gives them a separate identity from the one they have in the modern world. A hiker log at the Hot Springs Post Office lists hundreds of different trail names that have come through over the years including Hippie Chick, Grizzly, and Chaos.

Rob Phillips, from Lehman, Penn., goes by the trail name Tank, which is appropriate seeing that he’s endured rain, snow and thunderstorms so far. Many of the hikers on the trail are either recent college graduates or retirees.

Phillips said he wanted to take a year off school and hike the trail before returning to get his master’s degree. He was hiking out of Hot Springs on the way to Erwin, Tenn., which is the next town and 70 miles away.

Hikers do the trail for different reasons. Keith Hubbard, who goes by the trail name Huck Finn, said he simply loves the outdoors.

“I’m not trying to find myself,” he said.

Hubbard just graduated from college in Indiana where he earned his degree in physics. His parents are very supportive of him hiking the trail and putting the real world on hold, he said. Family members keep up with how he is doing through a blog he updates at libraries when he comes into trail towns.

The camaraderie of like-minded people on the trail and the beauty of the mountains make hiking the trail worth it, even on bad days, said Hubbard.

With only $1,000 he is on the low end in terms of how much money is needed to hike the trail. He didn’t engage in much preparation for the journey; he basically put on a backpack and started hiking. In his pack he carries a one-man tent, sleeping bag, rain jacket, lightweight pants and shirt, stove and a fuel can.

The northeast is the part of the trip he is looking forward to the most since he has never been to that part of the country.

Inside the Hot Springs library, Michael Given of Maine sat at a table looking through an Appalachian Trail book. He said he was abandoning the trail, but his 65-year-old mother is continuing on to the end.

He said hiking with his mom part of the way was his way of showing her that he supported her in her journey. Being on the trail was a great adventure, said Given. “It was like going to a different country,” he said.

Surviving the trail is 90 percent mental, he said. He and his mother were hiking 22 miles a day, although, “mother and I are pretty tough Mainers.” His mom has run a marathon on every continent, he said.

Getting through the trail requires organizing mail drops at post offices along the way to replenish supplies, he said. He and his mother were getting their water from creeks after cleaning it with water purifications pumps, he said.

He was a much faster hiker than his mother, which meant he would get far ahead of her and then have to let her catch back up with him. This earned him the trail name “Leap Frog.”

John Conlin and his friend, Bert McAdam, were sitting down to eat at the Smoky Mountain Diner, exhausted from hiking and hungry for a hearty meal.

“Don’t mind the odor, but I’ve been out in the woods for five days,” said Conlin.

Conlin and McAdam didn’t know each other prior to hiking on the trail but now seem like they’ve known each other a lifetime. Both men are from Florida and plan on hiking the entire trail as they now have the time being retired.

“I’ve been wanting to do this for 30 years,” said Conlin. “I retired a year early so I could do this.”

Hiking the trail can give one a voracious appetite, Conlin demonstrated as he ordered up a double cheeseburger and a grilled cheese sandwich.

The Appalachian Trail represents a personal challenge that Conlin and McAdam want to overcome. They recalled the deep snow near Gatlinburg, and how 17 people were trapped under a ledge during a snowstorm. Several had to be treated for frostbite, Conlin said.

Conlin, being a Floridian, goes by the trail name Gator, while McAdam goes by Rusty, which, he says, is a comment on his physical shape. Both men are 65 and said taking on the trail is an adventure that gives them a sense of accomplishment.

Conlin commented that he has the financial resources to do the trail while some of the younger hikers are operating on a shoestring. He has given some of them food. To prepare for the journey Conlin said he researched the trail over a year and lost 12 pounds.

Hikers drop many pounds on the trail as they eat granola and hike 20 miles a day. As Conlin sat at the diner’s table, he said coming into trail towns is great because it means high-carb, high-fat meals to be washed down with iced tea and milk.

“You dream of getting here,” he said.

After hiking 14 hours a day for the past few days, McAdam and Conlin said they will take a “zero day,” which means they will stay in town to rest, do laundry and get supplies.

Hiking every last trail in the Smokies, and then some

By Danny Bernstein

For the past year, I’ve kept a trail map of the Smokies and the trusted manual Hiking Trails of the Smokies, known affectionately as the brown book, stashed in the seat pocket of my car.

