From Maine to Georgia, the Appalachian National Scenic Trail rambles for 2,175 miles, a journey alluring to some for the back-to-nature demands it places on those who set out to hike end-to-end.
But this simple footpath, with its day-after-day-after-day of walking through the woods, up and down mountains, and sleeping out in the open, also gives you more than a little time to peer into your own soul, as well as those of others, as Jennifer Pharr Davis discovered during a solo thru-hike.
More than a few who set out in Maine hoping to make it to Georgia before wintry weather strikes, or begin in the chill of late-winter in Georgia intending to stand atop Mount Katahdin five or six months later, look at the "AT" as a trek that allows them to temporarily escape the realities of the world that reside just off the trail.
For Ms. Davis, who was 21 and fresh out of Samford University where she studied the "Classics" -- "the universe of the Ancient Greeks and Romans ... a door leading to adventures in history, literature, philosophy, archaeology, theater, poetry-the breadth of human experience as lived by Homer, Socrates, Plato, and Paul as well as by Cicero, Julius Caesar, Augustus and Augustine" -- the trail with its white blazes beckoned a bit as a way to both put off entering the working world and to spend more than a little time figuring out just who she was and where she wanted to go in life.
It was becoming clear that an overwhelming number of thru-hikers were recent college grads. The obvious reason was that college graduates were able to devote four to six months to the trail without leaving a career and family behind. That also explains why recent retirees are so prevalent on the AT.
But more than that, I think college grads are called to the trail because we have a lot of figuring out to do. We've spent our entire lives under the influence of family, school, and religion, and we need to test our doctrines. The trail provides a place to sort through the fact and fiction of our childhoods.
That was one reason it was so important to me to meet as many different people as possible and not become part of a group: I wanted to retell my story and explain who I was until it made sense. And, just as importantly, I wanted to listen to other hikers and learn from them.
Though she had grown up in western North Carolina not far from the AT, Ms. Davis was never a serious hiker until she set out on a northward path from Springer Mountain in March 2005. In doing so, she began to fill internal voids.
“I do think that I had the longing to be in nature, the longing to be in the woods, outside and work hard. I don’t think I could have verbalized that at the time, but looking back, that’s what it was, and I think a lot of people have that now that society is more and more disconnected with nature," she explained during a phone call from her North Carolina home. "And so going out there at the age of 21, I discovered that I was in fact naive and I was sheltered, and having to work hard every day and meeting people from all different backgrounds, it really challenged me, not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually to figure out who I was and what I believed."
In Becoming Odyssa, Epic Adventures on the Appalachian Trail, her first book, Ms. Davis takes us not only along the trail, but opens a literary portal into her life. Yes, she describes the hardships of the hike, the chores of slogging on through rainstorms and blizzards, of dealing with unwanted companions, the joys of sunrises and sunsets. But more so she lays bare her thoughts, hopes, and aspirations. By the end, you're likely to come away with the feeling that you know this young woman quite well, and not simply as a long-distance hiker.
This is not so much a book about a long, long hike, but rather one about someone who goes in search of themselves, cliched as that might sound, and finds comfort in what she finds.
"I was reaffirmed really in who I was to the core. What I believed was still important to me," said the author, now 27 and with many, many more hikes under her boots, including one in 2008 that set the women's record (57 days, 8 hours and 35 minutes) for a thru-hike on the AT.
"More than that though, I think the epiphany was I realized I was capable of a lot more than I thought I was and I became very confident in who I was. Before the trail, I wouldn’t say that I was exceptionally concerned about what other people thought, or image, but I think I was very much a product of society," continued Ms. Davis. "When I got on the trail... (I was) ... just daily being sort of amazed by what my body could do. Obviously, there was some very challenging emotional times for me on the trail, and being able to persevere through those...when I finally finished the trail I just realized I could do a lot more than I ever thought was possible, and I wanted to.
"And so I think that was the biggest change. It opened my mind to really reach for the sky and not limit myself based on what society’s expectations were.”
Along the way she stumbles more than a few times. Her pack is too bulky and ill-fitting, she fails miserably at cooking and turns entirely to cold meals early on after dropping her stove's burner into a pot of mac and cheese, and endures foot problems that threaten to send her off the trail well before the end. She loses a hiking stick and replaces it, somewhat ingeniously, with a mop handle.
There was another solo hiker who tried to become her hiking partner against her wishes, encounters with naked men, even a suicide, and an encounter with "splash lightning" -- an indirect lightning strike off an AT shelter that struck her as she stood alongside it changing clothes. "The jolt stiffened my spine and sent a sharp momentary ache through every inch of me. But the pain had vanished by the time I realized what had happened," she writes.
But Ms. Davis also came away with the appreciation that, despite some of the characters she met, all-in-all people aren't that bad.
“Hiking has always restored and elevated my trust in humanity. Because I’ve had so many strangers, so many people who don’t owe me anything, don’t know me, and they have gone out of their way to help me, to reach out to me, to provide for me," she said during our long conversation. "I mean, you can’t hike the trail without the help of others, and that’s what I’m left with as far as an overwhelming feeling, that most people really are generous and kind and they do want to help other people, and that’s what I experienced on the trail.”
While Ms. Davis didn't intend to write a book when she set out on the AT, by the time she finished four-and-a-half-months later she felt she had a story that others could benefit from.
"I was struck by lightning, I got stuck in a blizzard in the Smokies, I had to deal with 'Moot' in Virginia who I couldn’t get rid of, in New Jersey I came across a suicide on the trail, which was really difficult," she explained. "So by the time I got to Maine, and had experienced those really difficult months, I thought 'I’m a different person, this has been such a life-changing experience for me, maybe that will mean something to someone else,' so I want to write it down."
As much as Becoming Odyssa is a book about one hiker's experiences along the Appalachian Trail, it's also a book about finding one's path in life. Ms. Davis' search is one more than a few of us can no doubt empathize with. It's one, too, that if we can find the time for a long-distance hike, we can partake in.