For some, hiking can be addicting. For Jennifer Pharr Davis, it became both an avocation and her vocation.
Ms. Davis, author of Becoming Odyssa, Epic Adventures on the Appalachian Trail, completed her first AT thru-hike in 2005, and that led to a record-setting thru-hike in 2008, and long-distance treks on the Pacific Crest Trail, Vermont's Long Trail, the Colorado Trail, up Mount Kilimanjaro in Kenya, and quite a few other trips.
So, not surprisingly, she has developed some opinions about hiking and nature. During Traveler's recent interview with Ms. Pharr, she shared some of those opinions.
Traveler: Why speed hike? Isn’t the AT about escape and getting into nature. It seems that when your goal is to see how fast you can go from Maine to Georgia, doesn’t that take some of the significance away?
Ms. Davis: "A lot of people would say that or think that, but the funny thing was I felt more immersed in nature on my record hike (in 2008) than I did on my first thru-hike because I took out all of the extras. I took out the errands, I took out going into town, I took out doing my laundry and staying in hotels.
"I was on the trail hiking basically from 5:30 or 6 a.m. every day 'till 8 or 9 o’clock at night. Again, that’s the difference between seeing zero bears my first hike and seeing 30 bears on the record attempt.
"In a lot of ways I felt like I was just immersed. I was seeing every sunset, every sunrise. And it did feel a lot more solitary, even though I did have my husband there to help me, because I wasn’t talking with all the other thru-hikers and doing it in a big pack. It was just a different way to experience the trail, and it was really good and I loved it.
"One thing I try to promote or advocate is the trail really doesn't have rules about how to do it. I think a lot of people get the idea that if you want to do the Appalachian Trail you should do it in six months with a pack on your back, and that doesn’t mean I think speed hiking is better than thru-hiking, but I also think section hiking is a great way to do the trail. I think day hiking is a great way to do the trail.
“... I feel like there’s no right way to hike the trail. And it is what you take from the trail and it's what you take from nature and what you see out there. For some people they’re going to have a really great experience going out there for a day or a weekend, and other people it’s going to be six months. For a very, very rare few it might be doing the whole thing in two months."
Traveler: What advice do you have for hikers considering a long-distance trek, be it the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest Trail or something in between?
Ms. Davis: “I would tell them to do it, because it is such an amazing life-changing experience. But one thing I like to tell potential thru-hikers, especially because the questions they want to ask about gear, I think they get so bogged down in the right gear to bring, and your gear is not going to get you to Maine, or to Georgia, depending on which way you go. It’s really your heart and your soul, your willingness to work hard that will get you to the end. My first thru-hike I had horrendous gear on the trail and I was still able to make it, and people who had spent thousands and thousands of dollars on gear stopped in Georgia.
"I do believe in trying to get in shape before you start the trail. A lot of people say, 'Well, you can go out there out of shape and you’ll get in shape as you get going.' And that’s true, it’s certainly true. But you’ll make the transition a lot more pleasant if you try to get in decent shape. Before the trail.
"The best thing probably you can do before hiking the Appalachian Trail is to go to a shorter trail. You know, there are several 80-200 mile trails all over the country, and do one of those shorter long-distance trails first before you set out on the Appalachian trail.”
Traveler: Any thoughts on how we can get younger generations involved in the outdoors?
Ms. Davis: “It’s something I’m really passionate about, because when I headed out on the Appalachian Trail I didn’t know the difference between an oak tree and a maple tree, I knew very little about the forest and the environment.
"I really think that if we want to preserve these places and we want people to be able to experience them, we’re going to have to get to them while they’re young, and get into the schools and start working with them. There are several great initiatives popping up through the National Park Service, and one that is coming out for the Appalachian Trail -- I think it’s actually been going now since 2006 -- but it’s called Trails for Every Classroom, and they hold professional development workshops for teachers, and the teachers come and learn about the Appalachian Trail, and learn how to implement it into their curriculum, and learn how to take their classes to the Appalachian Trail.
"I’ve been able to work with it a little and it’s an amazing program. It’s so fun to see kids light up when they hear about the Appalachian Trail, or when they get to go and see their first white blaze and hike on the trail. They love it and it’s so neat and I know it's making a lasting impact. My goal is to get to them as young as I can. I love kindergartners, I love first-graders, and just encourage those kids to get out and start hiking and exploring the out doors."
To learn more about Ms. Davis, her long-distance treks, her writing, and her efforts to get youth into the outdoors, visit her website, the Blue Ridge Hiking Company.