The telephone number for the road conditions is on my speed dial and I am on a first name basis with several rangers in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

With my all-consuming endeavor to hike every trail in the Smokies now complete, I have become the 248th member of the 900 Miler Club. Though the club is called 900 Miler, there are now only 800 miles of maintained trails in the park, as shown by the GSM Trail Map. But you need to walk a lot more than 800 miles to do them all — some say 1,500 miles.

For all that effort, I only got a patch to sew on my pack — and bragging rights, of course. Logistically, it’s the most complicated hiking challenge I’ve done but physically it was not difficult. The Smokies are so well maintained that you can get really spoiled. Mile for mile, the Smokies trails are easier than the surrounding national forests.

When I moved to WNC, I had already done the 71.4 miles of the Appalachian Trail that traverse the park and knew how beautiful the trails were. I was thrilled to live so close to the Smokies. I then hiked a lot of easy miles, most on the perimeter of the park — what I call the top of the pops: Ramsey Cascades, Little Cataloochee Trail, the Deep Creek/Martin Gap/Indian Creek loop, Hemphill Bald and all the Mt. LeConte Trails.

I then did some obscure and fascinating hikes that only a 900-mile aspirant would do, like Brushy Mountain with its good view of Gatlinburg, Grapeyard Trail with its train engine remains and up to Gregory Bald from Twentymile Ranger Station. About that time, I finished the South Beyond 6000 which gave me the Balsam Mountain Trail. I went to the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont several times and got a lot of pesky miles off Little River Road. One year, they organized a long shuttle from Clingmans Dome on the Sugarland Mountain Trail. Part of the challenge is to find other obsessed hikers so you can set up shuttles.

The two watershed backpacks were from the Fontana Marina, probably the most remote part of the park: the first was Eagle Creek and down Jenkins Creek. The second was a long loop involving Cold Spring Gap Trail, up Welch Ridge and down Hazel Creek. To me, those were the big challenges; I felt that if I could get those out of the way, I would finish.

But after those backpacks, I looked at the map yet again and the goal seemed even more impossible. I set up backpacking trips and people canceled. It rained and others canceled. Then I realized that I could do 18-plus miles a day by myself and it was no big deal. The last three months, I hiked 120 new miles. I had to repeat many more miles to reach the inner trails. For example, to reach Pole Road Creek Trail between Deep Creek and Noland Divide Trail, I had to rewalk seven miles.

I finished on the Indian Creek Motor Trail, a minor trail out of the Deep Creek entrance; it was important for me to finish on the North Carolina side. I will never know the park as well as I do now. So why did I do it?

• To really understand the park and how all the trails are connected. Before I moved to Western North Carolina, the Smokies to me was the Sugarlands entrance from Gatlinburg.

• Because it was there and the next obvious hiking challenge. It’s important to keep hiking little-known Smokies trails or the park may decommission them.

Like any challenge on the trail or in life, it’s not about physical strength or stamina. Hiking all the trails in the Smokies is all about perseverance, organizing and keeping your eye on the goal. But finishing any hiking challenge is bittersweet — grateful I’m done and sad that I don’t have to get out there anymore.

But now my husband caught the Smokies 900 bug and he has 200 miles to go. So I’m back in the park to help him.

Danny Bernstein, a hike leader and outdoor writer, is the author of Hiking North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Heritage (2009) and Hiking the Carolina Mountains (2007). She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

What’s a hiking challenge?

There are a host of hiking challenges that trail hounds in WNC can tackle. The 900 Miler Club, the endeavor to hike every mile of trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is one of the longest running. But there’s a few others.

• South Beyond 6,000, or SB6K: hike to the top of all 40 peaks in the Southern Appalachians that’s over 6,000 feet.

• Pisgah 400: hike all 400 miles of maintained trail in the Pisgah National Forest. About 120 trails.

• Lookout Tower Challenge: Hike to 24 fire towers in WNC.

• Waterfall 100: Hike to 100 predetermined waterfalls and cascades in WNC.

For details on the hiking challenges, go to carolinamtnclub.org and look for “challenges” on the left hand side.

