New Bern, NC – INTRO - It's not uncommon for a student to graduate from college and take some time for themselves prior to jumping into the job market. An Asheville resident did just that and ultimately turned that time into a new book. George Olsen has more.
Upon Jennifer Pharr Davis' graduation from college decisions had to be made. When that day came, the first decision the Asheville resident made was to follow up on plans she'd made during her first days at university.
"But I think when you get to college for the first time in your life you're able to make some of your own decisions, at least I felt that way, and I think at the very top of my list, well, what am I going to do now that I'm in charge of what path I take was the Appalachian Trail. For my freshman year in college on I said when I graduate I'm going to hike the A-T."
It wasn't perhaps the logical decision Davis says while she was an avid runner, taking part in marathons, she had only spent a handful of nights camping and her longest hike to that point was perhaps 12-to-13 miles long. But she knew she wanted to and toward that end traveled to Lees-McRae College to take part in a 3-day seminar hosted by Warren Doyle for those who wanted to thru-hike the entire 2175 mile long Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. It was there Warren Doyle posed the question she hadn't quite been able to answer to that point why do you want to hike the Appalachian Trail?
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Jennifer Pharr Davis reading from her book "Becoming Odyssa: Epic Adventures on the Appalachian Trail." So Davis took her "calling" and in March 2005 set out on a northbound hike from Georgia. An early event in the initial days of her nearly five-month hike brought her "calling" to question or perhaps reaffirmed it.
"Getting struck by lightning at that time was so painful it hurt so badly and I vividly remember the pain starting at the top of my body travelling thru my spine and down my legs to the ground. After it happened, I did a quick inventory of my body. I counted my fingers, I wiggled my toes, I felt for the most part o-k. My ears buzzed and I had a slight headache but I was like I think I'm alright, and at that point because I was 21 and looking back I was clearly na ve and felt invincible I was like "cool, I got struck by lightning and survived and I feel fine. Maybe I'll get a streak in my hair and telepathic powers, I don't know but this is awesome."
While Davis did not receive telepathic powers from her lightning strike, she did encounter something along the trail known to hikers as "trail magic," which essentially is complete strangers showing up and doing random acts of kindness for other complete strangers. Most of the time this involves passing out free food and hiking supplies to hikers at trail heads. Sometimes it's offering rides into towns so hikers can resupply, and sometimes it's letting hikers spend a night in your home free of any charge.
"It's a really cool concept and it's really countercultural because again, growing up, don't take anything from strangers, don't accept help from people you don't know, and on the trail you kind of have to and there are people who want to give you that help. So it's a big transition, but it's a really neat shift and it is a really cool aspect of the Appalachian Trail."
Davis set out to hike the trail alone but along the way met many other thru hikers and found a sense of community among thru-hikers a community she fell back on when confronted with a horrific scene while in the midst of wilderness.
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"Again, I came upon that scene alone. There weren't too many thru-hikers around me at that time, but I started getting calls from hikers I had met along the trail who knew my cell phone number. They said we've heard what's happened, if you want to wait for us to catch up we can hike with you. If you want us to skip ahead to be with you, just let us know what you'll need. We can help you. Again, these were people I didn't know 3 months ago. These are people who don't owe me anything and suddenly I had numerous people reach out to me, to encourage me, to try and make sure I felt safe on the trail."
Jennifer thought about coming off the trail after that incident. She thought about it at other points too when the sheer physicality of a 2175 mile hike began to wear at her. But she ultimately completed her thru-hike, crediting sheer bullheadedness for the will to press on.
"Honestly, there was always something that reaffirmed that decision and toward the end the big part of it was starting to realize how much the journey changed me and how comfortable I was in nature. Toward the end of the hike instead of looking forward to a town or a warm meal or doing my laundry which was a big motivator in the beginning toward the end I would think, hmmm, two or three more hours and I get to see the sunset and that was a really big deal, that was something I looked forward to or now that I'm in Maine maybe I'll see a moose and those were the things that kept me wanting to move forward."
Not only did she move forward to complete the hike, she came back three years later and set the women's speed record for thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, completing the trail in just 57 days.
"A record hike is definitely not for everyone. No better than a thru-hike but I hope what people will take from the fact I went back is there is no right way to hike the A-T. You can go out there and do it in sections or go out for the day or do it in six months or do it really quickly. It's really about what you're going to take away from the trail that makes the effort worthwhile. It was really cool and hopefully I'll experience the trail in a lot of different ways as I continue to grow and mature."
Jennifer Pharr Davis is the author of "Becoming Odyssa: Epic Adventures on the Appalachian Trail" published by Beaufort Books. I'm George Olsen.