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Why Jennifer Pharr Davis Is Still Hiking 13,000 Miles Later

Hiking through fields and forests has been life changing for Jennifer Pharr Davis. She is a professional hiker and adventurer. At just 21 years old, she set off on a solo hike across the entire Appalachian Trail, a path that covers 14 states and more than 2,000 miles.

"In my brain it didn't seem that difficult. I figured that hiking was technically just walking. And I set out on my own with my brother's old boy scout gear," said Pharr Davis.

That walk turned out to be both grueling and transformative.

"It's really deceivingly hard. I think a lot of people come to the trail, and they feel like they're in good shape or they're athletic or they're coming from out West where they're used to higher elevations. But the Appalachian Trail is very gnarly, and it makes you work for your miles."

Not long into that first hike, Pharr Davis’s walk in the forest turned into an adventure of epic proportions.

Travelling through the Smoky Mountains in April 2005 she found herself in a snowstorm with one eye frozen shut looking for white painted trail blazes on snowy trees.

"It was coming down in blizzard-like conditions, so I immediately thought: I have got to get out of here. I cannot get rescued out of the Smokies. That's gonna be written up in the newspaper, public radio, and my mom's gonna hear about it and kill me.”

Beyond walking through blizzards, Pharr Davis also stumbled upon a dead body in the middle of the trail. It was a traumatic encounter with death, but she says fellow hikers offered food and support and helped her keep moving.

Since that first ambitious journey, Pharr Davis says the Appalachian Trail has become a pivotal part of her life. In 2008, she set a record for the fastest woman to hike the Appalachian Trail hike by a woman, and later in 2011 she set the unofficial record for the overall fastest thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. To do so, she surpassed decades worth of records set by men, recently dominated by those of a rare athletic breed – the ultrarunners.

Pharr Davis is exhilarated by the sheer challenge of endurance hiking, but she also hits the trails to access her own inner dialogue, contemplate transitions and feel closer to God.

"There is something transcendent about it,” says Pharr Davis about hiking in a record-setting state of mind. “It's almost like a fast – a fast where you eat like 8,000 calories a day – but you know there's something deeply spiritual about it."

Today Pharr Davis runs a hiking company, which is an industry she says is still dominated by men. Her mission is to ensure everyone feels at home in the great outdoors, especially other women.

Pharr Davis speaks with host Frank Stasio about her record-breaking hikes and the challenge of finding solitude amidst chaos.

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Laura Pellicer is a digital reporter with WUNC’s small but intrepid digital news team.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.
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