On the Trail with Long Distance Hiker Jennifer Pharr

Since I just reviewed Jennifer Pharr Davis’ new book on the Appalachian Trail I thought I’d post an older article I wrote about her a few years back.

On the Trail with Long Distance Hiker Jennifer Pharr- first published in South Carolina Woman in 2008.

Being a typical guy I sometimes fall into the very chauvinistic line of thinking that assumes man rules the earth and that we really don’t need women for everything. It’s usually at times like those that I run into a woman that puts me in my place.

Back in December I signed up for a seminar at the Appalachian Trail Institute in Banner Elk, NC. The goal of the class is to prepare men and women physically and mentally for tackling a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. The AT, as it is often called, covers 2,176 miles from Georgia to Maine. It’s a goal that I’ve fostered since I was a young lad in high school.

            I knew I would likely be the youngest person in the class and possibly one of the best in shape. I was completely prepared to go to the class and show everyone how it was done on the training hikes. When I arrived at instructor Dr. Warren Doyle’s house the night before the class I ran smack into a very humbling experience. I met a young lady of 24 years by the name of Jennifer Pharr. I didn’t actually meet her at first. No, first I ran into the legend of Ms Pharr.

            Dr. Doyle’s wife Terry told me about a young lady that would be showing up later that night who would be helping with the class. Terry regaled me with tales of Pharr’s long distance hikes all over the country and even speed records for both men and women. She told me of a six-foot tall, long-legged, blond beauty who was as much at home on the trail as in a house. In my mind, I half-pictured a blonde Amazon who would walk through the door with a backpack in one hand and a spear in the other.

            When I finally did meet Pharr, she was exactly as Mrs. Doyle described her, tall and beautiful. I was pleased and relieved that she did not carry a spear. She has a runner’s physique and with good reason. Her track exploits at Alabama’s Samford University were only the start. Since graduation she has run marathons, duathlons, and even one Ironman triathlon. She also runs ultramarathons, which are typically grueling cross-country races of over 50 miles. Though running is but one of the things she’s great at, it’s not her passion.

            Jennifer Pharr’s true passion is clearly the outdoors. Everything else- running, biking, educational pursuits, work- seem to be done to only enhance her ability to get outside and on the trail. Her boyfriend would likely also agree.

“Forget dinner and a movie, my best dates have always been in the woods.  You get a real sense of compatibility in the woods and it doesn’t take long to figure out what issues you need to work through either.  For most couples I would feel pretty confident substituting a long distance trail with pre-marital counseling. As far as my boyfriend goes, we both love the woods.  We definitely have different hiking styles and I know at times we would wear each other thin, but honestly there is no one else that I would rather spend the intense duration of thru-hiking with than my beau, which is probably a good sign.”

After college she found the Appalachian Trail. She actually started the trail with very little knowledge of the trail itself or even the outdoors. It was quite an experience for a young college graduate, and even more so for a female solo hiker.

“I started the AT knowing very little about backpacking and with only a few nights ever spent outside.  It was a very, very hard trail for me.  I learned more about myself and the world from the Appalachian Trail than I had in all my years of formal education.  I hiked solo as a 21-year-old female and found myself alone in the midst of lightning storms and blizzards.  I was forced to deal with male hikers who wanted to partake in my constant female companionship.  I came to terms with snakes and mice, which I had been scared of before.  I saw my first moose and touched my first leech.  I suffered through mosquitoes worse than I could have possibly imagined and experienced the infamous bite of the black fly.  I learned how to hitchhike and often did so on my own.  The lowpoint of the entire trip was hiking alone and finding a young male who had committed suicide on the trail.  I was the first person to find him and it instilled a fear in me that lasted several hundred miles.  Because of this incident and others I sometimes felt extremely unsafe on the trail hiking alone, but for the most part felt far safer in the woods than I would have in the middle of most major cities.  I found amazing personalities and hospitality on the trail.  The generosity of strangers restored my faith in humanity and by the time I hiked to the top of Katahdin and finished the trail I had found two life-long friends, a myriad of memories, and an experience which provided personal insight and maturity that had been lacking four months prior.”

Her completion is a testament to just how much perseverance, tenacity, and courage can exist in one person. She not only completed the trail, but did so several months faster than most other hikers. The year after her completion of the AT she took four months off work and hiked the longer and more difficult Pacific Crest Trail, which covers 2,667 miles from Mexico to Canada. Once again, she did it solo.

The summer after that she didn’t have the time for a multi-month hike, so she decided to tackle a shorter trail. She hiked the Long Trail in Vermont. The 272-mile trail is the oldest long distance trail in the United States. Her hike lasted seven days and 15 hours and set the unsupported speed record for both men and women.

This year is looking to be a big one for Pharr. She already has two major endeavors planned. As you read this article, she is probably already on the 600-mile Bibbulmun Track in Western Australia. After she returns, she has plans to complete another thru-hike on the AT this spring.

In between and during all her exploits, Jennifer never forgets those around her. She doesn’t hike or run just to satisfy her own pursuits. Instead she uses her athletic ability to raise money for charitable causes. Her hikes and runs have raised thousands of dollars for charities like Habitat for Humanity’s Women Build and Camp Joy, a camp for handicapped adults in Western North Carolina.

Jennifer Pharr is a tremendous young lady with a heart as large as the mountains she hikes through. Her adventures serve as an example for women of all ages, and men as well.

“I would encourage women to get out on the trail by leaving their fear and false stereotypes at home.  The woods are innately not dangerous.  The greatest danger I have ever felt hiking has always come from other people, never a bear, terrain, storm, or snake. I understand a woman’s hesitation of running into threatening individuals in the woods, but the chance of encountering a dangerous human in the woods is equal or less than the odds of experiencing such a meeting in cities or towns.

“Women especially need to escape to the woods because it is a place of peace and restoration.  In a world of noise, lights, bustle and constant stimulation, it is necessary if not imperative to find a place of peace and restoration.  Everyone needs a retreat. Everyone needs time for solitude, thought and meditation.  Some women can afford spas or specialized retreats, I can’t and I don’t need to – I have the woods.”


4 thoughts on “On the Trail with Long Distance Hiker Jennifer Pharr

    • Good to hear from you Dr. Doyle! She definitely deserves a PhD in something for all her travels, maybe cultural studies, outdoor experiential education, or environmental studies of eastern US.

  1. Pingback: Called Again to the Appalachian Trail | Mastering the Art of Living

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