Long-distance backpacker and Blue Ridge Hiking Company entrepreneur Jennifer Pharr Davis has encountered more extraordinary, wild vistas during the past decade than most hikers will in their lifetime.
While best known for her record-setting Appalachian National Scenic Trail thru-hikes — completing the entire 2,181-mile trail in a single season — Pharr Davis has also hiked more than 12,000 miles on six continents, including trails in all 50 states, Australia, Europe and South America.
At 3 p.m. Saturday in the Hall of Philosophy, she will talk about “Love and Triumph on the Appalachian Trail.” The route extends from Mount Katahdin in central Maine to Springer Mountain in northern Georgia.
After graduating in 2005 with a B.A. in classics from Samford, Pharr Davis hiked the Appalachian Trail for her first time. Then a long-distance backpacking novice, this journey was the hardest of her life.
“I was 21 years old,” she said. “For five months, I had no mirrors. This was before the days of the selfies. It was the first time I was removed from commercials and billboards and magazines. Making others smile made me feel good. The trail forces you to deal with it and literally walk through it. I’ve had some hard things happen on the trail, but it’s safer than driving.”
Two years later, Pharr Davis set the record for hiking the oldest long-distance trail in the United States; the difficult, root- and rock-strewn, 272-mile Long Trail that runs the length of Vermont.
In 2008, she not only set the fastest-known time for the 623-mile Bibbulmun Track in Western Australia, but also the record for the fastest Appalachian Trail hike by a woman (57 days, 8 hours, or a daily average of 38 miles). She was honored as Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine’s Person of the Year.
Three years later, Pharr Davis set the overall record for the fastest completion of the Appalachian Trail in a season, which had been held by men for 40 years, and by elite ultra runners for the past 20. Hiking a daily average of 47 miles, which took her only 46 days, 11 hours and 20 minutes, she cut her 2005 overall time by 3½ months.
For this feat, Pharr Davis won Ultrarunning Magazine’s 2011 award for Female Performance, was honored as a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year in 2012, and selected as an American Hiking Society Ambassador. She said that the National Geographic honor was not given to her because she set the overall Trail speed record. She earned it because she had taken such a different approach to thru-hiking that she redefined how to hike quickly.
According to Pharr Davis in an interview for National Geographic, many people regard the Appalachian Trail record as the world’s toughest because of its long history of attempts.
“I wanted the ultimate challenge,” she said. “I didn’t want to do anything less or anything easier.”
Growing up outside of Asheville in western North Carolina, where she currently lives with her husband and young daughter, she was drawn to hiking because of its universality and affordability.
“You can do it every season, and it’s very accommodating,” she said. “You participate in nature and you’re part of nature.”
Pharr Davis has described her experiences hiking the Appalachian Trail in two books: Called Again: A Story of Love and Triumph and Becoming Odyssa: Epic Adventures on the Appalachian Trail. Her husband, Brew Davis, who led the groups of hikers who supported her along the trail in 2008 and 2011, wrote about the latter — her third Appalachian Trail thru-hike — in 46 Days: Keeping up with Jennifer Pharr Davis on the Appalachian Trail.
She has also written three local hiking guidebooks: Five-Star Trails: Asheville: Your Guide to the Area’s Most Beautiful Hikes, Best Hikes Near Charlotte (Best Hikes Near series), and Best Easy Day Hikes Charlotte (Best Easy Day Hikes series).
Seven years ago, Pharr Davis started Blue Ridge Hiking Company.
“This was after my 2008 Trail thru-hike, and I really wanted to help people get outside,” she said. “And friends and family and women wanted me to help them. I thought, maybe I could do this professionally. I had to learn about business and still am, but I’ve discovered there’s a need for nature and getting outdoors.”
She said she now has about 10 professional guides, all with specialties, who lead hikes lasting from a half-day to nearly a week. Pharr Davis participates in about 5 percent of these hikes so that she and her husband can travel, hike and speak.
“Off trail, there’s the anxiety of work and finances and a lot of expectations. I think I go on the trail to leave fear behind,” Pharr Davis said. “The trail is really a metaphor for life, regardless of how fast or slow you go. It teaches you how to be a problem solver and move forward in life.”