By Christina Schmidt
SHERIDAN — In 2005, Asheville, North Carolina, resident Jennifer Pharr Davis hiked the 2,181-mile Appalachian Trail for the first time. The hike lasted five months, and the accomplishment took most of her friends and family by surprise.
“I didn’t do much hiking growing up,” she said about her time spent outdoors as a child. “I just had a strong desire when I graduated from college to go outside and hike and move my body. I’m sure it seemed out of the blue to my folks for me to go out there.”
But Pharr Davis was hooked. In 2008, she decided to return to the trail and attempt a record.
“I did several traditional backpack and long trails before it occurred to me to try a record,” she said. “I wanted to know what my body could do. I decided it might be a fun, new way to experience the long trails if I was trying to set a record.”
Her second hike of the AT netted her the record time for a female hiker on the trail — 57 days and eight hours, an average of 38 miles per day. This accomplishment spurred her imagination, and she began focusing on attaining the overall time record for the trail.
“I felt like I had limited myself the first,” she said. “The experience gave me confidence that there was little to no gender gap in efforts of extreme endurance and I wanted to go back and try for the overall record. I felt like after 2008, I had a lot left to give and I thought it was reasonable to take a week off my time. Then the question was if I could do another three days after that (to beat the current record). It was an exciting and intense challenge.”
So Pharr Davis began a third hike of the trail in 2011. She would begin each day’s hike before dawn, walk until well after the sun had gone down and camp on the trail, with her husband Brew Davis providing support of equipment and food along the way. She averaged 47 miles per day and finished the trail in 46 days, 11 hours and 20 minutes, shattering the all-time record by 26 hours. For this accomplishment, she was named a 2012 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year.
Though her record was broken in 2015 by ultra-marathoner Scott Jurek, she retains the fastest time for a female hiker on a supported hike of the AT.
Pharr Davis has now hiked more than 14,000 miles over trails on six continents, including hiking Macchu Picchu in Peru, Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and trails in Iceland, Corsica, the Alps, the Pyrenees and the 623-mile Bibbulum Trail in Australia, where she set a record in 2008.
She is owner and operator of the Blue Ridge Hiking Company, which arranges hikes and overnight trips in the Appalachian Mountains, noting that “…the trail is there for everyone at every phase of life.” She is also an accomplished author, having written multiple articles for hiking, running and outdoors magazines as well as five books, including the latest, “The Pursuit of Endurance”, published in April.
“I think it is a lot like hiking,” Pharr Davis said about the appeal of writing. “It is a long-term commitment and takes a lot of dedication. I am the most proud of the ‘Endurance’ book. I think it is my best writing and it demanded more. Throughout it I was either pregnant or nursing and also running a business. It took place late at night after the kids went to bed or on weekends. It was really a capstone project for me.” She no longer pursues records but is now in the midst of what some people would consider a significant challenge — a four-month road trip with her young family.
In support of her latest book, she and her husband, Brew; daughter, Charley; and 20-month-old son, Gus, embarked on a cross-country book tour April 10. The family will remain on the road attending book signings and speaking engagements until August when Charley begins school. Though they are young, the Davis children are already experienced hikers and travelers, especially 5-year-old Charley, who has already visited all 50 states.
“We’ve traveled and hiked with her since she was a baby,” Pharr Davis said. “She is very adaptable and can make friends wherever she goes. And though my husband and I are sick of them, she loves hotel breakfasts.”
And of course, hikes are part of the family’s daily routine.
“We go out with our kids a lot,” Pharr Davis said. “Even on this book tour, we spend several hours a day on greenways, trails or walkways. It is free and it wears them out, so it hits the major boxes.
“I love hiking because I think it is the lowest common denominator and it connects people universally,” she continued. “I love that it is something you can do with kids or grandparents, and it is great for your physical and mental health. Hiking offers full flexibility to go as slow as you want and take lots of breaks to sit and enjoy the outdoors or you can really push your limits.”