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By Stephanie Bedford, October 31, 2013
When you can put “Adventurer” on your business card without bragging or exaggeration, you are doing something right. Jennifer Pharr Davis, record-holding long-distance hiker, author and new mom, is one of the few people around who can call herself by that title with utter impunity, having been named an 2011 Adventurer of the Year by National Geographic Magazine, a publication that knows a little something about adventuring. Among the records Davis holds, perhaps the most impressive is the Overall Appalachian Trail Record. That’s not the women’s record, it’s the record. She through-hiked the trail from start to finish — 2,181 miles — in 46 days, 11 hours and 20 minutes, a trek that takes the highly-above-average outdoorsy Joe (or Josephine) months to complete.
You might think a person of Pharr Davis’ level of hard-core hiking accomplishment would be intimidating — maybe not the first person you’d think of to encourage a novice who’s thinking about going out for a walk in the Arboretum for an hour or so. You’d be wrong. I had the pleasure of interviewing her over the phone recently during a rare stretch of at-home time for the peripatetic Pharr Davis, to talk about her latest book, “Called Again: A Story of Love and Triumph.” The book documents her record-setting 2011 hike, accomplished with the unflagging support of her husband, Brew, and a network of old and new friends.
“I was just thinking how weird it is that I’m working from home today,” Pharr Davis told me right off the bat. “I haven’t done this in two months.” She and her husband and their new daughter had just returned from Utah and were hitting the road again in less than a week, touring the U.S. by car in support of “Called Again.” As you might suspect, they would be getting some hiking in as well. “We decided to make it our goal to hike in all 50 states,” she says. “We have a 9-month-old baby, so this is a really wonderful way to experience the trail as a family.”
For Pharr Davis, work means running the Blue Ridge Hiking Company, which she founded in 2005 and operates from her home in North Carolina. Its mission: “Making the wilderness accessible and enjoyable through written and spoken word, instruction and guiding.” Her books are no small part of this. It’s impossible to read her hiking memoirs — “Called Again” or “Becoming Odyssa,” which chronicles her first through-hike of the Appalachian Trail at age 21 — without succumbing to the urge to light out on one’s own (considerably less ambitious) wilderness trek.
Perhaps the reason Pharr Davis is so adept at getting novice hikers out the door is that she was one herself when she first hiked the Appalachian Trail. “I think ‘casual hiker’ would have probably been a generous term,” she says. “I think because I was an athlete and I loved to be outdoors, I thought that my transition to the trail would be natural. I was overconfident and pretty ignorant about how hard it would really be, and it kicked me in the butt. It was very humbling, in a good way.”
Her successful record attempt in 2011 was prompted by the knowledge that she planned to start a family soon. “One of the reasons I wanted to try for the record was that I knew having kids would change everything,” Pharr Davis says.
Taking her young daughter out hiking has been a fringe benefit of touring the country to talk about “Called Again.” “The nice thing is, because of the baby, we’re not limited to just long-distance trails — we can go to state parks,” she says, laughing.
Pharr Davis’s husband, Brew, is by her side throughout her adventures. Formerly a teacher (his summer vacation enabled him to support his wife’s 2011 trail record), he now works with his wife. “Called Again” is as much about a moment in the couple’s partnership as it is an adventure story. “When I set the record, my husband was pretty much perfect,” Pharr Davis says. “He’s not perfect all the time — like any couple, we fight and argue and have our moments — but I couldn’t have set the record without him.”
While comparisons to Cheryl Strayed’s runaway bestseller “Wild” seem unavoidable, Pharr Davis feels that there’s plenty of room on the shelves for books about hiking — the more, the merrier. “It raises awareness of women in the outdoors,” she says. “I’m all about that. And ‘Wild’ is an awesome PR piece for the Pacific Crest Trail.” Pharr Davis’ books do the same thing not just for the Appalachian Trail, but for hiking anywhere, whether it’s an ambitious long-distance trip or just a short walk.
“Don’t let fear of doing something wrong keep you indoors,” Pharr Davis says. “I encourage people to start inside their comfort zone. If that means starting with day hikes, or going out with groups or a dog instead of going out alone, I think it’s important while you’re learning what to do, to make sure it’s a positive experience.”
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