The Long Lonesome: 38 Miles per Day, 57 Days - Page 3
Pharr Davis reached the plaque marking the AT's terminus at Springer Mountain, Georgia, in 57 days 8 hours 37 minutes. Photo by Maureen Robinson.
As my internal unrest subsided, I felt compelled to turn my attention outside of myself and seek out the company of other trail users. Instead of asserting my independence by staying always alone, I realized that independence meant fully being myself in the presence of others. Putting aside my insecurities and fears of being judged, I reached out to make new friends.
I developed connections with adults twice my age, including extreme liberals and argumentative conservatives, some who had never graduated high school and others with Ivy League degrees. By the end of the hike, I had befriended a Michigan retiree and two college graduates from New England with whom I had nothing in common—except for being on the AT at the same time.
On that same trip, during a particularly bone-chilling downpour, I sought cover under a crowded three-sided wooden lean-to brimming with men. Stepping outside to discreetly change into some dry clothes behind the shelter, I huddled next to its sloping wall, struggling to pull my wet clothes over my head. That’s when it happened. I was struck by lightning.
The lightning hit the shelter’s roof and bounced over to me, sending a sharp, momentary pain coursing through my entire body, out my toes and into the ground. But by the time I realized what had happened, the pain had disappeared. I wiggled my toes and counted my fingers to make they were intact. Aside from a burning sensation in my ears, I felt OK. I was suddenly overcome with excitement. I had survived a lightning strike! At 21, I’d considered myself invincible, and after that, I began to think I really was.
While that experience gave me confidence, other events on the AT pointed to my vulnerability as a female solo hiker. I wanted to believe I was safe, but my thoughts often turned to 24-year-old Meredith Emerson, who, in early 2008, was hiking on a trail near the AT in northeast Georgia when she went missing. Within days of her disappearance, her kidnapper and murderer, Gary Michael Hilton, was caught.
Hilton was linked to multiple other trail murders, usually single women and elderly hikers. But Meredith stopped him. It cost her her life, but by physically fighting back, refusing to cooperate and giving him incorrect PIN numbers for her debit cards, Meredith left a trail of evidence that made it possible for authorities to track down and capture Hilton. She is a hero who saved many lives—perhaps even mine.
On July 3rd, 2008, after 14 days on the trail, I reached Hanover, New Hampshire, where the trail transitioned from the steep, rocky White Mountains to easier footing and gentler climbs. My body was adapting such that I no longer awoke in the middle of the night in pain, and with the effort required to hike 30 miles a day north of Hanover, I could now comfortably cover 40 to 45 miles.
More frequent road crossings meant I saw Brew more often and could carry less gear on my back. Also by this time, he and I were more comfortable in our roles of athlete and support crew.
“I am so glad that we are able to do this together,” I said to Brew as he handed me a banana.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“Not many newlyweds can leave their friends, family and jobs and spend this much time together.”
Lifting his gaze from the road atlas, Brew asked, “Couldn’t we have done that on the beaches of Fiji?”
As hard as the thru-hike was for me, it was almost as difficult for Brew. One time in Vermont, a washed-out road left him no choice but to run several miles to hand deliver my supplies. In Massachusetts, a road listed in our guidebook did not exist, and again Brew ran in on an alternate trail to find me. He was responsible for all our supplies and food, calculated each day’s mileage and averages and, besides driving double the number of miles I hiked, he hiked with me an average of 10 miles a day.
Brew was also my emotional “I.V.,” forcing me to eat when I wasn’t hungry, encouraging me when I felt weak or disheartened and tolerating my childlike irrationality, which always surfaced around 8 p.m. when I was overcome with exhaustion.
After finishing over half the trail and crossing the Mason-Dixon line along the Pennsylvania-Maryland border, the trail finally offered a gentler grade and less rocks, making it possible to run much of the downhill and flat terrain.
As we approached the Smoky Mountains, Brew had to return home to start the school year, and taking his place for the final five days were three 60-year-old men: Warren Doyle, who had hiked the Appalachian Trail 14 times, David Horton and my father, Yorke Pharr.
The four of us worked together to push me to the trail’s end. Horton was the legs, Warren was the head and my dad was the heart. Horton hiked and ran with me as much as possible, while Warren’s unsurpassed knowledge of the AT aided our logistical strategy, and my dad anticipated my emotional and caloric needs with special treats from TCBY and Subway.
“How do you expect to react when you reach the end?” Warren asked.
“Five dollars says that she is going to cry with tears of exhaustion and joy,” responded Horton.
“I don’t know that she’ll be ready to stop,” said my dad. She has been hiking every waking hour of the past two months. I doubt she knows how to do anything different.”
“Well, Jen, regardless of how you physically react, I know it will be a deeply introspective moment for you,” concluded Warren.
My last full day I covered 65 miles. Surprisingly, despite the preceding 47-, 49- and 48-mile days, it didn’t hurt that much. The next day I walked up the final mountain with Brew by my side and friends and family behind us. By averaging 38 miles a day, I completed the AT in a new women’s record of 57 days 8 hours 37 minutes.
At the trail terminus on Springer Mountain, Horton cried, Warren was introspective and Dad lingered longer than the rest of us. I personally experienced no flash of light or great epiphany. I had reached deep within myself to get there, but at the finish my feelings were simple. I was tired, I was happy and I was ready to go home.
Jen Pharr Davis has traveled more than 8000 miles of trails in North America, including the Pacific Crest Trail, Vermont’s Long Trail, the Colorado Trail and the Appalachian Trail and holds three speed records. Her Appalachian Trail memoir, Becoming Odyssa, is due out in October. Pharr Davis resides in Asheville, North Carolina, with her husband, Brew Davis, and is the founder of Blue Ridge Hiking Company. This article originally appeared in our August 2010 issue.