Go west yon hiker

A new hiking club has joined the ranks of an already burgeoning collection of trail trotters in WNC.

Day hikes along the Mountains-to-Sea Trail

Balsam Gap Segment

This portion of the trail runs for approximately 35 miles from Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP) Balsam Gap Ranger Station (milepost 442.9) to the intersection of the BRP with NC 215 (BRP milepost 423.2). Abundant wildflowers and shrubs such as rhododendron and azalea and a number of wild berry patches — blueberry, strawberry and blackberry — grow along this scenic section. It harbors northern hardwood and spruce-fir forest bird species including black-billed cuckoo, brown creeper, wild turkey, yellow-bellied sapsucker, and black-capped chickadee. Grassy Ridge Mine, an old mica mine, is visible off Grassy Ridge Overlook at BRP milepost 436.8. Spectacular views of the Great Balsam Mountains and the Tuckasegee River Valley are visible from Double Top Mountain Overlook (BRP milepost 435.3). This segment also offers excellent vantage points for watching the monarch butterfly migration.

Mount Pisgah Segment

Running from NC 215 (BRP milepost 423.2) to the BRP French Broad River Bridge (milepost 393.5) for approximately 39 miles (66 miles if following the alternative Art Loeb Trail, the only loop on the MST at this time), this high-elevation segment follows the Pisgah Ledge through the upper reaches of the Pigeon River watershed to spectacular vistas including views of Devil’s Courthouse. The alternative route, Art Loeb Trail, drops down to the Davidson River before climbing back to Mount Pisgah through the Pink Beds. The trail courses past cascades and waterfalls, conifer groves, thickets of mountain laurel, and tunnels of rhododendrons that are breathtakingly beautiful when their blossoms open in May and June. Wild turkeys and northern bobwhites roam below as common yellowthroats, white-breasted nuthatches, cedar waxwings, several species of warblers, and even a few ruby-throated hummingbirds and golden eagles fly above.

Mount Mitchell Segment

High-country hiking is excellent along this stretch which runs approximately 14.5 miles from Balsam Gap Parking Overlook (BRP milepost 359.8) to U.S. Forest Service Black Mountain Campground. In these spruce-fir forests chances are good for sighting the northern saw-whet owl, pine siskin, red crossbill, veery, downy woodpecker, golden-crowned kinglet, and a number of warblers. Small mammals and white-tailed deer, black bears, bobcats, and gray foxes roam this area. Some of the most spectacular scenery east of the Mississippi includes views of the Asheville Watershed, Potato Knob and Mount Mitchell in the Black Mountain range, and the nearby Great Craggy Mountains. This trail segment also includes a short side trail to the summit of Mount Mitchell, at 6,684 feet the highest point east of the Mississippi River.

(From the Web site http://www.sherpaguides.com/north_carolina/mountains/long_trails/mountains_to_sea_trail.html)

At the helm: New director aims to complete the Mountains to Sea Trail

By Jennifer Garlesky • Staff Writer

The Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail hope its first-ever executive director will be able to complete the missing lengths in the footpath that runs the breadth of the Tar Heel state.

Pinnacle Park's future

By Jennifer Garlesky • Staff Writer

Sylva Town Board members are brainstorming for ways to manage Pinnacle Park, 1,100 acres of land located at the northern part of town that is widely used by locals for hiking and camping.

Local author pens best hikes with dogs

By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

Dogs are popular hiking companions on the trails of Western North Carolina. Now, Fido and his adventurous owner will have some help exploring with the recently published Best Hikes with Dogs, a guide by Asheville Citizen-Times outdoors editor Karen Chávez.

What to do when you meet a bear

In his younger, more naïve hiking days, Joel Zachary found himself watching in slow motion as a bear charged toward him.

Hike to Pinnacle Peak

There are two ways to hike to Pinnacle Peak, renowned for its 360-degree views from the Plott Balsams.

Option one: This route climbs steeply up the face of the mountain. Head north out of town on the Old Asheville Highway (the road that parallels Scotts Creek). Make a left on Fisher Creek Road a short distance out of town. The road gets rough and steep, but keep going until it dead-ends at the trail head.

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