Trail triumph: Record-setting hiker to speak at Altoona library

Jennifer Pharr Davis was ready to quit.

In 2011, the experienced hiker was only 12 days into her third journey on the Appalachian Trail – which stretches 2,200 miles down the East Coast from Maine to Georgia – but on one of the most difficult, technical portions of the trail, the weather got bad. She developed a case of hypothermia and got really sick.

She told her husband, Brew Davis, that she was done.

“He told me that I was feeling too bad to make a decision like that,” she said. “He said that if I hiked another day and a half, and I still felt that way, he would take me home.”

She didn’t stop.

She finished the entire hike in 46 days, 11 hours and 20 minutes, setting a new record for the trail, a feat for which National Geographic named her one of its 2012 Adventurers of the Year.

Pharr Davis, who has authored five books and also owns her own hiking guide service, will share her adventures on the trail and stories of overcoming obstacles in a free program at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday in the theater at the Altoona Area Public Library, 1600 Fifth Ave., Altoona.

“It’s very exciting,” said Jennifer Knisely, the library’s executive director. “We’re really excited to bring in an author of this caliber to talk to the community. What an inspiration.

“She will talk about challenges and overcoming them – not just on a hiking trail, but applying it to life in general.”

Pharr Davis, a native of North Carolina, began hiking at age 21 after graduating from Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, in 2005. She immediately embarked on her first trip up the Appalachian Trail.

“I had just received a great formal education, but I didn’t know anything about the outdoors,” she said. “I wanted to get outside and have a great adventure before I settled down for what I thought would be this ordinary life.

“I had heard of the Appalachian Trail, and at 21, you figure hiking is technically walking, right?” she added, with a laugh. “I had a lot of excitement but a lot of naivete. It was the five hardest months of my life, but the five best months of my life.”

The trail captured her heart on that trip, and according to a press release, she has logged more than 12,000 miles hiking in six different continents, including along the Pacific Crest Trail, the Colorado Trail, the Long Trail in Vermont and the Bibbulmun Track in Australia.

On her first journey up the Appalachian Trail, Pharr Davis also earned her “trail name,” the tradition among hikers.

“I didn’t like any of the suggestions the hikers were giving me,” she chuckled, “until one suggested that I was on an odyssey and that my name should be Odysseus (the hero from Homer’s ‘Odyssey.’)

“But I was proud to be a woman out there, so I changed Odysseus to Odyssa.”

Pharr Davis intentionally set out to break the record on her third journey on the trail. She prepared and trained for a year.

“I wanted to see how quickly I could do it,” she said.

“I wanted to experience it in a new way. I wanted to be a mom, I wanted to have a family, and I knew my time would not be my own. I wanted a meaningful way to take my experience and my athleticism and leave it out on the trail.”

After setting the record, National Geographic honored her, but the distinction was about more than just the achievement.

“I was really grateful,” she said, “but it was not that I set the record. It was because I went about it a different way.

“It was always thought that it was going to be a man (who held the record), and they would be a trail runner. I was a woman who hiked the whole trail. I redefined what was possible, and I got their attention.”

Pharr Davis held the record until this past July, when ultra-runner Scott Jurek finished the trail only three hours and 12 minutes faster.

“He did a really impressive thing,” Pharr Davis said. “Scott is a great ambassador for getting outdoors and leading a healthy lifestyle.”

Between excursions, Pharr Davis has written three guidebooks on hiking in North Carolina and two memoirs, “Becoming Odyssa: Adventures on the Appalachian Trail” and “Called Again: A Story of Love and Triumph.”

Her husband has also authored a book, “46 Days: Keeping Up with Jennifer Pharr Davis on the Appalachian Trail.”

They also started their own guide service, Blue Ridge Hiking Company, in their hometown of Asheville, N.C. – “I got so many people asking advice that I started my own company,” she laughed.

And hiking is still a family affair for Pharr Davis and her husband. Their two-year-old daughter, Charley, has already been on trails in all 50 states.

However, even if people have no interest in hiking or the outdoors, Pharr Davis hopes they will attend Tuesday’s program.

“The trail is an amazing metaphor, even if you’re not interested in hiking,” she said. “There’s always something you can take from stories of working together as a team and overcoming obstacles and learning that you need to persevere.”

Mirror Staff Writer Cory Dobrowolsky can be reached at 946-7428.